Cut pages and set endpapers

Progress continues, and some of it can be really exhausting! In the last two week:

  • I printed the first side of the keepsake in two colors. I’ll have side two finished soon and then will be shipping those out.
  • A week ago, I set the type by hand for the endpapers, which took about eight hours, including corrections. It’s a great experience to have. I should be printing the first past of those on Saturdays. I have a second color for them, too, and that may wind up being on a different day, depending on how it goes.
  • Today, I cut the interior pages down to size. This was incredibly nerve wracking. If I made a mistake on a single press sheet, it might add 12 hours to the project. If I made a mistake consistently, I'd have to…redo everything. I believe I cut everything correctly. See the video below.

On Tuesday, I’ve gathered a small group that will be helping me to fold all the interior pages, which number about 1,200 (enough to make roughly 150 books). In the process of folding, we’ll find rejects or ones that aren’t quite good enough to include. Then I hand the folded pages off to the bookbinder!

This has shifted a little bit later in the month, so the first finished books won’t ship until September, but I’ve shifted the schedule back just by a week or so.

The Last Pass (in Black)

Momentous day today! I printed the last black-ink pass of the book — the 16th of 16 passes! I was able to take one of each sheet, cut them (badly) to size, and fold them as they'll be bound in the book, and, well, it’s pretty exciting. After hitting the doldrums at the end of my printing sprint, I was refreshed and in a few sessions printed the remaining passes. Over time, I’ve been able to control the page “color” better (relative darkness and overall evenness), but variation is less noticeable when the book is folded into pages as you don’t see the up to four pages on a sheet at once. I was definitely pushing the capability of the 70-year-old-plus press.

(After printing thousands of impressions on “Eve,” the name of the particular Vandercook proof press I’ve used throughout, I have its serial number memorized: 10017. And a quick search online tells me that serial number was issued between 1946 and 1947. Happy 70th birthday, Eve!)

I recorded a video today narrating the process of how I was making decisions and how impression, inking, and the printing surface all work together.

What’s left?

  • The second color, the ink for which arrives in a couple days. I have 13 sides of sheets to print illustrations and a period on the title page (!) for that.
  • Picking chapter numbers, cutting them on a laser cutter, mounting them on plywood, and printing five sheet sides that have chapter numbers.
  • Designing, hand composing, and printing the end papers with backers’ names.
  • Turning the cover concept into a design and determine how it will be printed, debossed, and/or engraved or cut.
Planning is next to godliness.

Planning is next to godliness.

I had a long talk with our bookbinder last night about thread and other details to keep the scheduling moving along. At the current rate, I should have the rest of the printing and other elements done within July, possibly by the third week, at which point I’ll cut the press sheets to folios, have a folding party with letterpress community friends, and deliver the stacks to Jules, the binder.


All the sheets that will make up the finished book.

It takes a village to make a book

Everyone stands on the shoulders of others (sometimes giants!) to make anything. None of us mine iron ore and smelt it, create silicon designs from our chips and build fabrication plants, or cut down trees, mill them, and make our own plywood. We’re all part of a big industrial and economic ecosystem.

But it's true at a micro level as well. This was a big, big day in progress on the book, which I would like to reveal will be called Not To Put Too Fine a Point on It. While the project I called "Hands On," the book has a different nature and thus a different title, and encompasses the book, the keepsake, and the village and community that’s been nurturing me.

Why such a big day?

Scott Hill, owner of Evolution Press, dialing in the automated cutting program. My mentor did the cutting.

Scott Hill, owner of Evolution Press, dialing in the automated cutting program. My mentor did the cutting.

  • We cut the paper. Neenah Paper very graciously donated a box of uncut paper required for the book, and though my mentor, Jenny, Evolution Press let us use their magnificent computerized cutter to produce the 12½-by-17–inch press sheets from which the book will be printed, and the cover and endpapers made. (Thank you, Neenah and Evolution.)
  • My bookbinder, Jules Remedios Faye, sent a glued and sewn dummy of the book using samples and printed scraps from my tests. It looks magnificent. I’ll post nice photos later. I am in love with what she, Jenny, and I came up with as the approach.
  • Boxcar Press, which is providing a significant discount for this project, produced the first signature worth of plates for me. That's two press sheets, which comprise four folios, which will be cut down, folded, and sewn together. There are four signatures total. Those plates arrive Friday!

All of these contributions of time, insight, and effort have made the book better, and made it not just my thing, but the product of a community of knowledge that incorporates all the people touching it and all their teachers and colleagues. When you print, you become part of a thread of people and expertise that spans an unbroken passing-on of lessons across nearly 600 years—and even further back for paper and other specialties.

There’s a joy to and a myth of making something by yourself, for yourself. I embrace the village and I’m so glad to have an extended community of support from the project’s backers to the School of Visual Concepts to its community and fellow students and beyond. This is a work that’s entirely mine and that’s entirely benefited from all the participation of others. (The binding, however, will be entirely Jules’! She’s offered to let me do some of the work, though!)

The current plan has me starting to print, very carefully, on Saturday, and then printing every day for the two weeks that follow. To make sure I have enough quality prints done, I will likely be printing 200 press sheets, which are printed in two or three colors for each side, making a maximum of 8 sheets by 2 sides by 3 colors by 200 copies or 9,600 impressions. In actuality, because the third color will be just for chapter numbers, and because there isn't a second color on every page, it will be more in the 6,000 to 7,000 range. 

This keeps the project roughly on track for its late August shipping. July and August will involve finishing up any interior page printing I didn't get done during the two-sprint; the end papers; the cover treatment, which is still under consideration; and the binding. And I'll be printing the keepsakes in there, too.

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.

A rough dummy

I bought a small amount of the paper that I think I’ll use for the book, cut it down into the appropriately sized sheets and folded them into a dummy, which is a mock-up of what you’re going to print. These are often blank, but they can have material in them as well. They’re designed to get a feel for the physical parameters of a book and fix problems before you’re too far down the road to make changes without effort and expense.

I’m not positive this is the right paper. I like a lot about it, but the deckle edge may be a problem. I’ll be meeting with the expert bookbinder on Monday to talk about details, but if she thinks it should be gathered into four sets of two larger sheets, the deckle edge won’t alternate finished pages, but be grouped alternating with groups of straight-cut pages. (Each sheet will have four finished pages front and back, folded down. It's likely the binder won’t want a gathering of the eight folded sheets as separate foldings of four, but prefer two sheets in four groups, as shown in the photos below, for heft.)

I have to decide if these aesthetics work. If not, I may either opt to use the same paper and trim the deckle edge or switch to a similar paper with a machined edge. The deckle edge is nice, but it's not critical, since I'm not using paper that's made a sheet at a time to the size required for the book. That would be more precious and more worth preserving. Here, this is continuously made paper produced by machine, and thus the deckle edge is a nice artifact, but a little more artificial in its way than handmade paper (even when the handmade paper is made in large quantities commercially, rather than by a small-batch artisan).

Still, it's great to feel how thick the book will be. The bookbinder will help me resolve questions so I can proceed on design ideas for the cover. Will it be case bound, the traditional hardcover style you’re used to? I would like that, but there are many other options. Cost and time are determining factors, too. I was hoping to customize covers, too, or some element of the book, so any process I use, I have to factor in whether I'll be able to incorporate that customization.

End of quarter and scheduling apace

The quarter at SVC ended a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I’d share in one place the three projects I created. I’m very happy with all of them, but the greeting card is probably my favorite, because it’s totally original. The three items (clockwise from upper left) are a poetry broadside (poster) as part of a fast workshop in cooperation with Copper Canyon Press; a broadside celebrating The Incomparable podcast network, using elements from our logo; and a greeting card that relies in part on photos I took.

The next quarter starts this Thursday, and I'll be taking a single class as I gear up to get “signed off” to use the presses on my own by my mentor, and dig in on the details of getting the book from conception to finished.

I'm close to deciding on the paper I’ll use. Because the press bed can’t take a sheet larger than 14 by 20 inches, this determines a lot of characteristics. I had planned a final book roughly 6 by 9 inches, but it looks to be easier to be 5.5 by 8.5 inches for a few reasons. This leads me to figuring out the size of the mothersheet, or the largest cut format you can buy.

Because of the maximum press size and paper size, the book will be printed in signatures (full sheets) of four book pages per size, which are then folded, gathered, cut on folded edges, and bound. That means the signature size is 11 by 17 inches. (Yes, a multiple of 8½ by 11.)

My mentor, Jenny, recommended a particular paper with a deckle edge on two sides and a nice tooth and texture. I’ve ordered some samples after reading up on its characteristics. (The deckle edge, discussed in a previous post, is a characteristic of the edge of the slurry from which paper is made exceeding the edge of the deckle, or wire frame, which suspends the fibers.) The issue is, however, that at 25.5 by 38 inches, I need to cut several 11 by 17 sheets.

I also need to think about grain, however, as paper is made in such a way typically that the grain of the fibers is aligned and predominates in one direction or another. With this sheet, the grain runs parallel to the deckle edge. I could cut 11 by 17 sheets in two ways, but for binding purposes, the folded final pages that are left uncut should also have their folded side parallel to the grain. If you go against the grain, the folding buckles and the pages can curl from top to bottom as well.

Cutting so that the grain direction is correct for folding the book for binding.

Cutting so that the grain direction is correct for folding the book for binding.

Thus to visualize I had this right, I created a grain direction and cutting diagram. The paper I’m purchasing comes by the sheet or, much more cheaply, in a box of 750 sheets. With my cutting plan, I’ll have 2,250 11 by 17 sheets and 1,500 8 1/2 by 11 sheets. I need 1,000 11 by 17 sheets to make the 125 finished copies of the book. A 64-page book will have eight signatures, each with four book pages per side. Eight times 125 is 1,000. Each side needs one pass per color, and I plan to use

I'm aiming for 125 books to ensure that I have some copies for myself, my mentor, SVC, and other folks; the 100 numbered copies for backers; and some extras in case the postal service of my or another nation destroys a backer’s copy en route.

With makeready, the paper you use to test while setting up a print job, and other discards, I will likely need more like 1,250 sheets for the project. The 8½ by 11 sheets I’ll use for the keepsake, though I may cut them down further or use a bleed, where I print larger than the finished size and then cut down to have the design run off one or more edges. And I may sell some of my extra stock to printers who don’t typically order such huge quantities.

The tricky problem is that because the interior edges of the cuts will be straight, the 11 by 17 sheets will fold to only have deckle edges on every other finished page of the book. I have to think about how that will feel. For that reason, I’m making a dummy from the few sheets I’ve ordered ahead of time. This is a complete blank copy of the book.

I also need the dummy as I’m meeting with a fine-arts printer and bookbinding to consult on and I hope hire to handle the binding for the project. That’s in a couple of weeks, and I plan to document my visit with her permission so I can post photos and more notes after that.

Somewhere this month, I need to finalize the book’s text, write some additional words, gather images, and design it. The layout doesn’t have to be complete until May. I’ll also be designing the keepsake in April in order to print it in May by my current schedule and planning, so that can be mailed in May or early June to backers who receive on at their pledge level.

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.