Notes from a Tramp Printer, Part 2

This continuing post comes to us from Jim Dissette, the master printer who put together a special letter press edition of our 100th issue, “Beanball” by Ron Carlson.


Ron Carlson’s Beanball came to me through Josh Wolf Shenk, Director of the Literary House of Washington College.on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The project sounded interesting: to produce a fine press edition of the 100th issue of One Story magazine. But the time constraints seemed impossible. Most books printed letterpress on a hand press like a Vandercook can take several months (if not a year) of planning, ink and paper tests, finding the right artist, trying different layout possibilities and finally printing–and we were to have only 12 days. The time issue was made more dramatic because we were not to receive the final manuscript until Nov. 27, the day I arrived in Chestertown. To meet a deadline of mid-January of 90 bound books would require high-velocity, error-free coordination with lots of help and espresso. Obviously the time frame eliminated metal typecasting (Monotype or Linotype). A 17,000 word text would take 4-6 months depending on the typecaster’s schedule and there are probably less than ten in the U.S. (Here’s one.) Luckily, I’d just finished a book printed with photopolymer plastic plates and liked the results enough to see this quick-turnaround process as our saving grace.

All metal type, each individual letter, comma, period, etc., are cast at a strict height (type height). In the last 10 or 15 years, a photopolymer process has come into play in the printing world, not without philosophical and artistic arguments. Using photopolymer, book designers are able to transfer digital type to plastic plates (with raised letters of course), which in turn are placed on a finely machined metal base. The plastic plate and the metal base raise the type to the required height required for letterpress printing.

Here’s an image of a plate from Beanball on the press bed:

There are some drawbacks, however. Setting type on the computer is different from setting type in metal by hand or by a type-casting machine. On the computer, letterforms and spaces are optimized, even reshaped to some degree, especially when working with justified text (flush on both sides). Computers interpret the spaces needed to fill out the line and adjust everything accordingly, conflating or expanding even the typeface a bit. When we read a modern trade book today, set on a computer, we are little aware of the differences in how that book would appear set in metal, so used to seeing past aberrations of computer-set line spacing, hyphenation, etc. Suffice it to say that if I placed a page from “Beanball”set by hand in metal, next to a page set for photopolymer, you would see the difference. Some of these issues are less dramatic if one chooses a good digital type face for photopolymer, does some manual kerning and spacing to give the expansion of the plastic type (each letter changes a tiny bit in the process) enough breathing room and finds a line length that will call less attention to photopolymer’s limitations. That said, good photopolymer printing has arrived after a decade of nay-sayers. It does not take the place of metal printing for book length projects, but is being accepted as a vital tool in keeping the letterpress art alive. After all, beautiful old metal foundry type eventually succumbs to time–nicking, chipping, wearing–and is virtually impossible to replace.

I chose Linotype Electra as the face for “Beanball”. Designed in the 30s by W.A. Dwiggins, Electra is a face I’ve always wanted to use in a book project. It has character without being too quirky and a kind of merging of the classical letterforms with the modern. Dwiggins knew his stuff and every printer loves to pay homage to the master type designers by using their fonts for specific projects. I was pleased wit h the photopolymer results: the letters retained their line-weights and printed without dropping out the finer elements of the face. So on the day we received the manuscript, I laid it out; we madly proofed the text and sent it off to Boxcar produce the photopolymer plates, giving me time to work on the title design.

Tune in for Part 3 of “Notes from a Tramp Printer” tomorrow!

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