After a year’s worth of preparation involving extensive research, gathering together materials, and planning, production is now underway. I am setting up the ready-to-print pages (formes) at home and loading them into my little green car every fortnight to drive down to the Melbourne Museum of Printing. Here I lock them on to the bed of the old Weston cylinder press and print one hundred and forty copies (at least), four pages at a time.
Some Challenges and Rewards
Letterpress printing can be fraught with challenges, at every stage of production. Typesetting by hand means that one mishap can ruin hours—even days’—worth of work. Then there is the process of making up the forme: a strenuous mathematical marathon for someone numerically challenged, like me! This is similar to a precision-focused game of Tetris, which involves fitting the correct dimensions of ballasting material (furniture, leads and reglets) around the type and engravings, and locking them into the frame which contains it all (the chase).
Once the forme is complete, I must go through the ‘makeready’ process: testing the printed results on the press and adjusting ink, rollers, gauges and packing (the amount of paper and card under the press sheet, which allows for a lighter or deeper impression). I must place shims and underlays beneath the engravings to make them ‘type high’ and to insure that they are printing evenly, and that the print is lining up (registering) correctly on the page. I must check for, and replace, damaged type, and make the necessary alterations to accommodate an even impression. Then, I’m ready to print! Even this stage can be an elaborate undertaking on an old press like the Weston. Printing is not automated, but is performed via a crank, which I turn to roll the cylinder that bears the paper, over the forme. A technique that is not consistent can cause misaligned registration—or smudging.
Follow this link to my Facebook page to watch the printing process:
But the result is striking, crisp and tactile—as only letterpress can be. The printed page is created through the perfect—and sometimes imperfect—union of fine ink and precision-cast alloy pressed onto cotton paper. And the most rewarding part is that every stage has been performed by hand.
Before offset and digital printing, the text on a page of printed material had to be composed by hand. Later, this was done with a keypad and a machine; but right up until the 1800s there were teams of specialised craftspeople called ‘compositors’. Their job was to pick up each individual letter and punctuation mark; position it, with spacing, to form a word and fill out a line; and in this way construct a sentence, a paragraph—and, finally, a whole document, newspaper or book. When you think about those huge broadsheet newspapers they had back in the day, all in 6 point font, you’ll see this was no small task!
Aside from the type itself (the collective name for the individual characters, or ‘sorts’), compositors use a few other important tools to do their work. The first is the ‘type case’: the compartmentalised tray in which the type is stored—and from which you can work. The one I’m using for my project is called a ‘California Job Case’, popular because it holds everything you need to compose your sentences, including uppercase, lower case, punctuation, numerals, ligatures and spacing material. It’s interesting to note that the terms ‘uppercase’ and ‘lowercase’ come from the printing world: from these type cases and the positions in which they were stored.
Another tool that’s important when typesetting is the ‘composing stick’. This is a little receptacle set to the lines’ length that allows me to arrange the sentence in my hand.
When I’ve finished composing a few lines, I lift them out (with care) and place them on a metal tray, called a ‘galley’. The galley is a little delivery platform for the new-born page; on it, the page can be locked into place so that the type doesn’t get all jumbled—or, as they say in the industry, so that it doesn’t get made into ‘printers’ pie’! It can be transported from one place to the next, or slipped into a cabinet called a galley rack and stored until it’s needed.
If you’d like to see how everything comes together please watch the video on my Facebook page of me at work:
I awoke on the day of the Inaugural Meeting with a personal crisis: I’d lost my voice! Congestion, brought on by the city fumes, had crept up into my throat and all I could produce was a squeaky rasp. Soren valiantly offered to present my part of the talk as well as her own if it didn’t return, and so, with our ‘Plan B’ in place we made our way down to the hotel’s convention room.
We were met by councilors of the city of Cheongju; the festival’s organising committee; the media with their flashing cameras; and the full envoy of delegates, promoting their organisations with flyers or finely-printed examples of their work. As we mingled, I drank copious amounts of water and eventually my voice returned.
The first part of the day’s program was made up of the delegates’ presentations. There were representatives from printing, graphic arts and archival collections from around the world, as well as specialists in the field of printing heritage. They spoke about their collections, their programs—and the challenges they face in preserving and promoting heritage materials.
I opened our presentation with a description of Australia’s printing heritage. I described how the history of printing with movable type in Australia began with the First Fleet; how it was sustained during colonial times by a couple of convicts using old, worn materials; and how our printing technologies only started to catch up with the rest of the world when the commercial and agricultural industries of the nineteenth century were established.
Soren spoke about the Melbourne Museum of Printing itself: how it became established; its collections; its importance as the largest privately-run museum in the country; and the various programs on offer there. She also talked about Australia’s culturally significant Indigenous artifacts; how the cave paintings produced by the Aboriginals should be preserved and promoted as part of Australia’s communication heritage.
After our talks Soren and I settled into the last part of the program: the Inaugural Meeting itself. The representatives discussed various matters related to establishing an International Association, including its statutes and its future aims and scope.
Our big day ended on a high as we exchanged contact details with the other delegates and then set out for the Jikji Festival site for the ‘Friend’s Party’. Here we were treated to free local beer and a fireworks display—both of which challenged what we’d experienced in Australia. Korean people sure do know how to party!
Our Last Day with the Festival
Sunday the 4th of September was a highlight for me, as we made the trip to the beautiful Gayasan National Park to visit a particularly special fifteenth century Buddhist temple. The Haeinsa Temple is the depository for the Tripitaka Koreana: a collection of over 80,000 woodcuts carved in the thirteenth century and containing the world’s oldest and most exhaustive collection of Buddhist texts in Hangul (Chinese characters adapted to Korean language). It is considered by UNESCO to be one of the most important and most complete corpus of Buddhist doctrinal texts in the world.
The site itself was a marvel, being a pristinely-maintained and active place of worship set within the wilderness. We spent a delightful hour in this place, admiring the exquisite architecture and serene vibe.
Then, we were back on the road! We had seen the home of one of Korea’s national treasures; now we were taken to the place that would help us understand its origins: the Hapcheon Cultural Complex. This theme park, made up of a number of buildings and interactive displays, was built to mark the millennium of the Tripitaka Koreana. Its purpose is to educate and to promote this national treasure through workshops, presentations and exhibitions. Contained within the central hall, lining a spiral staircase, are facsimiles of the Tripitaka woodblocks.
This was our last day with the festival, and the organisers extended their appreciation by presenting us with two beautiful gifts: a commemorative display box containing chop sticks and serving spoons decorated with the festival’s logo, and a hand-bound facsimile of the Jikji itself! Our Korean hosts had been wonderfully attentive, succeeding in their goals for the conference: to initiate an international network of printing heritage organisations; presenting their own rich and sophisticated tradition; and to generate productive dialogue between individuals from across the globe.
At the end of our whirlwind trip Soren and I were exhausted but full of appreciation for all we had seen and done. We had met the world authorities in traditional printing practice and heritage, which had been a wonderful learning opportunity—and chance to promote the Australian chapter on the world stage.
The Inaugural Meeting; Presenters from the Inaugural Meeting; Giant spiral staircase; Full entourage of delegates:
Friday the 2nd saw us all loaded into luxurious coaches, complete with brocade curtains, a flat-screen television and disco lights. We were on the road early to visit the Presidential Villa in Cheongnamdae.
The Villa, built in 1983, was summer home to a number of South Korean presidents. Since 2003 it has been open for the public to visit. The mansion and grounds are displayed as they were during the presidents’ tenure, providing a window into the personal aspects of administrative life in the 1990s.
Afterwards, we were taken on a tour of the more formal aspects of presidency and government with a visit to the Presidential Archives in Seongnam. The huge, modern Archives building is filled with educational displays related to the history of the South Korean presidential regime. Among its features were the president’s car, the presidential meeting room and a museum of gifts that have been given to Korean presidents by other world leaders.
After our long day we were treated a banquet with the deputy mayor of Cheonjgu at a traditional Korean restaurant. As dish after dish (after dish) arrived at our table we experienced the varied, spicy, subtle, and not-so-subtle ‘gastronomic attack’ that is Korean food. Some of our encounters included kimchi (fermented, spicy cabbage), grilled fish, dressed tofu, beef bone soup, and Maggkoli—a fermented rice wine capable of blowing one’s head off!
Soren and I retired to our room, exhausted but anxious to go over our notes for the following day. On Saturday were to represent The Melbourne Museum of Printing by presenting a talk to the sixty other delegates, government representatives and the media at the inaugural meeting of the International Association of Printing Museums.
On 30th August, 2016, Soren and I began the twelve hour flight from Melbourne to Incheon airport in Seoul. Here we were welcomed by the Jikji Organising Committee, who directed us to our taxi for the last leg of the journey. It was a surreal two-and-a-half-hour road trip in our jet-lagged state, rushing along the freeway in the drizzling rain, through towering, alien cities. Our destination was the grandiose Hotel Ramada Plaza in Cheongju, the capital and largest city of the North Chungcheong Province.
We spent our first day recovering from our flight and exploring some of the sights around the hotel. Cheongju is a rapidly-expanding modern city with a population of about 842,000. It is surrounded by agricultural land and mountainous national parks, which we were to visit in the days ahead.
Inauguration of the Jikji International Festival
On Thursday September 1st, Soren and I met the sixty other delegates, representatives of printing museums from around the world. Together we set out for the first destination on our program: a visit to Cheongju’s Early Printing Museum. It was on this site in 1377 that Buddhist monks printed the Jikji, the world’s oldest extant book produced with movable metal type.
Guided by the museum’s head curator, Dr Jeong-Ha Hwang, and the director, Heung-Sik Shin, we were given a tour through Korea’s printing history, past displays of engraved stones, bowls and seals; woodblocks used to print Buddhist Sutras; ancient printed documents; and, of course, displays dedicated to the Jikji, including clay moulds and life-sized wax model monks replicating various steps in its creation.
After taking in the museum’s amazing exhibits we were escorted to the Cheongju Arts Center. Many of the displays for the festival were located on its grounds, including book, 3D printing and paper making stalls as well as interactive displays for children.
We entered the Arts Center for the official opening of the Jikji International Festival. From front row seats we were treated to a performance by a traditional Korean orchestra and violin virtuoso. The inauguration ceremony involved a welcome from the city councilors and the award ceremony of the Unesco/Jikji Memory of the World prize for 2016. The purpose of the prize is to commemorate the Jikji and to reward efforts by organisations that contribute to the preservation and dissemination of documentary heritage to the world. In 2016 it was awarded to the Iberarchivos Programme for the Development of Ibero-Ameran Archives.
After the countdown and opening of the festival we were able to wander the sites within proximity of the Arts Center. The highlight for me was a demonstration of traditional type casting (the method used for the Jikji) in the working foundry. If you would like to see a video of the sorts being removed from the sand mould, please see video at:
The Harebrained Press Project had taken me to unexpected places: into the history of printing; through intensive research of typography and the letterpress process; and into a day-long workshop that had taught me the fundamentals of typesetting. Over the next few months my friend Soren and I continued to visit the Melbourne Museum of Printing to learn more.
With Michael Isaacsen, the museum director, we discussed the technical aspects involved in my project; we learnt about the machines, equipment and archives in the collection; and we heard the story of the museum itself. Not only is MMOP the largest printing museum in Australia, it is also the only one that is privately owned and run. This brings many challenges, not least paying rent on a huge industrial building. Michael explained how important it has been for him to promote the museum, both locally and internationally, and asked if we might be interested in becoming involved.
He told us that he had been invited to attend the Inaugural Meeting of the International Association of Printing Museums in South Korea. The South Korean government had funded a venture to gather together representatives from printing museums around the world to promote their institutions, network, and to discuss establishing the International Association. However Michael’s commitments at the museum prevented him from making the trip. Would Soren and I go and represent our museum in his place?
Korea is an important place when it comes to printing history because it’s here that the oldest book was printed using movable metal type. This book, called the Jikji, is an anthology of Zen Buddhist teachings printed in Chinese characters. It holds great significance for the Koreans, both as a religious text and as an artifact that testifies to their technical mastery—through typographical printing, well before its emergence with Johannes Gutenberg in the West.
To commemorate this source of national pride, the city of Cheongju, where the Jikji was printed, holds an annual festival of demonstrations, exhibitions and performances. In 2016 the Cheonju government decided to use the festival as a forum for establishing a new means of preserving and promoting printing heritage: an International Association of Printing Museums.
We had been offered the opportunity to participate in printing history. How could we say no?
The common method of printing books nowadays is called ‘offset printing’ (often ‘offset lithography’). Text and images are transferred to metal plates via photo emulsion. These plates are then fixed to a cylinder on a printing press. Water is applied, using dampening rollers, and it covers the blank areas of the plate, but not the image areas, because the emulsion repels water. Special ink, which is repelled by water, is then applied and this adheres only to the image areas. This ink is then ‘offset’ onto rubber blankets or rollers, which conform to the paper surface and transfer ink with a uniform pressure, creating sharp, clean images.
Digital printing, a method that is becoming increasingly popular for large print runs, is favoured because it is less labour-intensive and does not require the use of printing plates, which need replacing. Ink jet or laser printers transfer toner or pigment onto the paper surface—a process that is fast, but not to the standard of other methods, as it adheres only superficially and loses some fine image detail.
I have explained the letterpress printing method in my previous blog, ‘About Letterpress Printing’, so you know the process—but perhaps not the characteristics that define it. There are two contrary yet coexistent qualities that distinguish something that is letterpress printed from something printed through offset or digital. These are: sharpness and irregularity. The text has a crispness that is more immediate to the eye than other methods, which is the result of the direct contact of metal on paper.
Sometimes this contact is so sharp that it produces a bite, or indentation, in the page. To the professionals who were once well-established in the trade, ‘the bite’ was considered shoddy workmanship; the type must just ‘kiss’ the paper; however today among many circles it’s considered the signature of letterpress.
The other quality, irregularity, is revealed in the slight difference of each character. This has largely to do with variations in ink coverage, but also the wear on the type itself and the evenness (or lack of evenness) in the impression.
These incidentals give letterpress printed material an elegant, tactile quality, which is strikingly unique in our age of the digital word and mass-produced text.
I had decided that I wanted to print my book using letterpress, but didn’t know where to start. After doing some research I realised that the first step was learning how to typeset: how to arrange and set up the type correctly in preparation for printing. I had come across a few Melbourne-based letterpress studios; however most were geared towards teaching people how to create posters and business and greeting cards, rather than how to typeset for book work. The Melbourne Museum of Printing was the only establishment that emphasised the traditional method of text assembly, measurement, and the use of traditional tools.
After visiting the museum to see the incredible collection and meeting the director, Michael Isaacsen, I decided I wanted to attend the Roots of Printing Workshop: an eight-hour typesetting and introduction to printing class held in the museum’s working studio. On the 29th of June, 2016, my friend and fellow writer, Soren, joined me to explore the principles of typesetting and printing as Michael shared his immense knowledge and guided us through the process. I learnt that printing is not just a skill, but a craft with its own terminology, tools and guiding principles—a rich vocational culture of which, before the class, I’d been completely unaware. We collaborated with Michael throughout the day to create a poster featuring excerpts of our work.
I had been given a taste of the craft and loved it. I wanted to learn more. Little did I know that I was about to learn more than I could have imagined—and under mind-blowing circumstances!
Letterpress is the oldest form of printing, as printing is commonly perceived: that is, as a means of reproducing text and picture copies through mechanised labour. Raised, or relief, letter and punctuation forms made of cast alloy (known collectively as ‘type’) are arranged, locked into place and then inked up, either by hand or mechanised roller, before being impressed upon paper.
Before this method was developed, the only means people had of reproducing text was by writing each copy out by hand, or by printing from solid, carved woodblocks. Both of these methods were labour-intensive; and the latter used a lot of materials and space for storage.
Then, around AD 1040 in China, a working man named Bi Sheng invented a different way of printing: he carved individual characters out of clay, fired them, and then arranged them in a frame to compose the page (or forme) he wished to print from. These individual letter type forms could then be taken from the frame, rearranged and reused. As type was further developed using different materials (wood, then metal), and as this technology, using movable type, spread across the world, production time, labour, and the cost of making books went down—and the quality of the printed text improved. This represented a revolution in the dissemination of information, which some have compared to the huge changes that came with the inception of the Internet.
BBC Religion & Ethics, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/22846550 Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yangzhou_Museum_-_woodblock_for_printing_-_CIMG2878.JPG) Randall Garrett Art and Practice: artandpractice.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/arts-1301-chapter-23-printmaking.htm
Image taken at Cheongu Early Printing Museum, South Korea.
My earliest memories of reading are associated with the sensory qualities of books: the crisp smell of new books; the rich scent of the old; sharp paper corners, or thick, velvety card. In fact, I’m sure that it was these qualities that made books special to me as a reluctant, early reader and enticed me to overcome my difficulties—so that I might one day be able to draw down even the heaviest tome from the shelf and enter the mystery of those atom-thin, closely-printed pages. To me, a book has always seemed like two hands closed over a secret; and something of this secret is suggested in the printing and binding.
For the past sixteen years I’ve been working towards creating a book of my own. During this time I have come to see that there are many limitations in the mainstream publishing world; and I have come to know that this is not an option for my work. The positive side of this was my realisation that, if I were to self-publish, I might do whatever I like with my book—I could produce it in the way that is most appropriate to its own particular mystery.
When I made the decision to self-publish I didn’t have even a rudimentary understanding of printing. All I knew was that the common method is called ‘offset’. But I also had a vague memory of an earlier method—a method that had appealed to me when I first heard of it because, beyond its intended utility of reproducing text, it has incidental qualities: it leaves an impression in the paper; and, under close inspection, no two characters ever print exactly the same. It is tactile, idiosyncratic—and it was the means by which my favourite books and writers had been printed. I decided that this was the way I wanted my book to be printed too. I started to investigate…