Closing in on a print date

It’s allergy season in Seattle, which has unfortunately knocked me out at times, delaying some of the work on the book, keepsake, and other projects. Nonetheless, things are moving forward, and I’ve made decisions and am proceeding towards a final design, binding choices, and the rest. 

  • The keepsake. I’ve decided on what it will be: a setting of Walt Whitman’s “A Font of Type,” a poem from 1888 that has a lot of resonance in his life, as he started work at age 13 apprenticing as a typesetter. I created a design, but after consultation with my mentor, am reworking it entirely from a small poster into a folio, or a folded sheet. The book design is a gating item at the moment, to get plates made for printing, which will push the keepsake design finalization and printing back into late May or possibly into June.
  • The book’s type and interior. I tested out some type choices and sizes by having a photopolymer plate made and then printing on the paper stock that I’ll use in the book on the press at SVC that I’ll print all the interior pages. Learned a lot that informed the design choices and how I’ll make and integrate illustrations.
  • The book’s binding. Jules Faye will be binding the book. She has a long and wonderful history with printing and bookbinding, and we’ve met twice to talk options and budgets. We’ve settled on a format that will expose some of the stitching and binding methods in an attractive and functional way. 
  • Unrelated, a business card. This is a project I’m doing in the one letterpress class I’m taking this term, learning to use the Chandler & Price platen press in the SVC studio. The card’s front uses a digital face created at Hamilton Wood Type Museum that’s chromatic: it has multiple elements designed to be interlocked and overlaid that may be printed in different colors. It's something used commonly with wood type to great advertising effect. On the back, I’m setting in metal using a chromatic telephone that an instructor identified in one my photos: it's a dial phone that is designed as two separate pieces of metal type that neatly intersect. I'll also be used some ornaments and handset type.

One of my goals with all the printing projects underway, especially the book, is to be sure that my printing skills are good enough to achieve the level of quality and competence required. I carved out a particular set of parameters with the book to make sure that it would be both an interesting piece of work but also be achievable for me to print without years of training. The longer I print, the more nuance I’ll gain, plus I keep re-learning things that I lost the muscle memory and detail for in the past. Lots of knowledge and half-learned bits of practice keep bubbling up, both in the letterpress side and in designing the book.

My mentor, Jenny, is keeping me honest: if I get underway with the book, and it seems like I can’t print as well as I need to, we’ll hit a pause button while I get more practical work under my belt, and I’ll inform everyone of delays. I’m not going to go to all this effort and with all your trust and produce something that’s subpar.

Learning to use these presses involves both very few variables and a million ones. The proof presses that are the workhorse of modern letterpress weren't designed for production printing. They were designed to let press operators pull proofs of work in progress and test out printing. This means that elements like the set screws that lock in ink rollers to keep them a precise height to layer a film of pigment on type and other material in the bed of the press shift even when you've done everything right, over inking or under inking pages, and if you're not attentive and don’t stop, recalibrate, and continue, you could wind up with a rash of bad work. 

I know all the coarse aspects of the press, which are few: How to lock type and other elements properly in the bed. How to pack the tympan, the padding that underlies the paper as you pass the paper over the material to be printer. How to set roller height. How to apply ink. How to oil the press to keep it in fine fiddle. 

But I don’t have a deep bench. I've put in tens of hours on press in the last few months, not hundreds. I don’t want to print as an amateur, even as I know I lack the full experience required to print expertly, which means being able to respond to all the variables, troubleshoot them, and proceed within the range of quality required.

Fortunately I’m being backstopped by Jenny, Jules, and others in the community providing insight — and moral support.

My second project this year

I just completed the third pass on a broadside, a fancy word for a poster, that’s a tribute to The Incomparable, a podcast network I’ve been part of since the founding of the flagship eponymous show. It now has many podcasts in the network, and we’re mostly professional amateurs: shows are produced with high quality and a lot of care, but the money that comes in mostly de minimis — we cover editing and some other expenses, but it’s not a living. 

The broadside involves multiple printing techniques and elements:

  • The background was printed using a press plate, a sort of reverse stencil placed under the paper during its impression against a large solid block that was inked on press. This created a white space for the zeppelin, and the little pointed rays around it.
  • That pass used a split fountain, in which two different ink colors were placed on the main reciprocating roller, which spins back and forth to even out ink coverage. It allows for that neat gradation effect.
  • The zeppelin is a linoleum-block cut, carved by yours truly. It's very hard to get good, solid coverage over that size, but I think it worked out fairly well. (The zeppelin is a symbol of the network.)
  • The robot is part of the podcast's logo, and after trying to carve it, I opted to send it out to be turned into a photopolymer plate. An inverse of the file (whites are blacks and blacks are transparent) is exposed onto a rubbery material that hardens where light touches. (This is done via a film transfer or direct laser exposure of the raw plate material.) The plate is sent through a liquid bath to wash away unexposed areas, and you get a printable medium!
  • The Incomparable is set in wood type and Live from Zeppellinheim in metal from the School of Visual Concepts type collection. (There should be perhaps one L in the city name, a running joke of the show, but it's a made-up name, so there you go.)
  • The paper was cut down from a larger sheet with a "deckle edge" on both top and bottom. I preserved one edge. A real deckle results from paper made by the sheet, where the pulp peters out at the edge of the form (the deckle) on which it's sluiced. I wrote about how a deckle edge (real and fake) gets made in this Economist story from 2012.

I’ve got one more project underway from this first quarter of SVC classes, and I’ll post details about it when it’s finished. It’s much simpler in outcome, but more complicated in the design process.