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The Craft of Letterpress

 A Letterpress Lexicon, Part 4: Spacing Out


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. 


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.


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.


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. 


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 ;-)


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.


Simple Binding for Single-Section Booklets


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:


  • 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.


Printing with Nature


Printing with Nature

Hello Friends of the Press,

Last year we published Reverie, a little book poems that featured illustrations printed from grasses growing in our field. I loved the process and the look of these nature prints (which I first learned about from John Ryder's wonderful book Printing for Pleasure), and they came immediately to mind when I began to think about what illustrations might accompany our newest production ~ Wind Intervals, a chapbook of poems by Jeff Schwaner.

Collected and dried last autumn from the tree outside our print shop door, I had a stash of beautiful Japanese maple leaves under weights in a corner of the shop. Many of Jeff's poems include the presence and imagery of trees, including maples. It seemed like a perfect match.

So, this past week I began adding prints made directly from these dried leaves to the pages of Wind Intervals. Here's a little peek at the process ~ enjoy!


Diary of a Printed Page


Diary of a Printed Page

I must confess ~ each time a piece of paper goes into the printing press blank and emerges again filled with words, I am astonished. 

What still feels like the sudden epiphany of language out-of-nothing is not, in fact, miraculous. It is careful, collaborative craftsmanship by author and papermaker and metal-caster and printer, among others. It’s a strangely fluid movement of human and machine ~ an always-changing choreography of eye and iron, hand and fiber, thought and ink and breath. 


Here’s a little photo diary from today’s print run. I was printing the second color (in red) on the title page of St Brigid Press’s newest book, forthcoming in early February.

Thanks so much for joining us on this journey. All best to you all,

St Brigid Press