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Prints, The Old Fashioned Way

March 25, 2011

Last month, I was fortunate to be part of an introductory letterpress class at the Kala Institute, an art studio located in the former Heinz factory in Berkeley.

In between printing runs, I pulled out my camera. At first, I took some pictures around the print shop, but I realized that I wanted to capture something a bit more tactile – like the output of the press itself – so I started to shoot some video. To me, the magic of the press is the way it moves, the sounds it makes, and the way the metal and wood surfaces feel in my hand.

There’s something immensely satisfying about touching real, actual 36-point Futura Bold with your fingers.

Clearly, this whole process is very labor-intensive, but it still surprised me how much work goes into producing … well, anything from a printing press with movable type. Setting just a few lines of type is almost a project by itself:

  1. First, you have to choose a font (and size). This is a bigger deal than it may seem, because you’re committing yourself to a specific set of little metal bits. If you later find that you’ve run out of room – hmm, I guess I wanted 24-point Garamond instead of 36-point? – then you’re going to have to start all over. No “font size” pulldown menus here.

  2. Once you’ve chosen a font, you have to pull out the case (tray) and move it to your work area. I list this as a separate step, because some of these cases are heavy – they’re full of lead, after all.

  3. Now you’re ready to start setting some type on your “composing stick”, a little handheld tray where you assemble your work. You just have to find the appropriate letters, right? Easier said than done, because the case is organized in a very specific way.

    Notice that the capital J and U are out of order, apparently because they were later additions to the printer’s repertoire. The lowercase letters are all over the place in compartments of various size. And good luck telling lowercase b, d, p, and q apart; the letters are upside-down, too!

  4. Once you’ve finished arranging your type, it’s time to transfer the whole thing to the press bed. Any time you move your work, you must remember to apply the proper pressure to keep your arrangement of hundreds of tiny pieces from falling apart. (I learned this one the hard way.)

    Even locking your type into the press bed is itself an art form. Small wooden pieces of various sizes, known as “furniture”, fill in the gaps around your piece to hold it in place.

  5. Before you start putting ink to paper in quantity, there are some preflight checks to make. Are the rollers at the right height to make the kind of impression you want? Is your paper registered properly, so the ink goes where should? Is the impression even, or do you need to adjust for imperfections in the press bed or worn down letters?

  6. At long last, it’s time to make prints. The specific steps vary by press, but ink will be mixed, paper will be fed, and of course, leaden letters will be pressed onto paper.

  7. Once your print run is finished, it’s time to put all of the little pieces back in their proper places, one by one, put the type cases back, and clean up. Phew.

I loved every minute of this labor during class, of course, but I couldn’t imagine what it took to set an entire book this way (say, the bible).

One thing’s for sure: I’ll never take my run-of-the-mill WiFi-enabled, 10ppm laser printer for granted again.