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The Craft of Letterpress

The Tools of the Trade

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The Tools of the Trade

Dear Friends,

Some days, the centuries collapse into a present that is rich with possibility. 

As I worked in the print shop this afternoon, I realized that that particular moment brought together people and their tools across an arc of time that stretched from 1850 to 2019, from Massachusetts to North Carolina, California to Virginia. I paused to let it all sink in.

Pictured here are multiple human tools, each with their own histories, hand-marks, and elegant uses. 

The brand-new shiny metal type in the case was cast for me by printer and type founder Patrick Reagh in Sebastopol, California. The typeface is Goudy Old Style, which Frederic Goudy designed in 1915. 

The text I’m setting is by Henry David Thoreau, from an entry in his journal in July, 1850, about cultivating one’s true work. 

I’m typesetting from that text as displayed on my laptop, which is propped up by the shaft of my great-grandfather’s wooden scythe. The computer is new(ish) and sports a fingerprint-resistant metal case. The scythe is probably close to 150 years old—the wood smoothed by long-use, fissured by sweat and time. 

Both my grandfathers were handcrafters who prized and cared well for the tools of their trades. My father’s father was a land surveyor, wood worker, and front porch whittler. My mother’s father was a carpenter, teacher, and army veteran. Both of them passed down to me a regard for the well-made, the joy and the worth of handwork, and also the pocket knives they each carried. 

The Native American stone blade pictured above with my grandfathers' pocket knives (and my hand) may be a thousand years old or more. As a young girl, I watched it emerge from a red North Carolina clay furrow one afternoon, as my paternal grandfather drove the 1952 tractor down his garden’s rows. Someone had worked this land long, long before my family. Someone who made, used, and cared for their tools, too. 

Now, I have the honor of doing the same.

From centuries-old implements to the latest digital tech, we wield powerful tools, friends. May we use them thoughtfully, and for a common good.

All my best,
Emily

Emily Hancock
St Brigid Press
Afton, Virginia

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A Michigan Journey

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A Michigan Journey

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting poets and printers in Michigan, teaching a class on book making and traditional printing at Interlochen Arts Academy, and being present at the official launch of the newest chapbook from St Brigid Press—Seven River Prayers by Michael Delp. (There are only 5 chapbooks left, so if you’re interested, please see the webpage: www.stbrigidpress.net/books/seven-river-prayers )

Pencil points to Interlochen, Michigan.

The seed for the journey was planted months ago, when Mike Delp and I were conversing about the chapbook’s final stages. “Long-shot thought,” I wrote to him. “It would be pretty special to have some kind of book launch event. Or at least to try. What do you think the chances are that Interlochen Arts Academy or some other place you think is good would allow us to hold such an event?” From that wondering-out-loud, a whole wonderful week’s worth of traveling, connecting, and sharing evolved.

I left my Blue Ridge Virginia home on Sunday, March 31st, with a car-full of books, winter clothes, a tiny 1930s-era printing press, and an emergency tin chocked with my spouse’s homemade chocolate-chip cookies. I drove north-west through hours of snow showers. Eager to take a break from the highway, I got off the interstate in Ohio after seeing a sign for a natural area along the shores of Lake Erie east of Toledo. Around sunset, I pulled into Magee Marsh Wildlife Area (contiguous with Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge), and slowly drove the 1.5 mile park road. 

The wetlands were teeming with birds. Red-winged blackbirds were chatting in the brush along the edges of the road, and I rolled the windows down to take in their husky whistles (the air temperature was around freezing, but I didn’t care—this was the soundtrack to Spring!). As I rounded a woodlot into an expanse of wetland, two Sandhill Cranes banked over my car and settled down somewhere out in the marsh. Hundreds of waterfowl paddled, dabbled, and preened along the waterways—Pied-billed Grebes, Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks, gorgeous Northern Shovelers, and so many more. I stopped to listen and watch. Looking down at the darkening water at the road’s edge, I saw bubbles break the surface, a stream of them popping up for a dozen yards. Soon, the large chocolate-brown head of an adult beaver emerged. It swam past me, not twenty feet away, intent on its evening rounds. After the quick shadow of a Harrier strafed my car, I looked up—away to the west two Bald Eagles were flying toward their enormous nest, high in a tree along the lake shore. Stunned to grateful silence by it all, I resumed the highway just as last light was flaring neon yellow and pink through a distant snow squall.

The next day, already low on cookies, I drove in blessedly bright sunshine across Michigan to Hudsonville, just to the west of Grand Rapids and not far from the shores of Lake Michigan. There, I finally met-in-person the poet whose chapbook I had the honor of publishing in 2018— J. L. Davis. We had first connected through, of all things, Twitter. A couple of years ago, my admiration for her crystalline short-form poetry led to a conversation about the possibility of creating letterpress edition of some of her work. Wildflowers Ending debuted last November (and there are only 12 copies left; if you’re interested, see the webpage here— stbrigidpress.net/books/wildflowers-ending ). 

The poet Jessica Davis (L) and me.

The poet Jessica Davis (L) and me.

Jessica and her family generously put me up for the night last Monday, and we spent hours talking all things poetry-and-more over cups of ginger tea and, later, glasses of red wine. Like the beautiful oaks in her backyard, Jessica is an old soul; we traversed time and space, experience and emotion and creative expression, in our rich, wandering conversations. She’s as tuned to language and the heart as white pines are to wind and birdsong. Tuesday morning, I left their home filled with deep friendship, gratitude, and a baggie of delicious chocolate-chip muffins.

The road north lead into more snow. Due in Interlochen by late afternoon, I wanted to make a pilgrimage first to one of my early mentors in traditional fine press printing—Chad Pastotnik of Deep Wood Press. The ground began to whiten the further I went, until snow-plow piles of the dirty white stuff were banked higher than my head. I wound west and north of the small town of Mancelona until I found Chad’s place, tucked back in a grove of conifers along the swift Cedar River. Walking up to his shop across shoveled but icy walks, I inhaled the heady scent of the trees, the cold. A merganser floated past; a few chickadees announced me to the woods. 

Opening the studio door at my knock, Chad ushered me into his world—ink and iron, lush papers and sharp tools, eagle eyes and exactitude. One of the most accomplished fine press printers on the planet, he has operated Deep Wood Press since 1991. I came across images of Chad’s work early on in my learning about traditional printing and bookmaking, and it was truly an honor to experience DWP first-hand. He has an excellent collection of hand-set type and Linotype matrices for book work, and prints mostly on a venerable old Vandercook 219. In the time he generously shared with me, we talked over equipment, inks, his stunning library of fine press books, the business of book arts, and some of the finer points of colophon construction. I left filled with new knowledge, inspiration, and more gratitude.

Winding my way southwest in the late afternoon cold drizzle, I glimpsed frozen Lake Michigan from Traverse City before dropping down to the world-renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts. I checked into the Stone Hotel on campus, where my second-story window looked out on frozen Green Lake. The sky and the ice were nearly the same pearl-grey color, with a green-black scar of coastline between. A few crows careened from the top of a pine and out across the expanse. 

Green Lake, Interlochen, Michigan.

At 6pm that evening, I went downstairs to the hotel lobby, where Michael Delp was waiting for me. The connection and rapport I’d felt with him through social media and email was immediately incarnated with a hearty hug and a deep dive into conversation. He took us a few miles down the road to Bud’s Coffee Shop, a local hangout. Over burgers and coffee, we rambled all over the woods—poetry and the poets we’ve known, families and dogs, his 30 years of teaching and administrating at Interlochen, his passion for words and rivers. As with Jessica Davis, after so long in electronic communication it was fantastic to actually sit across a table from each other and talk. It felt like we’d just got started when it was time to head back to campus and try to get my brain unwound enough for sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and cold. Mike drove us a short ways east of campus to the spectacular little retreat he and his wife have on the banks of the Boardman River. We crunched down the slick slope of old snow to the fast-moving water—sunlight and eddies whorled across the surface. “It’s pretty high right now,” Mike said of the water level. “Usually I can walk across here to the other bank.” The small old cottage, renovated and enlarged over the years, held comfy furniture, fly rods, a wood stove, and a view of heaven. Before we left, I followed Mike up the steep grade through open stands of hemlock, poplar, and ash (the latter mostly decimated by the green ash borer beetle), stepping in his boot-prints for purchase in the crusted snow layer. Just a handful of miles as the crow flies from Interlochen, this place was a world away. And the beating heart of Mike and his family.

We headed back to campus in time for lunch with the Creative Writing Department Faculty. Mika Perrine, a friend and former student of Mike’s, is the Interim Director of the department, and the one who made it possible for me to come visit. She and Joe Sacksteder (the incoming Director, as of June 1st) and Bri Cavallaro and her husband Chase all welcomed me generously amid a cafeteria bustling with high-school boarding students carrying instrument cases and be-stickered laptops. The energy, intensity, and vigor of students and teachers alike was palpable. After an hour, this middle-aged introvert was excited and exhausted at the same time!

Photo courtesy of The Writing House Instagram account.

The master class on book arts that the department had invited me to do started at 3:30pm. By 3, the splendid Great Room of The Writing House was filling with students. After a bit of fiddling with the projector, Mika and Joe got my computer slideshow running, and I launched into a brief presentation on the history, immediacy, and vitality of traditional printing and publishing: “The Body of the Book: Toward an Embodied Ecology of Literature.” The students and faculty listened as I prattled on for a bit, until the talk drew to a close and it was time to get busy and actually make something. 

I passed around baggies of paper, punching awl, needle, and thread. In a short while, these dedicated, accomplished authors (students and teachers alike) had made a couple of blank books to hold their new ideas and creations. As they finished, I invited each one up to the table where I’d set up the only printing press I can lift—a sweet old 1930s-era hobby press—and everyone pulled a keepsake print. Huzzah! What a delight to meet and work with these young folks and their teachers. What an honor to spread the gospel of handmade books and letterpress printing to the likes of these brilliant human beings! 

Directly on the heels of the class was the official launch of Michael Delp’s Seven River Prayers. The students moved en masse from the tables where we made the booklets to front row seats near the lectern. Faculty, friends and family of Mike’s, and community members filled the other seats. Mika called us all to attention and shared Mike’s bio, then turned the proceedings over to him. An old hand with a gathering of literature-lovers, Mike held us rapt with his particular rhythm of reading—sharing a poem; sharing part of his process as a writer; a quote by Jim Harrison; sharing another poem; a quote by Thoreau; sharing about the making of the book; one more poem. Five minutes in, we were all converts to this force-of-nature poetic experience. Including, apparently, Mike’s own grandson—four month old Wilder, bouncing in his parents’ arms at the back of the room, gurgled and burbled at his Grandad reading poetry. The expression of love and joy on Mike’s face was transcendent. 

After the reading, folks hung out for a bit and talked, got their copies of the chapbook signed, and came up to the St Brigid Press table to peruse the show-and-tell display of type and tools. I had left one of Mike’s poems composed in metal type, so that folks could see some of the process of traditional printing, and also took along 125-year-old wood type letters to heft in hand. There’s nothing like picking up and holding language in its three-dimensional forms.

Mike and his wonderful wife Claudia, Joe Sacksteder, and a couple of their dear friends and I went out for a delicious supper that evening. (My first taste of Lake Superior whitefish was terrific.) More engaging and inspiring conversation flowed, first over food and later over a celebratory glass of wine at Mike’s and Claudia’s sweet, dog- and book-filled home on the shore of Green Lake. When Mike dropped me back off at the hotel, I stood outside my car for a while, cleaning ink off the press under cold starry skies. As with each experience on this trip, when night fell and I crawled back into the hotel bed, I felt at the same time exhausted, elated, and full of profound gratitude. 

The 1930s-era traveling printing press.

Next morning, there was only one thing left to do—head home. And I was ready! By 7:52am I pulled out of the campus parking lot and headed southeast, into a bitter cold but blessedly bright day. Around mid afternoon I reached the outskirts of Toledo, and decided to stop back by the wildlife refuge. Tree swallows were swooping and swirling over a pond near the entrance to the visitors center, and a Great Blue Heron and several Egrets stalked the edges. I drove the marsh road again, past clusters of waterfowl, to where it ended by the shoreline of Lake Erie. The fierce wind nearly blew me over as I approached the pounding, latte-colored lake edge on foot, crunching over low berms of empty shells . Seagulls winged by, west to east, unfazed by the gale. Turning back from the razor wind to the thin line of woods separating shore from marsh, I spied two Bald Eagle nests high in still-bare trees. Both were occupied, and I regarded with awe those parents hunkered against snow and cold, sheltering new life.

As I left the wildlife area and worked my way towards the interstate past fields of stubble, I must have seen a dozen more eagles. The day, and my energies, diminished as I left Ohio and pressed east into the ridges and valleys of western Pennsylvania, and I stopped for the night on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The next morning broke with a cold rain, and I finished the long road-trip in soggy fog. It was all worth it, though, when I finally rolled up our driveway and was welcomed home into my spouse’s open arms and the pup’s ecstatic leaps. 

What an amazing, 1757-mile journey—new places, new people, new experiences, and enduring friendships, memories, and deep gratitude. 

Home very-sweet home.

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 A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 4: Spacing Out

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A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 4: Spacing Out

Hi, Friends of St Brigid Press!

Here is the long-awaited fourth installment in our occasional blog series ~ A Letterpress Lexicon ~ about the words and phrases that identify printing's particular tools and processes. Enjoy!

If you missed the first posts in this series, you can find them here:


A Letterpress Lexicon Part 4 ~ Spacing Out

We space out daily here at the Press ~ all for a good cause. ;-) 

You might already know that every single letter of the alphabet that we set and print here is a physical piece of metal or wood ~ a piece .918-inches tall, with the reverse image of the letter on the top, in relief. 

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Hand-set type:

Moveable type, which makes everything possible here at the Press. Here, the letters of the word "haiku" in metal.

Well, every single SPACE between every word and every line is also a physical piece of metal or wood. These pieces are made a little lower than the top of the letters, so that they do not pick up ink.

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The forme:

In this photo, you can see all of the metal spacing material surrounding the metal letters. The spacing material is a bit lower in height, so it does not get ink on it, and comes in various sizes according to the size of the type (12-point, 24-point, etc.). The spacing between the lines of type is also metal, cut to length.

The spacing material is cast to a point-size matching the size of the type body being set ~ from tiny 6-point to giant (and heavy!) 72-point in our shop. Spacing is also cast in various standard widths, so the typesetter can put larger or smaller spaces between words, as desired. These widths range from multiples of an "em" (the square of the type body; for example, a 12-point-by-12-point square) to "thins" (brass and copper slivers to fill in the smallest gaps in a line).

In addition to letter spacing, strips of metal also need to be correctly sized and set between lines of type ("leading" or "linespacing"). This strip material comes in various widths and can be cut to various lengths (also called "slugs") ~ all tailored to ordering the printed page. 

The whole point of spacing is to surround the letters and lines as snug as possible. A loose letter can print unevenly, and even become damaged. 

The final step before printing is to surround the whole forme (the letters and spaces) with "furniture" ~ blocks of wood (sometimes metal) in various standard sizes that fill out the chase. Two quoins (a kind of lock) are placed in as well, and when turned with a key the quoins tighten everything together. 

When the forme to be printed is locked up tight, I can lift it off the table and into the press without fear of everything collapsing onto the floor.

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The printer:

Emily, holding a tightly locked forme in mid-air. If the spacing material has been set correctly, the whole thing can be transferred easily to the printing press. If it has NOT been set correctly... well.. catastrophe can ensue. 

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The printed page:

Now, when you see a printed page, you'll think of the actual mass and work of all that "white space"! Shown here, a leaf from Jeff Schwaner's Wind Intervals.

So, that's the story of SPACE at St Brigid Press! 

Thanks for spacing out with us for a few minutes ;-)

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Printing, Circa 1776

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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.

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Simple Binding for Single-Section Booklets

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Simple Binding for Single-Section Booklets

Sometimes a little bit of extra effort gives a lot of extra elegance to a project. Such is the case with this style of binding a single-signature booklet to a jacket-with-a-spine. 

I learned this from the fabulous Myrna Keliher of Expedition Press, and she learned it from the wonderful printers and binders at Stern and Faye

Below is a step-by-step outline of the binding style. But first, here's a two-minute video I took in my shop, showing the basics of affixing the pamphlet-sewn booklet to the scored-and-printed jacket:

THE BASICS: 

  • Sew your single-section booklet. In my video example, it's a five-hole pamphlet stitch pattern.
  • Prepare the jacket you wish to encase your booklet in, printing any text on the cover, and scoring the paper stock where you want the folds to be. In my video example, I determined how wide I wanted the spine to be (a quarter-inch) and how wide I wanted the flaps to be (about 3 inches), then made the scores and folds. (I use an inexpensive Martha Stewart brand "scoring board" to make accurate creases.)
  • With a narrow brush (quarter-inch or so), run a thin line of glue along the back of the last sheet (your booklet's endpaper), about a half-inch in from the sewn edge.
  • Position the booklet, back (glued) page down, on the inside back jacket cover, and press gently to adhere the page to the jacket.
  • Fold in any flaps, and close the jacket over the booklet.
  • Voila! A sweet, simple, smart-looking book!

All the best to you in your own creative adventures!

St Brigid Press

*** For more information about the book shown above, A Handbook for Creative Protest: Thoreau, Gandhi, & King in Conversation, please see our post HERE.

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