Posts Tagged ‘letterpress’

He went down to the racks, where they cross Lorain . . .  8" X 8" color woodcut from A Pocket Full of Change. 2015.

He went down to the racks, where they cross Lorain . . . 8″ X 8″ color woodcut from A Pocket Full of Change. 2015.

When my kids were little, their teachers celebrated One Hundred day—the 100th day of school each year. They marked the little scholastic holiday by bringing in 100 of something—100 pennies, 100 beads, 100 paper clips, 100 origami cranes, 100 marbles, 100 cookies. The idea was to give the kids a connection to the abstract figure, to give them a visceral sense of what that order of magnitude was. It’s easy to lose track of what big numbers mean if you haven’t actually seen what they represent.

I dive deep into the numbers in the hours I spend standing at a printing press, making the pictures that fill my books. In my new project, a wood block and letterpress book called A Pocket Full of Change, there are 20 pictures made with no fewer than 100 wood blocks, plus 33 additional blocks of magnesium, linoleum, and brass tool, all registered into colorful scenes. The book comes out this week, Friday night at Tregoning and Company.

One block for the sky

One block for the sky

I’ve been printing this book for about 3 years, one block, one color at a time. Let’s just say I know what 100 is. I know what 1,000 is. Indeed, I know what 10,000 is. Printing all those blocks, plus the pages of text, I figure I’ve cranked the Vandercook proofing presses at Zygote Press and the Morgan Conservatory more than 18,000 times.

The words that occur to me as I make each picture is that they are “built,” or “constructed.” One block for the sky. One block for One block for the clouds. One block for the pavement. One block for the light shining down. It goes on like that, until the whole picture comes together. There’s a moment of suspense, printing the black block over the top of the whole thing, hoping everything is properly aligned.

One block for the pavement, another for the clouds . . .

One block for the pavement, another for the clouds . . .

It’s all been a drum roll leading up to this Friday, when we open the doors and I let people see the finished book for the first time: 20 pictures telling the story of a boy who goes out on his bicycle and puts all the money in his pocket on railroad tracks to be run over by trains.

Jake took his bike

and a pocket full of change

and he pedaled down the block

til he was out of shouting range.

Come out and see it, bring the kids, and be sure to say hello. I’ll be at the opening from 6 to 9 pm. Tregoning & Co. is at 1300 West 78th Street, in the 78th Street Studios art complex in Cleveland.

Here it is on Facebook. See you there!


One block for the sun shining down . . .

One block for the sun shining down . . .


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I got a great deal on some particle board the other day.

A few months had gone by since I finished my last binge of a letterpress project, so I figured it was time to start working on a new one: another children’s book, printed with wood blocks and movable type.

Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is a classic odyssey, a trip to the stars and back. It’s the story of a boy at a drum circle who is surprised when, by the force of rhythm blasting out the back of his djembe rocket – he takes off into the sky and finds himself soaring above his town, eventually touring the constellations. Then, when he comes back and tells the drum circle beaters where he’s been, no one believes him—even though they saw it with their own eyes.

The print and the plate

One day Jacob was at the drum circle, pounding along with the big kids. The bonfire burned, and the air shook with sound, and except for the moon and stars, the sky was just about as dark as it gets.

Jacob had a new djembe. Just got it the other day. And so he came to play.” 

Along the way there are references to principles of physics, and to the classic children’s story Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It’s mostly un-metered, but it falls into 12/8 time for a refrain of vocalized rhythm that ought to be fun to read with kids:

With four of eight blocks printed

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TAH

Ba dukka ba dukka ba dukka ba TEK 

As this description makes clear, the story is already written, and in fact it has been complete except for tweaking a word here and there, for a couple of years. What I mean by ‘start working” on Jacob and the Djembe Rocket is to start making of the wood block pictures, and printing them. Which for me are one in the same process. The pictures don’t exist in any form until the blocks are carved and printed together.

The particle board isn’t for carving the pictures, but as a base for the carved block. They have to be the same height as Foundry type, which is a very precise nine hundred eighteen thousandths of an inch high. Most of my letterpressing friends probably know already that if if you glue some quarter-inch Shina to some five-eighths particle board, and add a couple sheets of paper beneath it on the press bed, that gets you pretty close. The Home Depot doesn’t carry five-eighths particle board, but Loews does.

“He knelt over the top of it, like on horseback, and he continued to pound out beats.”

It takes eight blocks to make this picture. I’m telling myself right now that most of these pictures will not be that complicated. Most will not have both glowing fires and moons. Still, this book will certainly take well over 100 blocks to make the pictures. I’m printing them one by one. Before I finish this post, I will have one picture complete, and a story ready to go, and this big stack of particle board and Shina plywood waiting for me to draw the rest. I’ll be at this for years.

And so it begins.

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Beneath the nameplate, dies for each letter line up to cast lead type.

This is not the first line of an industrial joke. Among the countless mechanical miracles that came between the invention of moveable type and electronic publishing software like WordPress, there came something called the Linotype machine.

A linotype machine is the marriage of a typewriter keyboard with a metal casting plant: the operator would sit in front of the keys and type out lines, and the machine would cast them in hot lead for printing. A printer would take each line of freshly cast lead type from the machine, put it in a galley with more lines of cast words to be rolled with ink and printed on paper. Newspapers and all manner of publications once got into print this way.

The marriage of a typewriter with a casting plant.

Entire lines of text composed by a keyboard and cast as a single block of lead were a big step up from foundry type–which required the type setter to pick up individual letters one by one out of their compartments in a drawer  to spell out words. With a Linotype machine, the operator could essentially type out the entire lead plate.

To simply say what the machine does–casting words in lead as the operator types them–doesn’t begin to capture the mechanics contained therein. Zygote Press director Liz Maugans and I saw one in action while touring Madison Press, where Cleveland letterpress guru Frank and his partner continue to run a collection of machines dating to the early twentieth century.

Precisely cut teeth, like the ones that make the right key work in the right lock, help each type die find its proper place in the magazine.

Their shop is not a museum but a living repository of marvelous obsolescence–a couple of modest rooms in Lakewood, packed tight with printing presses, type, and collateral contraptions all as precise as they are old. They keep them in operating condition and use them for printing jobs still best done the old fashioned way: die cuts, folding, perforating, some sequential numbering.

But even in those rooms the Linotype machine is something special. In order to do its job it has to not only melt lead into a mold known as a die, but it has to be able to change the dies in real time, according to whatever words the operator types.

For this to be useful at a newspaper, the machine needs incredible capacity, all managed mechanically, without any help from a computer: It needs to manage not just the 26 letters of the alphabet, plus numbers and punctuation, but also italics, different sizes of headline type, and more.  Each individual letter is a separate die for casting lead. They need not only to line up in the proper order,

Drawers full of letter dies are tilted diagonally to help keep them in order.

but after casting a line, they need to return to their storage places in the “magazine” so that the next time the letters are typed, they are ready to fall in line again–in an order as infinitely variable as language itself.

To understand how this happens, it helps to think of those machines that sort coins: Kids have them as piggy banks. You drop a handful of mixed coins into the hopper, and the machine sorts all the pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters in to their proper tubes. Of course  with coins, this can be done simply by size. With 26 lower case letters, 26 upper case letters, plus numbers and punctuation, it’s a bit more complicated.

The Linotype machine handles this massive sorting job a little bit like locks recognize their keys. To open a lock, it takes a key with teeth and grooves cut precisely in the right pattern to move the lock’s tumblers.

Type dies lined up for casting words.

The letter  dies in a linotype machine each have a set of teeth precisely cut into them, so that when they drop back  into the top of a magazine, they are gravity sorted into the right slot–the one that precisely lines up with their subtle patterns of teeth.

These are primitive processes compared to what goes on when we brush fingers across a touch-screen to move pictures or words, or go from one computerized function to another. But the physical reality of these mechanical machines makes them every bit as captivating as an I-pod. Plus, they sound better. It’s no little speaker rattling out that ka-chunk-a-chunk noise; it’s a massive convolution of brass and steel.

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