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Printing Presses

Printing, Circa 1776


Printing, Circa 1776

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a demonstration of the University of Virginia’s replica wooden common press:

The common press at the University of Virginia.

The earliest printing presses in Europe, from the time of Johannes Gutenberg and his associates Peter Schöffer and Johann Fust, were constructed primarily out of wood. Using similar technologies as contemporary agricultural presses (for winemaking, papermaking, olive oil extraction, and linen pressing), these 15th century printing presses used a wooden screw to lower a heavy wooden plate onto a bed holding cast metal type. The screw was turned by pulling a lever, or "bar" (also called the Devil's Tail ;-). Wooden common presses remained in use until the early 1800s, when iron handpresses and new types of cylinder and platen presses were developed.

Josef Beery demonstrating UVA's wooden common press.

UVA’s common press was constructed in the 1970s, as a result of research at the Smithsonian Institution on the "Franklin" common press. It is on display in the Harrison Small Building’s South Gallery. Though the bar is kept locked for safety most of the time, you can still walk right up to the press and examine much of its design and function. Occasionally, folks associated with UVA’s Rare Book School offer working demonstrations.

The session I attended last week was lead by Josef Beery ~ book designer, letterpress printer, woodcut artist, papermaker, educator, and cofounder of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center in Charlottesville. A practitioner of the printing arts for many decades, Beery is a perfect guide to the history and use of this fascinating press.

When you finish marveling at the wooden common press, head downstairs to the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library. A highlight of the Library’s wonderful collection of rare books and manuscripts (including significant holdings in the history of books and printing) is a rare first-printing of the Declaration of Independence, printed the night of July 4th by John Dunlap. It’s on permanent display along with many other early printings of the document (the world’s most comprehensive collection of these) near the Library’s entrance.

If you're ever in the vicinity of Charlottesville, Virginia, don't miss this chance to see the common press, the Declaration of Independence, and many other artifacts of printing-circa-1776!

* For more information on early American printing history, visit the American Printing History Association (APHA) website.

* To follow the fascinating process of reconstructing a wooden common press, visit Seth Gottlieb's blog post series at APHA.

* Watch Josef Beery demonstrating the traditional method of using ink balls to apply ink to the type on a common press:

Josef Beery using traditional ink balls to apply ink to the type on the University of Virginia's replica wooden common press.


Printing a Poem on the Handpress

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Printing a Poem on the Handpress

One of our chief passions here at the Press is traditional letterpress printing — using some of the techniques, equipment, and materials that have been used since Johannes Gutenberg and his team first developed moveable type and printing presses in Europe around 1450. 

We enjoy being a part of that long historical lineage, learning the skills and passing along the wonder of the printed word. Our latest project, a little chapbook of poems called “Reverie,” has given us the opportunity to produce a book entirely on the circa-1915 iron handpress, affectionally named “Ben” (for Ben Franklin, of course). 

Here is a series of photos that will walk you through the printing of one sheet of one poem for this one book. By the time we finish the edition, we will have enacted this same process about 1,260 times. Good thing we love what we do!

All best to all, 

St Brigid Press

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Printing Presses at St Brigid Press

Greetings Friends! With the pressroom here at SBP now rounded out with four vintage presses, we thought you might like a closer look at the marvelous machines that do the heavy work of printing everything from coasters to books. I've created a new page on this site that gives a brief description and a couple of photos of each press.

To learn a little more about the 3000+ pounds of cast iron and steel, click here: Printing Presses at SBP.

With thanks, and all best to all,

St Brigid Press

How DO you get three-quarters-of-a-ton of cast iron through the shop door?!



A New Press and a New Space

Warm greetings to all from St Brigid Press! There is much news to share here, beginning with the homecoming of a new (old) printing press ~ a Golding Pearl Number 3, built in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1909.

A couple of adventurous friends and I trekked to Florida at the end of April to visit Gary Johanson, a delightful printer, artist, musician, and techie who had lovingly restored this press over the past few years. Found derelict in a Florida barn, the machine was lucky to have been discovered before rusting into oblivion. Gary spent untold hours dismantling, cleaning, restoring, and reassembling, and she is now in very good working order ~ has even finished several printing jobs already, all with her native excellence and elegance!

As you can see, this press has a flywheel and treadle (reminds me of my mother's old Singer sewing machine), which means that multiple prints can be made in relatively short order. When she gets rolling, the Pearl operates smoothly and quietly ~ much more so, in fact, than the desktop laser printer in my office! Here's to the continuing relevance, ingenuity, and artistic capabilities of some of the 19th century's technologies!

Paste the link below in your browser's web address field to see a ridiculously unprofessional short video clip of this press in action (hope to make a better one soon) ~

With the addition of the Pearl, it became clear that St Brigid Press was straining at the seams of her original space (a very small, enclosed room in the basement, which nonetheless has very good lighting, a window, and a utility sink ~ also the washer/dryer, a long cabinet/counter, and, at night, the dog!). So, with that realization we began to plan how the larger, open portion of the basement (with walk-out door and big window looking south) might serve the needs of the Print Shop.

After extensive excavations of various piles of "stuff" everywhere, the walls and floor-spaces of this room came into view. Last week, I applied blue foamboard to the cinderblock walls, to help moderate summer and winter temps (and to provide a nice place to attach posters, photos, cork, etc.), and this week I hope to paint the sheetrocked wall a nice warm color. A dark and dingy basement this will hopefully not be!

Next challenge ~ moving all the presses and equipment into their new places in the "new" space.

Many thanks to all for your continued interest and support of St Brigid Press, and best wishes for the remaining weeks of Spring.




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The New (Old!) Printing Press, part

Here is the little press on its stand in my studio (quite the adventure wrangling the 200 pound piece of cast iron out of the car, onto a makeshift dolly, and into the basement room, but we managed!).  The bed of the press, the flat part where the moveable metal or wood type is arranged and locked and upon which the paper to be printed is placed, measures 12"X18". When the crank is turned, the bed moves under the cylinder and "presses" the paper onto the inked type. Voila! A print!

On New Year's Day I pulled a first print, which you can see in the above picture (sort of). The image is of an old clipper ship. The text is the first line of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems: "There is no Frigate like a Book..." (The whole poem is viewable at the bottom of this post.)

The Happy Printer:

A poem by Emily Dickinson:

"There is no frigate like a book

To take us lands away,

Nor any coursers like a page

Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of toll;

How frugal is the chariot

That bears a human soul!"

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