Notes from a Tramp Printer, Part 1

Dear Readers,

Our 100th issue will be a special double edition of One Story, featuring “Beanball” by Ron Carlson.To commemorate this event, One Story has paired with Washington College’s Literary House to create a fine press edition. In this week leading up to its publication, we will be running a blog from master printer Jim Dissette, describing the process of creating this beautiful little book.



Notes From a Tramp Printer*

“A well-turned out book has a serenity which hides every vestige of the disarray which has so often marked its gestation. The number of things that can go wrong int he making of a book is so great, it is small wonder that none has ever been produced entirely free from fault”–
Brooke Crutchley, Printer of the Cambridge University Press, 1930s

I panic a bit when asked to write about the book arts and how I construct a book. Each book is like starting over for me. I always face it as if I know nothing more than how to dab ink on a press roller. Though I have my share of techniques, I know I’ll encounter invention and risk at every turn. Printing on untried papers, different inks, a typestyle that might end up not being the clear choice for the Vox of the text–these challenges all wait with a new project. And “Beanball” by Ron Carlson would offer the additional challenge of meeting an almost impossible deadline.

When I roll an inked roller across a form (the frame holding the type) of type on a Vandercook proof press, I sometimes think of the legends who precede me. There’s Bruce Rogers stopping the presses at Cambridge University Press because the red ink applied to his masterpiece, the Fra Luca de Pacioli,was a shade off, sending him running to his London inkmaker to concoct his own alchemic mix–to the frustration of all the dons wanting their book. There’s Aldus Manutius holding up to a 15th Century Venetian sky his first proof page of the famed Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. I doubt that I will ever print something as incredible as Bruce Rogers’s Oxford Lecturn Bible or the Poliphili, but fine press printers are immeasurable linked to this rich historical past and tend to be very aware of it the way a poet would (or should be) aware of a poem called “The Wasteland” or a play named Hamlet, or an artist or musician would be aware of Raphael or Beethoven. The making of a single book becomes an artery to this past.

To notch down a bit from this gravitas, I recall Ken Kesey sitting in the Vet’s Club in Eugene, Oregon announcing over a slew of beer pitchers that a book, aside from being exceedingly good and a pleasure to behold, should also serve double-duty as a weapon. Our mutually slurred vote was for a folio volume of Moby Dick, which we determined could be a hefty enough volume to wield against anyone questioning the weight of good literature.¬† I’ve actually found some designer books bound with marble slabs, which would pretty much eliminate our earlier choices.

¬†Another designer book I once saw had four wheels and a leash attached to it. Although billed as a book for children, the price tag eliminated anyone but the most avid collector of that press’s work. And there are pop-up books of course, although I have not yet seen a pop-up version of the New Testament (a good choice for obvious reasons: surprising images rising out of the crevice of its open margins.) All this is to say that we are encouraged to look at books in a different way, and designers, knowing that formal classic approaches still hold weight, should allow themselves to work way outside the box.

Work of art, weapon, or enlightening entertainment, books, no matter how complex, simple, artistic or mundane are basically an ink and paper vehicle used to communicate information to the reader. Making a book leap from the passivity of a modern text book or paperback is the instilled goal of every limited edition book printer. Why create a book costing hundreds or thousands of dollars per book–ours will cost $75, but we’re selling it at a loss–if the presentation does not lift the reader into that ineffable zone of appreciation light years from the tables at Barnes and Noble? Certainly good literature can stand alone, and has, without a jot of printing embellishment or artistic enhancement. A first edition “Leaves of Grass” is only spectacular in hindsight because of its rarity (aside from being a masterpiece). But it is not a book famous for its design (although peculiar for using a portrait of the authr as a title page), nor was it meant to be. It was Whitman’s desire to have his song heard. However, Leaves, could be reprinted tomorrow on handmade paper with Centaur metal type with woodcuts by Barry Moser,bound in gotaskin by Claire Van Vliet and it would become a different animal altogether, acting in concert with other fine artists.

-Jim Dissette

[Tune in tomorrow for part two of Notes from a Tramp Printer]

*(No, I’m not being self-demeaning. “Tramp printers” existed in the U.S. after the Civil War and up to the advent of modern typesetting machinery. They wandered the country not only for work but also for the adventure of it. Since their skills were portable, they took advantage of it.)

5 thoughts on “Notes from a Tramp Printer, Part 1

  1. This post has encouraged me to seek out books on the history of Printing and the wonderful people like you who provide us with such wonderful artifacts of the literary world.

    I want to learn more about typesetting and Printing. Any suggestions on where to begin (more as an enthusiast and businessman). I am actually about to embark on a career in Publishing. I am sure the more I know about Printing the better I will be.

  2. To Spencer C.

    Great that you have been inspired to look into printing’s amazing history. There are vast resources and I’d recommend looking at the Oak Knoll website: They have an incredible selection on all things printing.

    Now, typesetting~I’m assuming you mean setting type by hand. Although much can be learned from books like Lewis Allen’s Printing With a Handpress, or Clifford Burke’s Printing Poetry, chances are you would be better off finding a private or university press near you. I can help with that if you email me at and tell me where you are located.

    And yes, knowing from whence the book came, will enrich whatever you do in the field of publishing. The terms Upper and Lower case, Leading, all terms used even on a keyboard have their origin in the 15th Century…..not to forget “watch your p’s and q’s” which in a typecase are easily transposed (although some say the phrase was an admonition for responsible drinking (watch your pints and quarts).

    Jim Dissette

  3. Pingback: One Story blog » Blog Archive » Issue # 99 & 100: “Beanball” by Ron Carlson

  4. For those interested in the subject of Tramp Printers and the history of printing, you might visit my website for my book “Tramp Printers.” The book is out of print and will probably never go back to press, so I have put a few of the history pages on internet.

    Go to

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