From Text to Book: A Visit to the Printing Workshop

The printing press with moveable type, introduced by Gutenberg in the Occident in 1440, ended the days in which the written word had to be replicated laboriously by hand to produce few expensive copies, initiating an era in which books could be produced faster and more cheaply than ever before. The system was so efficient and widely accepted it remained nearly unchanged until the nineteenth century. This socio-political and cultural revolution facilitated and promoted literacy and literary creation, favouring the emergence and spread of new ideas and movements, and playing a crucial role in many historical events that would shape the world as we now it.

To truly understand how much labour, time and attention to detail are required to print a book, the students in the MSc in Book History and Print Culture visited the Printing Workshop of the Edinburgh College of Art on the 13th and 15th of October; the Graphic Design Technician Steve McDonald was our guide. He suggested as a practical exercise that we composed our names and printed the resulting page with the list of the names of those present, thus acquainting ourselves with the three stages of printing: first, composition, typesetting the moveable type to form words; second, imposition and lock-up, using several tools to assemble the type into a forme; and finally, the process of operating of a printing press to produce a printed page.

Our visit started in the caseroom, where the type cases and the equipment for composition are stored. While lead type is relatively fragile, wearing out due to the printing process, and rarely bigger than seventy-two points, wood type is much tougher and bigger, usually made from resistant woods like teak or box. For our exercise, we were going to use lead moveable type, stored in type cases: each typeface was labelled, letters organized in boxes with varying size depending on how common the letter was, and the uppercase letters stored above the lowercase ones, hence their names. The type cases also contained other elements, like ornaments, ligatures or spacers. We proceeded to load the moveable type in the composing sticks we had been given, placing them from left to right and with the nick on the top.

After typesetting our names, we took the resulting lines of type to the stone table in the opposite end of the room, where we carefully set the letters in between leading reglets, aligning them in the page using spacers and putting them into the chase. Steve filled the empty spaces with wood and metal furniture and added quoins that would allow later to add pressure to the whole, then used a mallet to level all the components. Finally, using a key, Steve opened the quoins compressing the elements, and tested the resulting forme raising it to make sure there was not any slack type.

Lastly, we took the forme, ready for printing, to the relief room, where we were going to use a Vandercook proofing press to print, each of us, a page with the list of our names. First we placed the forme in the press bed and inked the type with an ink roller impregnated with black ink. Then, we fixed the paper in the impression cylinder using the grippers and the side guide, and turned the crank handle to make the cylinder roll over the inked forme. To finish, we pressed the gripper pedal to roll the cylinder back to its original position, and released the now printed page from the grippers. We also had the opportunity to admire the ostentatious ornamentation and complex mechanism of a Columbian relief press from 1831.

Our visit to the Printing Workshop was definitely educational as well as fun, allowing us to get our hands dirty with ink, and filling us with admiration and respect for the labour of the people that over the centuries transformed text into book.


Report by Clara Canero, LLM student in Intellectual Property Law and MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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