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Printing with Love

In the San Francisco Bay Area -- a prime spot for the forces disrupting established publishing industries -- there is a long-held, enduring passion for an opposing direction: painstakingly printing and binding books by hand.

A CRAFTSMANSHIP photo essay.

Theme: The Art of Alcohol




Story and photography by DOUGLAS CRUICKSHANK

Two volumes of the works of Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard ignited a lifelong passion for letterpress.

Touch, sensuality, and looks play essential roles in love, both at its start and as it endures. When I was 11 or 12, an uncle gave me two remarkable books bound in red leather. They had been published by Roycroft community craftsmen in East Aurora, N.Y., who were part of the Arts and Crafts movement around the turn of the last century. The Roycroft craftsmen had produced these books with a technique called letterpress—the old style of bookmaking with lead type and massive, gear-driven printing presses. 

I’d never seen books like these. They were portly and gorgeous, measuring about 12 by 8 inches and nearly two inches thick. As I paged through them, the still-rich black and deep red ink pressed into the thick, soft paper let me feel the deboss of each letter. And the lush, slightly ragged page edges were very different to the touch than the more utilitarian books around our house. The old books even had a unique smell; their leather covers and still-white paper gave off a pleasantly musty aroma from years of soaking up the scents of various owners and their respective homes or commercial bookshelves. I was a kid, not a collector, but it was apparent to me even then that the big, luxuriant volumes were themselves magnificent objects, special in a way that caused me to take close care of them for five decades.

By coincidence, I now live part of the year in a city (San Francisco) that has been one of the nation’s primary centers for letterpress printing ever since the technology for this “new” form of publishing was created. And so it remains today, with a committed community of printers and publishers producing books with painstaking care and respect for a venerable tradition.

Herewith, a tour of several operations in the San Francisco Bay Area still involved in this art form. As digital media transforms how the world distributes ideas and information, their work process takes on new kinds of meaning.

In its oldest traditions, letterpress begins with casting the metal type, which must be laid out, set into the press, inked, and then pressed into a sheet of paper. San Francisco’s Arion Press is one of only a handful of letterpress printing operations in the world that still regularly cast their own type. In some respects, these metal typefaces create lettering that is even sharper than it is with modern, photographic “offset” printing. This is because “the metal type literally bites into the paper,” says Diana Ketcham, co-owner of Arion Press.

To make the metal type faces, a casting operation begins with what’s called a “matrix,” which is a small square like this that contains tiny brass molds for each letter of the alphabet, both capitalized and lower case, and extra pieces for punctuation and other markings. If the book or document being printed requires any unusual characters, the type caster needs to take the matrix completely apart, then replace the undesired mini-blocks with whatever others are needed. When Brian Ferrett, a type caster at Arion Press, sat down to do this task one afternoon in the Arion Press workshop, he regretted not wearing his coveralls that day. “It has the most important tool in the world—a paperclip,” he said. “You won’t believe how often that comes in handy.”

The workshop contains a library of hundreds of different matrices, all in different font styles and sizes. These matrices (called “mats” in printer lingo) date back to the early 1900s, and are virtually irreplaceable. If one wears out or falls into disrepair, and there’s no back-up, the type casters have no choice but to hunt down a replacement from people who collect letterpress equipment. Collectors tend to be hoarders, however, and most letterpress collectors are reluctant to sell these materials, even to those who might put them to use.

The matrix is built to correspond to this contraption, which is called a “monotype composition keyboard.” Like a Rube Goldberg machine, the keys here push levers guided by the spool sitting above it; the spool proceeds to tell a set of gears to move other levers that will punch a roll of paper with a series of holes, each of which is coded to ask the next machine to produce type in the proper sequence.

The spool functions like a rolling ruler, telling the keyboard operator how much spacing each letter and word is getting, and how each line will be justified on the page. In the original days of monotype printing, just operating this keyboard was a craft and trade unto itself. Apprenticeships in printing tended to require 6 years, with most of that time devoted just to mastering one piece of the letterpress system—how that machine works, how to run it, and how to repair malfunctions. While this might seem excessive, this equipment presents constant surprises. Ferrett remembers a veteran type caster at M&H, who retired in 2014 after working there since 1950, often saying, “I’ve never seen that happen before.”

Once the paper has been completely coded for type casting, it looks like a roll of Morris code, or a Western Union telegram from someone who couldn’t stop talking. Just the paper for this system poses challenges. “It’s really finicky to use,” says Ferrett. “If it’s off at all, the machines will squirt hot lead at you.” And spools of this paper aren’t easy to find. “It’s made by a guy in Italy,” Ferrett says, “and he doesn’t want to do it anymore.”

Even at a foundry married to the old days the way Arion Press is, it occasionally gets tempting to resort to some computerized assistance. In this case, Ferrett is using an Apple program that creates the same old-fashioned messages that the monotype keyboard does, but in a bit more visible detail. “I like using the old machines,” he says, “but it is nice sometimes when we can actually see what we’re doing.”

Once the spool of paper is coded, it’s threaded into the type casting machines. Here it will direct another series of levers, springs, gears, and nozzles to start making type.

The original casting machines cast one letter at a time, molded letter by letter. If your eyes are good enough, you can see that this is the mold for the letter ‘e’ (in lower case).

The following generation of printing technology was called monotype casting, because of the way it produced type block by block. This “monotype composition caster” is part of a separate operation at Arion Press called M&H Type. Its machinery has been in continuous operation for a full century, ever since two type casters named George W. Mackenzie and Col. Carroll T. Harris founded the company in 1915. This machinery now stands as a living embarrassment to Mark Twain, who continually invested in competing models when they were first introduced in the late 18th century, and continually lost his money when they failed to gain market share.

The monotype machines create type by essentially boiling lead and pumping it into letter molds. When the lead first emerges from the guts of this machine, it’s flowing at a temperature that hovers around 700 degrees.

If any mistakes have occurred, the machines will let you know by spitting out molten lead. This happened to one caster, who got blasted in the stomach when he didn’t properly lock in a letter mold. (Fortunately, he had his coveralls on—and lead cools quickly.) Any spills of water can also be disastrous, causing the pool of molten lead to explode. That’s why some the foundry’s walls are splotched with gray–little gifts from the gods that made lead an easy metal to melt. For years, the foundry continually suffered explosions like these during rainstorms—thanks to a leaky roof.

When everything works properly, the machines spit out little cubes of lead type, all lined up to form complete phrases, properly justified line by line. For a letterpress printer, nothing is more satisfying than working with fresh type, because it produces lettering that Ketcham describes as “sharp and crisp.”

These wooden boxes, which date from M&H Type’s earliest days, are used to gather discarded type and bits and pieces of lead spillings. The lead will then be re-melted and cast afresh. For reasons no one remembers, these containers are called “hell boxes.” Perhaps it’s because their contents are destined for a very hot furnace. Ferrett wonders if it’s because they’re so tough. “I’ve sometimes dropped them in the furnace by mistake,” he says. “When I pull them out, they look just fine.”

When laying out all this type for the page, a self-respecting printer sometimes wants to add a little flourish—a calligraphic letter to an opening sentence, perhaps, or some decorative borders. This library of metal bars contains the designs for hundreds of different kinds of borders, from faint lines…

… to intricate swirls like these.

M&H Type and Arion Press draw much of their inspiration from metal type styles designed and cast throughout the late 19th and much of the 20th Century. The Press now has a library of approximately 4,000 different typefaces—a collection larger than the Smithsonian’s. Only a small percentage of these typefaces have ever been digitized for use in offset printing. “When people in the business come visiting,” Ketcham says, “they say they see names here that they’ve never even heard of.”

Each section of these cabinets contain a series of drawers in a given typeface, with each drawer organized by font size. This particular drawer holds 18-point type in a typeface called Bodoni, cast by Bauer of Germany. The company, which was known for making exceptionally sharp type, is no longer in business.  M&H makes and sells sets of a great many of these typefaces, which come in packets about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Letterpress printers depend on these supplies to keep their own operations going.

Once all the type has been properly made, it goes upstairs to be laid out for the printing presses. From this point forward, the machinery and process for letterpress bookmaking resembles the many other letterpress operations, both in the Bay Area and beyond.

The glorious beast of modern letterpress is a machine that is no longer manufactured: The Heidelberg. It is the Steinway, or perhaps the Stradivarius of printing presses, though Joel Benson, owner of San Francisco’s Dependable Press, refers to it as a “locomotive,” which it must nearly equal in weight. Benson’s establishment is one of the most well-respected letterpress print shops in California. The “Heidelbergs,” he says, “were the information technology of their era. They were super high-tech, the cutting edge. Even though they’re old, and they seem totally antiquated, they are highly refined machines.”

Another accomplished and devoted letterpress printer is Lisa Rappoport of Littoral Press in Richmond, California. “Once I started working in letterpress,” Rappoport says, “I was completely smitten with the process.” The very act of setting the lead type, letter-by-letter, just as it’s been done for half a millennium or more, made her want to do little else, she recalls. As a poet herself, when she started publishing letterpress broadsides of the work of other poets, she found herself experiencing those poems “through their skeletons, the framework.” Rappoport says that setting a poem letter by letter enables her to understand the work in a richer, more complex way.

At one time letterpress printing was purely utilitarian—the best and only technology available. It is labor intensive, however, and before long, the cost of labor played a role in its decline. “Letterpress presses were being junked,” Rappoport says. “And as tends to happen, artisans and craftspeople took them over for their own use.” This is much of what has turned the process into the rarefied fine art it has become today.

When all printing was done through letterpress, a wide variety of papers and inks were specifically formulated for it. In the last ten years or so, there have been a few new high-quality papers specially developed for the process, but the choices made specifically for printing with movable type have diminished significantly. “The ones that went off the market,” Rappoport says, “are sadly lamented.”

Most of these operations will do custom printing jobs, such as this collection of poetry being produced for Douglas Cruickshank by Benson at Dependable Press. The project takes a step closer to modern forms of book publishing by using photopolymer plates. This technique was introduced in the mid-20th century, then refined to suggest the quality of lead type (at least on the surface). After Cruickshanks’s poetry collection, Vivisection Mambo, is printed by Benson, it will be bound by Roswell Bindery in Phoenix, Arizona, then published by Mho & Mho Works in San Diego.

Benson has given a lot of thought to what keeps him interested in such a demanding industrial art-form. “You’re working with paper, an organic material that doesn’t behave from day to day,” he says. “It’s natural-feeling work where you need to learn, observe, be perceptive. In problem solving, you have to trust what you see versus what you expect. A lot of people are attracted to [letterpress] on a superficial level, and as they learn more and more, they fall more and more in love with it.” And there is plenty of time to do so. With a letterpress book, the pages are lined up and sewn together by hand on racks like this one.

Most Letterpress operations do very limited runs—sometimes as few as 25 volumes, and typically no more than several hundred. As the art form has become increasingly rarified, all this effort tends to be reserved for very high-end projects, often best treated with binding in fine leathers like these.

Once the book is finished, all of its parts needs to be pressed, to cohere into a compact package. Nothing does this job more easily than these old presses. In fact, using old machines like this one seems to be half the fun of this work. “I’m really grateful just to work with the printing presses,” says Rappoport, “because they’re beautiful machines and the work is satisfying in its materiality. When you are also working on something that will last potentially for generations, like books, that’s really the best work you can hope to do.”

And finally, the book is done. As you might expect, these volumes aren’t cheap. Most run at least several hundred dollars apiece. The books from Arion Press range from around $450 (for a limited edition of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana illustrated by cartoonist William Hamilton) to a staggering $8,500 for a goatskin-bound copy of The Holy Bible. The two-volume edition of Don Quixote shown above, illustrated by William T. Wiley, is $1,500 a volume.

For a book lover, however, the results can be worth the price. Old as this publishing form is, there seems to be no end to the experimentation still being done with letterpress printing. Even typeface designers sometimes get in on the act. Ferrett recalls a giant set of type once designed for a typeface called Stymie. “It was crazy,” he says. “I think just the ‘W’ weighed five pounds or something.”

If you want to know more…

Arion Press offers a complete catalog of books it has published on its website. You’ll also find links there to a complete font catalog and price list for M&H Type. Arion, based in San Francisco’s Presidio, offers public tours of its facilities as well as those of M&H foundry; more information is here.

These two films explore Arion’s work. This short film follows Arion as it produces its 100th book, a re-issue of the first edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

In this video, part of a series on “Raw Craft” produced for Balvenie whiskey, Anthony Bourdain tours Arion and marvels at “some of the most beautiful books ever imagined.”

At another Bay Area shop, Dependable Letterpress, grand vintage presses take on ambitious, complex letterpress projects. Started in 2002 by Joel Benson in his basement in San Francisco’s Mission district, DL has established itself as one of the finest letterpress shops in the Bay Area. You can view some of their work on their website.

Lisa Rappoport works under the imprint of Littoral Press in Richmond, California, printing books, broadsides, wedding invitations, business cards, and much more.

The San Francisco Center for the Book is a center of inspiration for the book arts world, featuring the art and craft of letterpress printing, bookbinding, and artist’s bookmaking. The Center offers over 300 workshops annually, from introductory classes, to focused advanced and master courses.

Douglas Cruickshank, co-author of this photo essay, provides an informative overview of the British Library’s development of a remarkable online exhibit of antiquarian books, where you can browse page by page through its holdings.

The Roycrofters website gives a full account of the Roycroft Press and the rest of the legendary Arts and Crafts community Elbert Hubbard founded in East Aurora, New York, at the end of the 19th century.

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Rum’s Revenge

The Revival of Nero’s Wine

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