Reading the Fine Print

CE-avatar Cara/Andrea here,

In that strange synchronicity of thought that sometimes swirls through the ether, it appears that Susan and I both decided to talk about books and why we love them this week. In the spirit of “there can never be too much of a good thing,” I shall, however, stick to my inkly guns, for I intend to a more “hands-on” approach.


LetterpressslugsConsider Susan’s lovely words and pictures on the beauty of a room filled with books as a prologue to my post, so to speak. Her waxing poetic on the look, the feel, the smell and the texture of real books echoes my own elemental affinity for ink and paper.

Now, that said, allow me to give you a little backstory on how those lovely library shelves come to be filled with bibliographic treasures . . .

Gutenberg I love the printed page. For me, it’s the aesthetics—though in truth, much of the subtle nuances have been lost these days in the blur of cheap newsprint and mechanized speed-demon presses that spit out zillions of copies per hour. So what I really mean is, I love the printed page from the centuries when its creation was a labor of love as well as profit.

From the mid 15th century, when Gutenberg set his eponymous Bible in moveable type, to the late 19th century when Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the revolutionary linotype machine, printers were artists of a sort, painstakingly creating each word out of individual letters cast in lead. (Equipped with a typewriter-style keyboard, the linotype machine allowed a typesetter to compose an entire line of text, which was then cast in one piece of metal—thus it’s called “hot type” as opposed to traditional “cold type” where each word is composed of individual lead letters.) A printer’s workshop—the sort of which I speak—was a whole little world unto itself, with its own arcane language and its own quirky traditions.

So now, let’s roll up our sleeves (warning—in printing, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty!) and take a quick primer course on how a “real” printed page is created.

Type 2 These are pieces of type, cast out of lead. They are called "sorts" in printer's lingo—hence the term "out of sorts" because when a printer ran out of type while setting a page, it was not a happy moment. There are hundreds—no, thousands—of different typeface designs, from elegant serifs  to flowery scripts to austere sans serifs. A printer usually tries to match the type to the “feel” of the text. In other words, Lord Byron’s poetry would, to my eye,  look awkward set in Helvetica bold. Once a typeface is chosen, the printer decides on the size of the page, the width of the text, and the size of the actual type. Another variable is leading, which as the name implies, consists of actual strips of lead that are inserted between the lines of type. They range in thickness from a hairline (yes, this is an actual measure) to a wide variety of  “points,” i.e 3 pts. of leading, 6 pts. of leading, etc.

Type-3 What’s a point? I did warn you that printing has its own language and customs. Traditionally, printers use a measuring system based on picas rather than inches. There are roughly 6 picas to an inch, and 12 points to a pica. Type sizes are also measured this way—you are probably all familiar with 12 pt. Times Roman on your computer, right? Well, even in this digital age, points and picas remain the standard for designers and printers. 

As you can imagine, print workshops are filled with cabinets full of leading in a vast array of lengths and widths. They are also filled with drawers of lead “spacers” Em spacers, en spacers, word spacers, hairline spacers . . . okay, you get the point.

Composing-stick Once all these decisions are made, the work begins! A composing stick, which has a moveable locking end that can be adjusted to various widths, is used to hold the letters. The type is set upside down and right to left, so the page can be built on top of itself. (printers develop an uncanny ability for reading this way.) A printer takes his letters from a type case, which holds one size and style of type. Is it arranged alphabetically? Oh no, that would be far too easy. It’s arranged by the frequency of use—the vowels are closest to the center, and range outward, with Zs and Qs toward the outer edges. Again, printers and their assistants—or “monkeys”—must memorize the arcane arrangement, for when a page is finished, the type must be ‘distributed” back to its proper place. And nothing makes a printer curse more than finding the wrong letter in the wrong compartment!


Quoins When the stick is filled, the  lines tied off with a length of twine to keep from spilling helter-skelter, and moved to a composing tray. Once a page is complete, it’s time to go to press. There are a variety of press styles, but let’s stick with a flat bed proofing press. The type, which is all cast to a standard height, is locked into place with wooden “furniture,” which are blocks of wood that are tightened with a printer’s quoin and key. The pressure is key. Too little and the type will wobble under the pressure of the print cylinder, causing a smeared impression, or actually breaking the type. Too much and the type will be squeezed up, with the same results.


Typefaces The printer is now ready for paper . . . oh, don’t get me started on paper! Like typefaces, paper comes in an infinite variety of textures, colors and weights. Plain white? No such thing. There are warm whites (undertones of yellow), cool whites (undertones of blue), pearl whites, cream whites . . .you get the picture. And then there is grain. It’s important to print with the grain going parallel to the binding, otherwise a finished book may warp in a weird way. All paper has a grain, which is determined by the way the paper fibers are aligned during the papermaking process. Take a sheet, curl it up as if you were going to fold it in half (but don’t) and test the pressure against you palm. Do it in both directions. One way will have more resistance than the other. This is ‘going against the grain.” It’s a real no-no to mix  the direction of the grain—pages always be printed with the grain going the same way. If the paper is dampened very slightly, it takes a better impression. But the process is very time-consuming. Today, some artisan printers still follow the tradition, however it is becoming a lost art.

Press1 Now, back to the press . . . a sheet of paper is clipped into place on the cylinder, which rolls over the inked type (on a flat bed press, there are soft gelatin rollers below the paper cylinder, which lay a light layer of ink over the lead.) A printer will adjust the pressure of the paper against the type by adding or subtracting thin sheets of paper, calling packing, beneath the actual printing paper. Connoisseurs of fine printing consider a “perfect” impression is one where you can feel just a ghost of embossing from the lead letters.  Again, too much pressure and the type will look heavy and distorted. Too little pressure and the type will be faint and uneven. And then there is the subject of adding illustration to the text. However that is a whole other can of worms (or block of wood, as the case may be!)

This is, admittedly a very basic explanation of the process. There are many nuances of printing left unsaid, but I hope you begin to see why I consider a printer of real books to be an artist.


KelmscottPress2 I could go on and on and on about the books I consider beautiful. But that would take up far too much space, so I’ll leave you with just a few parting images. Here are two examples that I love from the Kelmscott Press, the magnificent workshop founded by William Morris, a leader of the Arts & Crafts movement in the late 19th century. (top and left) And here is a special treasure from my own library—a handmade book with original etchings by Lance Hidy.  (bottom)

How about you? What do your feel about paper vs. digital? And do you have a favorite “aesthetic” book—one that you love for its look and feel, regardless of the subject matter?