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.
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