Content Courtesy of Professor David Shields of the Rob Roy Kelly Collection, University of Texas Austin.
Wood has been used for letterforms and illustrations dating back to the first known Chinese wood block print from 868 CE.
The forerunner of the block print in China was the wooden stamp.
The image on these stamps was most often that of the Buddha, and was quite small. Provided with handles to facilitate their use, they were not unlike the modern rubber-stamps of today.
In Europe, large letters used in printing were carved out of wood because large metal type had a tendency to develop uneven surfaces, or crack, as it cooled.
In America, with the expansion of the commercial printing industry in the first years of the 19th century, it was inevitable that someone would perfect a process for cheaply producing the large letters so in demand for broadsides.
Wood was the logical material because of its lightness, availability, and known printing qualities.
Darius Wells of New York invented the means for mass producing letters in 1827, and published the first known wood type catalog in 1828. In the preface to his first wood type catalog, Wells outlined the advantages of wood type.
Wood type was half the cost of metal type, and when prepared by machine it had smooth, even surfaces, where the possibility of unequal cooling caused large lead type to distort.
Up until that time, the usual procedure was to draw the letter on wood, or paper which was pasted to the wood, and then cut around the letter with a knife or graver, gouging out the parts to be left blank.
Wells, however, introduced a basic invention, the lateral router, that allowed for greater control when cutting type and decreased the time it took to cut each letter.
In 1834, William Leavenworth made his contribution to the wood type industry with the introduction of the pantograph to the manufacturing process.
He adapted the pantograph to the Wells router, and the combination formed the basic machinery required for making wood type on a production basis.
Joseph Moxon (8 August 1627 – February 1691), hydrographer (mapper of oceans) to Charles II, was an English printer of mathematical books and maps, a maker of globes and mathematical instruments, and mathematical lexicographer.
He produced the first English language dictionary devoted to mathematics.
In November 1678, he became the first tradesman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Between the ages of around 9 and 11, Moxon accompanied his father, James Moxon, to Delft and Rotterdam where he was printing English Bibles.
It was at this time that Moxon learned the basics of printing.
After the First English Civil War the family returned to London and Moxon and his older brother, James, started a printing business which specialized in the publication of Puritan texts, with the notable exception of A Book of Drawing, Limning, Washing or Colouring of Mapps and Prints of 1647 which was produced for Thomas Jenner, a seller of maps.
In 1652, Moxon visited Amsterdam and commissioned the engraving of globe-printing plates, and by the end of the year was selling large celestial and terrestrial globes in a new business venture.
He specialized in the printing of maps and charts, and in the production of globes, and mathematical instruments made of paper.
In January 1662, he was appointed hydrographer to the King, despite his Puritan background.
His shop at this time was on Ludgate Hill ; afterwards, in 1683, it was ‘on the west side of Fleet Ditch,’ but always ‘at the sign of Atlas.’
Moxon’s 1683 book, Mechanick Exercises, provides descriptions of contemporary printing methods that have proved useful for bibliographers.
A rectangular metal frame (usually cast iron) called a chase was the basis of the printing forme for many years. The type was placed on a flat surface called a metal compositor’s stone and locked into position.
This metal frame is used to hold type in place while printing, usually on a platen press or flat bed press.
Type and blocks are locked up towards the centre of the chase using furniture to position it and quoins to apply pressure against the type matter.
Lock up was done on a composing stone to ensure that type was level. Before the quoins are tightened a wood planer is tapped gently on the type surface using a wooden printer’s mallet to confirm the feet are flush against the stone and completely level.
The size of a chase matches a specific press. The measurements, in inches, of the inside of the chase are also used to describe the press size.
Some chases, especially large ones, have handles at the top to assist the printer in both transporting and placing the chase in position on the press.
Chases can also be useful with flatbed presses for a variety of situations. Composition of complex forms can be created on a composing stone in a large chase, then brought to the press before printing.
The photograph above shows the bottom right hand corner of a chase into which type – in this case lines of type (sometimes called slugs) – spaced with various pieces of “furniture” have been locked up..
Furniture was normally wood but sometimes strips of lead, Elrod material, Monotype supercaster material or cornerstone.
Quoins (pronounced “coins”) were used to secure the whole assembly.
Sometimes two wooden wedges were set against each other to tighten the forme and to keep the furniture parallel to the side of the chase.
I had never seen hempel quoins (in the second picture below) until I started at The Guv in 1973. Up until then I had been using Cornerstone (British) Quoins which I considered superior.
In the picture above spring loaded quoins are being used. When a quoin key is turned in the threaded part of the quoin (the circle with the square recess) the two sections spread to apply pressure to the furniture to keep the whole assembly firm and secure.
Turning the quoin key in the opposite direction slackens the pressure off and releases the furniture and type.
Once the type was arranged in its final printing position, the quoins were tightened up and the forme “planed down”. The whole chase, complete with its contents, was then transferred to the printing press.
In this form the chase and contents were called a “printing forme”.
Bremen: Ernsting, 1791 Engraved broadside. Graphic Arts Collection.
A panoramic view of the city of Bremen tops this journeyman’s certificate.
It is inscribed for twenty-five year old Johann Hingstmann (born 1773), who has completed his twelve year apprenticeship to reach the level of journeyman.
Hingstmann now has the right to charge a fee for his own work.
To reach the highest level of master craftsman, he will have to submit an example of his work to a particular guild for evaluation and hopefully, be admitted to the guild as a master.
The certificate is engraved by Daniel Albert (Albrecht) Ernsting (1749-1820), who was himself an apprentice to a Bremen printer. Ernsting then studied in Göttingen and Copenhagen before returning to Bremen and opening a shop.
His name is found engraved on portraits, business cards, playing cards, and of course certificates.
The tiny town of Dorrigo on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales is home to Australia’s last letterpress newspaper.
The paper, which has been running since 1906, is now owned and operated by husband and wife team Michael and Jade English. Together, they print 1,000 copies of the paper for the town of just over 1,000 people each week.
Mr English has been working on the paper for nine years, but his father ran it for 50 years before him, so he grew up watching the process.”During my primary school years I used to come here before school and watch,” he said. “It’s been a part of my life ever since I was born, and I don’t know anything different.
“Michael started working on the paper alongside his father after the mill he worked at was closed and he was made redundant. “Six weeks after I was here dad got ill and had to retire, so I was chucked in the deep end.
A previous employee named Alan Smith came back to help Mr English learn the process, which Mr English said was more complicated than many people realise.”Once we get a story in, we’ll work out whether it’s relevant for Dorrigo, then we’ll typeset it on the Intertype,” he said.
“Once it’s set, Jade will proof read it, we make any changes then. Once that’s done we get to print it.”
“Sometimes things do get missed, we’re only human,” Mr English said. “Things have improved in the last two months since I got reading glasses.”We set the type in hot metal on the Intertype machine, which will then be laid into the bed of the press and run off”.
He said the staff write very few of their own stories, because their time is taken up with the mechanical part of the process. The intertype machine is almost 60 years old, and the printing press was made over 70 years ago. “That’s the biggest thing, making sure everything’s tip-top,” Mr English said.
The process is not only arduous, it can also be dangerous, with risk of lead poisoning and burns. “You need to know how to operate the machine, you’ve got to concentrate on what you’re setting, and you have to keep in mind what the machine’s doing,” he said.
“When the elevator jams up it could pump lead everywhere. Dad had some pretty bad burns.”
Photo: The type for the newspaper is laid into the bed of the press before printing. (ABC Coffs Coast: Liz Keen)