Letterpress Book a Marriage of High and Low Tech

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When I was in college, my favorite place to study was the Deering Library. At the time it was a tricky place to access, filled with odd spaces – beware the moat! – and made me feel like I was at some Gothic institution.

Whenever my head became too full of academics, I’d retreat to the large open chamber in the center of the library. It had an 18th century press there. Full cases of type. No ropes protecting it.

At the time I was working as a production assistant at night dealing with cold type, so I was fascinated by the old press. I spent hours puzzling out how it worked, and no one ever stopped me. After four years, I knew the press pretty well and I took a souvenir when I graduated: My name’s initials in 36 point Caslon.

Letterpress has always fascinated me.

Tomorrow at noon Eastern time the letterpress version of “Roman Workbenches” goes on sale. It is a bit of a throwback to print a letterpress book in this era of offset and digital printing. But the letterpress process produces a physical artifact that no laser writer or offset press can provide.

That’s not to say it’s low technology. Modern letterpress printing is an odd marriage of digital and physical. Here’s a brief overview.

Like all Lost Art Press books, “Roman Workbenches” was laid out in InDesign, an Adobe program that is the industry standard. InDesign works a lot like the manual paste-up days of my years as a production assistant. Minus the smell of hot wax, InDesign has always felt like the digital embodiment of my layout training.

After laying out the book in InDesign, the next step is to make plates for the press. Normally we would send the file to a service bureau to make an aluminum plate for the offset press. But because this is a letterpress book, the process takes a different turn.

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In this case the file will go to Boxcar, a service bureau that makes polymer plates for letterpress. What the heck does that sentence mean?

OK, think of it this way. Traditional letterpress consists of taking a bunch of pieces of metal or wood type and clamping them together to make a page of a book. You ink the high spots and press the paper onto the type.

Polymer plates mimic this process. Boxcar will make 64 separate plates for this book. The type and images will be raised above the background and receive ink. And then the inked areas will be pressed into the paper, producing the final image with incredible clarity and texture.

This is all grossly simplified. So if you are a press nerd we ask that you simply acknowledge that we’re explaining this to people who don’t have ink in their veins.

We used this same process to print the tool chest posters for “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and were really pleased with the results. It’s not quite like the fantasy I had of printing a book using the press in the Deering Library. But it is as close as I think I’ll ever come.

See you tomorrow at noon.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to Letterpress Book a Marriage of High and Low Tech

  1. Not sure how I got by following you for almost a decade without knowing you went to NU. I spent most of my library time in the nearby towers of University Library, as my work study job was stack control (reshelving books) and as such I knew the place quite well. But Deering is the iconic pig on it’s back (as Frank Lloyd Wright allegedly said.) I’ve got an alarm set to be here at 11 CST to order the book.

  2. steveschafer says:

    The newspaper in the town where I lived when I was in high school used a polymer plate press. Once in a while, I’d see a guy with the back of his station wagon stuffed with piles of the old plates. It was a small weekly, so there was probably a few months worth in each load.

  3. This reminds me of the souvenirs my Dad would bring home from work when I was a kid. He was a platemaker by trade and whenever an interesting mistake came through the line he would tote it home as a physical explanation of what he did every day. I would ink them and use them for my own mischief. I can count on one hand the number of people who’ve understood the nature of that work, but this brings it all flooding back.

    • My grandfather was a paper salesman, so I have a similar affection for the detritus of that industry. All manner of odd weights, watermarks (I love watermarks!) and colors.

      And the smell of paper.

      I actually love the acrid smell from paper mills (and skunk smell). Must be the redneck blood.

  4. Do you have pictures of the book on press?
    I never had ink in my veins, but spent years keylining, then twenty five more clicking around PageMaker, Quark Express and now InDesign. I’d hang with the press operators on breaks.
    Polymer plates have come a long way, especially in packaging. I remember some twenty years ago, gathering around the Mark Andy flexo press to see a job in four color process, two spot colors and white ink on metallized stock.
    The Bureau of Printing and Engraving tried polymer plates on a web press (rolls of paper as opposed to sheets) between 1992 and 1996. They gave up and these web notes are collectable.
    I also liberated my initials from a type drawer. As long as I’m confessing… I lay out my dovetails in Adobe Illustrator, pasting a printout right on the boards. I did all 88? of them for my Anarchist’s Tool Chest. Feels like cheating – but gets me to sawing and chiseling much faster.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I have yet to fall into this rabbit hole (I don’t need another one), but would this be a good use of say a friend’s 3D printer to make a plate for say business cards or labels or some such? Or is my thinking of the process all wrong?

    • There are some people who make plates via 3D printing. I investigated these vendors last year when I started contemplating this job. The cost was a significant multiple of polymer plates.

      But if you own a 3D printer…..

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