18.04.2011 cătălina zlotea
Punch for Q (typeface: Baskerville) from Cambridge University Library

Gigantic libraries, pages of impeccably printed handmade paper or parchment, the black ink that creates beautifully formed type, books with elaborately decorated leather or fabric covers. I'd like you to keep this picture in mind as you read on. This will be the first in a series of articles meant to revisit and explain the old methods of printing and making of publications. This is the first time my thoughts and interest in this ancient black art, as printing was once know, have been put down on paper. In trying to arrange my thoughts and make sense of all the information, I was surprised to find that the said series of articles are of a fundamentally technical nature, which in fact is an essential feature for the topic.
Punch for m (typeface: Caslon) from the St. Bride Library in London

I believe that now, at the outset of the 21st century, when major changes are occurring in publishing and printing in terms of the technology used and the way information is transmitted, it is important to stop and look back. In a sense, it's the last chance our generation will get to learn from the experience of working with physical objects and to understand the reasons behind decisions taken as to how a book, its pages and lettering looks.

Few people are probably still aware today that, until the middle of the 20tth century type was a physical object, a piece of metal or wood into whose upper surface the sign to be printed was cut away in relief. Perhaps even fewer know that the principle of manufacturing and the use of type went unchanged in Europe for four centuries, from its invention in 1439 to the introduction of mechanical systems at the end of the 19th century.

The invention of the printing press (15th century) paved the way for modernity, printing at the time being the most important technological innovation since the wheel. Before Gutenberg invented the moveable type, books were the work of scribes – very expensive and entirely inaccessible to ordinary people. With the advent of book printing, information began to circulate at an incredible rate, facilitating the great historical revolutions of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. The printed word was replicated so fast that, only 50 years after Gutenberg’s invention, there were already 20 million books in print. From zero to 20 million in as little as 50 years... and this in the 15th century to boot. You might say, and with quite some justification, that printing was the first means of mass production.

When we think of printing, what we tend to think of is ink on paper; however, the most important feature of Gutenberg’s invention was the system that allows for the casting of identical type that could then be arranged in any order so as to print text. This method was used by type founders throughout Europe for 400 years without any essential technological changes.
Matrix for m (typeface: Caslon) from the St. Bride Library, London

Every character (letter, punctuation mark, etc.) was cut from the tip of a rectangular steel rod using small and very sharp files. This was a highly meticulous process, as on most occasions the type was very small in size. The most commonly printed book, for example, was the Bible, a book of considerable size at a time when paper did not come cheap. Consequently, printers would go to all lengths to make savings and place as much text on the page as possible through the use of small type. The smallest hand-cut type I’ve seen was smaller than a sesame seed and was used to print a Bible in Holland.

Apart from the fact that, generally speaking, these hand-cut punches were very small in size, they also had to be sculpted as negatives. In order to verify their accuracy, the steel tip was coated in smoke from a candle and a test print made. The next step was to harden the steel pieces (the process of tempering metal by heating it until it glows red then quenching immediately in water). The resulting piece was then used as a punch which, when struck with a hammer, would leave its imprint in a piece of copper that was then used as a matrix.

Hand mould from the Bodoniano Museum, Parma

Each elaborately crafted letter could then be reproduced identically and, in theory, ad infinitum. I say in theory because the copper matrix also had a finite life span, but all the same the principle of reproduction was remarkable for the time. Finally, the casting of type took place using a hand mould, formed out of two pieces joined and held together by a spring, at whose base the copper matrix was mounted. A mixture of 65 % lead, the rest antimony and tin, was used. Once the two parts making up the mould were removed, a metal piece of type was obtained that could then be used for printing, and the matrix reused to cast other, identical pieces.

In my next article I will look at the process of manually typesetting and letterpress printing. As I said at the outset, the technology used in type casting remained unchanged for hundreds of years; the process of typesetting, however, underwent many changes and technological innovations.

All images are the property of James Mosley and reproduced with the owner’s permission. typefoundry.blogspot
cătălina zloteais a graphic designer specialized in the field of publication design and typography. She has a BA in Graphic Design from the University of Arts in Bucharest and a BA in Advertising from the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Journalism and Communication. In September 2010, she finished the MA Book Design at the University of Reading, Department of Typography and Graphic Communication.
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19.04.2011 la 13:22

Recomand oricui vrea sa afle mai multe, respectiv sa vada 'pe viu', o vizita la Muzeul Artei Tiparului din Leipzig www.druckkunst-museum.de
Ca sa nu zic ca ar fi obligatoriu pentru oamenii din bransa, macar pentru artistii/graficienii bibliofili.

Multumim, Catalina.


Catalina Zlotea

19.04.2011 la 15:06

- reply to clara -

În aceiași ordine de idei trebuie recomandată biblioteca St Bride http://www.stbride.org/, cea mai importantă instituție de profil din lume. Acolo veți găsi pe lângă zeci de mii de cărți și publicații periodice, o colecție impresionantă de obiecte la care aveți acces fără să fie ascunse în spatele unor vitrine de sticlă. Pe lângă asta, veți avea ocazia să cunoșteți oameni foarte pasionați de meseria lor și care vă vor răspunde cu cea mai mare plăcere la orice întrebări.


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