Friday, July 13, 2012

Graphic design - old school

colophon | noun   a publisher's emblem or imprint, esp. one on the title page or spine of a book.
• historical a statement at the end of a book, typically with a printer's emblem, giving information about its authorship and printing.
letterpress | noun  printing from a hard, raised image under pressure, using viscous ink.

Graphic design - old school
by Norah Dooley
I guess you could call this post - "Why I Love My Mac". My memories of the "bad old days' of inhaling toxic Nazdar fumes while sweating into silk screens and running out of letters and needing just one more "s" thereby having to buy a whole sheet of Letrapress when it cost the equivalent of a dinner out have not made me miss old school graphics. But letterpress printing? Ah! Those memories make me swim in nostalgia!

Using a job stick to set type at Baka Pres, in the basement at Washington Street - Caslon was my fave.  circa 1982

I love type and typefaces and all things graphic. The advent of the computer and word processing is a time I remember well. Because back in the bad old days? Way way back? In the days of Letra-set by the sheet? Back then when I wanted to create a poster or flyer I had to work with some interesting and archaic tools.  I  was a visual artist then and helped run a collective gallery and school. We had a very low budget and we needed lots of beautiful promotional pieces. We had to use sheets of dry transferable lettering to create masters for printing.  This technique was used for all kinds of lettering and we combined it with offset printing, xeroxing of flyers and sometimes silkscreen too. It was widespread for lettering and other elements before the advent of the computer techniques of word processing and desktop publishing.
Bad luck to run out of a letter

When artwork was prepared by hand, Letraset sheets were available with letters in a large range of typefaces, styles, sizes, symbols, and other graphic elements. The letters could be transferred one by one to artwork being prepared. This was always a tedious job, but the alternative, to do the lettering by hand, was also tedious and required graphic artist skills. Frustration with the cost and so-so results and other long forgotten reasons helped us decide that what we needed to do was buy and run a letterpress. This was just one of many of my not so remunerative "income generating" notions I had as I struggled to find "right livelihood" and support my work as an artist.

My partner in this venture was one Carl Mueller. He was an artist who did scientific illustration for a living. He also was a writer, philosopher, perfectionist and one heck of a hard worker. Husband Robert was a huge help as he had studied this kind of printing while going to trade classes at his middle school where he set type and printed all kinds of side jobs for his teachers.

We had minimal tools when we bought the our first tabletop platen press and started the Baka Press,  still we fell in love with the process and printed three books for private clients as well as business cards, broadsides and wedding invitations.  We bought a press like this (left) that would now be 140 years old. When we bought it our  press was stored in a chicken coop in Taunton MA on a farm where a man had been collecting this equipment for decades. He had acres of old machinery; presses, bindery machines, linotypes all leaning at wild angles, sometimes outlines by bind weed, partially obscured by flowers as they sank deeper each year into the ground. And we sank deeper and deeper into the process we found more of the arcane tools and supplies one needed to be productive. Our press had the same little motor as pictured above but the belt was made of leather and no longer functioned. I found the exact belt needed on Main Street, near MIT in Cambridge. Before that, Robert would put running shoes on his hands and be a "gerbil on treadmill" for me.  I was really delighted by all the little mechanical doo-dads I actually needed to use on a daily basis. Below is a description of the things we used from this web site.

Ah, the bad old days... how I wish we still had the press and type so that I could pass on this truly arcane skill to some starry-eyed youngster with time on their hands.

Job or composing stick
Type (at the very minimum, you'll need at least one small font of type, about 2-4 pounds in weight, although you'll no doubt soon find yourself forced out of your home by your ever-increasing collection), a Type Case (a partitioned box to separate and hold the individual letters of type, one for each font), a Composing Stick  (the hand-held metal tray in which you assemble the pieces of type), some Leads & Slugs (pronounced "leds", thin strips of metal, lower than the height of the type, which go between lines to add white space), an Imposing Surface (a fancy name for a perfectly flat place on which to assemble the form you are going to print), a Chase (an iron frame, made to fit your specific press, that holds the type from which you will print), some Furniture (no, not tables and chairs; rather, pieces of wood or metal in varying sizes, all lower than type high, that fill up the area in your chase around the type),   Quoins (pronounced "coins", metal wedges that employ friction to hold the type and furniture in the chase), a Quoin Key (a special tool used to tighten the quoins), some Tympan Paper (oiled sheets of hard paper that cover the platen, the area on which you put the sheet of paper to be printed), Gauge Pins (adjustable clips that you attach to or stick into the tympan on a platen press to position the paper so that image prints where you want it), Ink (printing ink, either oil- or rubber-based, in the color(s) of your choice), a Brayer (a hand roller used to smooth out ink and sometimes ink type by hand), an Ink Plate (on which to mix and roll out the ink; an 8" square piece of glass or plexiglass will do for starters), Rollers (for your specific press, made of either rubber or a special printers' "composition" of glue and glycerin), Typewash (one of several solvents used to clean up ink from the press and type, ranging from the organically benign and FDA-approved, such as Canola oil; through mineral spirits, which are cheap, readily available and work well; to the seriously lethal and flammable), Oil (to lubricate every moving part on your press every time you use it), Rags (to use with the typewash to clean the press), a steel or plastic Type Gauge (a ruler that measures inches on one side and printers' points and picas on the other, often called a 'pica pole') and a Galley or two (a metal tray used to store type after you've set it but before you've put it back in the case).
Quoin and quoin key squeezing chase

Other things that will stand you in very good stead are a Printer's Apron to protect your clothes, Hand Cleaner formulated to remove printer's ink (although most mechanic's hand cleaners will do well), a Safety Can to hold your type wash and an Oily Waste Safety Container to hold your solvent-filled rags before you clean them, Tying String to keep the type you've set from falling apart during storage, a pair of surgical Tweezers to help [carefully!] manipulate small pieces of type, a Magnifying Glass or Linen Tester to closely examine your printed sheets, a Type High Gauge (not to be confused with the pica pole mentioned above) for confirming the correct height of type and engravings, a Paper Cutter for dealing with the stacks of paper you will print, and a pair of Scissors and a Craft Knife for all sorts of things, including the ever-imperative makeready.
California Job case - we memorized the positions of all letters and minded our ps and qs and ds and bs


Svevaprince said...

Amazing. Exhausting just to think of all the parts and pieces that went into producing one printed page. Words are cheaper now. I remember, back before regular people had computers, you always had copy machines

Carolyn Stearns said...

My parents were newspaper people,( CT Hartford Courant) if I went down to the press room one of the old men down there would make me a paper hat to keep the ink from my hair - but I felt like a pirate wearing it. ( triangular) I loved watching the presses go but it was SOOOO loud! Brought back memories with pictures and story, thanks.