Inking The Past and The Present
By: Marie Drascic
I bet you thought Gutenberg was the creator of movable type. I did too! However, through Book Arts Collaborative, I learned that’s not true. Gutenberg is considered the father, not the creator of movable type. In fact, 300 years before Gutenberg, movable type was being used in China. This type was made out of clay and wood, but unfortunately, this type broke easily under pressure and the ink was ineffective, as it was perfect for calligraphy but too watery for printing.
In the 1460’s Gutenberg fathered movable type. He carved steel to create the letters then used the steel to punch out the characters, to make a matrix, basically a mold. Then using a hand mold, and molten steel, he created the type. Metal proved useful as it lasted longer, and was easier to reproduce lettering. In the second half of the 15th century, 12.6 Million books were produced! The craft that Gutenberg introduced wasn’t easy - nor was it simple. It took dedication and patience. The numerous hours of pouring, filing, detailing and perfecting were things I didn’t consider when I first joined Book Arts Collaborative. And I took the hard work that came before me for granted.
Movable type is used today for letterpress printing. Recently, I started learning how to print, and while I have learned the steps that go into letterpress, I learned a whole lot more than that as well.
Letterpress printing as seen today isn't quite as traditional as you would have thought. It is, in fact, more of a reinterpretation or maybe a homage to traditional letterpress. That's not to say it isn't interesting, important, and in many cases quite beautiful, it's just not traditional letterpress. If you've had any experience with modern letterpress the first thing that you would notice is the common trend of debossing. This is when the type is pressed into the paper, creating an indent where the type sat.
However, when learning how to print, Kim, one of the owners from our community partner, Tribune Showprint, told me this was not the original intention for letterpress. For a traditional letterpress printer making such a heavy impression into the stock and producing any indentation at all into the paper would have resulted in the print run being rejected. Part of the skill of a letterpress printer would have been to get the machine pressures just right so that the type just kissed the paper transferring the minimum amount of ink to create the crispest print with no indentation.
She also informed me that debossing can actually damage type. Type is exactly .918” tall. In Book Arts Collaborative, we use type that can range from 20 to 100 years old. If we were to over apply pressure every time we printed something, in order to achieve the debossing effect, we would be smashing the type, as the metal is so soft. This also happens with wood. Over time, the type will flatten, and we wouldn’t be able to use it anymore.
I think, without knowing the history of type, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it. There’s something about viewing the type as the precious and one-of-a-kind item it is that makes the work rewarding. It has to be treated with care and utilized in a way that makes it last.
Most letterpress printers these days use metal blocks or polymer plates to print and no longer use moveable type. Book Arts Collaborative is committed to keeping the art alive. Tribune Showprint has one of the largest collections of wooden type available. Book Arts Collaborative isn’t special because it teaches letterpress, it’s special for the type of letterpress it teaches. I’m printing the same way people did hundreds of years ago, utilizing the same steps, same tools, same presses they did. Participating in the original method of printing feels like I’m honoring the craft, and those who took time to help create it. But this doesn’t just happen when I am setting type. It happens when I’m actually using a press as well.
Book Arts Collaborative use iron presses. I thought for a long time that when letterpress was first created, iron presses were the standard. But I was wrong. For a long time, presses used to be wooden. And while they got the job done, things took so much longer; pressure wasn’t divided evenly, it took hours to print, and it all had to be done by hand. But, around 1800, iron presses were developed, some of which could be operated by steam power. This made things so much faster; iron presses can print on bigger sheets of paper, they use gears to multiply pressure, and they’re also prettier to look at. It was a win-win-win for everyone.
I am grateful for the physical labor that goes into running a press. Today, instead of hand turning the press, it is standard for a press to utilize electrical engines, but at Book Arts Collaborative, we hand-turn our presses for safety. There is satisfaction in being the force that causes an item to print. So much of myself goes into the things I make, and I get to see the results as a product of my own work! I am responsible for every part of a piece because it is my human hands that put everything together - just as they did in when letterpress first started.
Learning to print has become more than just a new hobby. It’s an opportunity to pay homage to a craft that carried every part of history forward; it’s a chance to utilize the past to build a rewarding future. And that’s the best thing a class could give me.
This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It's not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.