Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Printer's Pie (Pi)

If somebody offers you printer’s pie, just say no! Unlike the dessert, printer’s pie (or more properly, pi) is a mess of dropped and disorderly type that slipped from some printer’s fingers. It’s type cobbler if you will, but without any of delightful aspects of that homemade treat.

Rather than praise and drooling, printer’s pi calls forth unprintable language and despair. All that hard work hand setting type one letter and one space at a time has to be done over again. Sometimes it’s even worse: try to fix pied type, and often more will pi. It’s the law of gravity at its worst.

Have I pied type? You bet. Every printer who’s set any amount of type has probably pied a line or two. Thankfully for me (knock on wood), it’s seldom been much more than that. But there are printers who can tell horror stories of huge forms sliding off metal galleys or falling out of the chase after lockup. Hopefully that’s not you. If it is, you have my sympathies. I know what it’s like to try to fix pied type. It takes the eyes of an eagle and the patience of a saint. As letters accidentally go back into the form out of order, upside down and standing on their heads, it feels like if anything can go wrong it will.

Fortunately I had a good teacher, my dad, who showed me basic techniques to avoid the dreaded printer’s pi.

1) Fill out lines completely and evenly when setting type. Don’t set type so loosely that it wobbles in the composing stick, or try to squeeze in too big a piece of spacing material. When setting smaller type, add em quads or larger to the ends of lines to help hold the type upright.

2) Slide type from the composing stick directly onto a galley whenever possible, and block the lines in with wood or metal furniture to keep them from falling over. My husband and I like to use magnets on our galleys for further security.

3) After locking up the form in the chase, test the lockup before lifting it. Put a piece of wooden furniture under the one edge of the chase and push down on various parts of the form. If anything moves, the lockup needs to be re-done. That is, unless you like picking up pied type!

Even with every precaution, the most careful compositor can still pi type. It’s the nature of the beast. Thousands of slivers of metal standing on end next to each other are an invitation to human klutziness.

But printer’s pi does have one good aspect (doesn’t everything!) Sometimes you can get nice type given to you that somebody pied and didn’t want to straighten out. We’ve acquired a few attractive fonts of type that way.

Mostly though, printer’s pi is far from sweet. Instead it’s a recipe for frustration. Do yourself a favor and stay far, far away!

Blocking in the Form on the galley with wooden and metal furniture and magnets.

Checking the Lockup for loose characters that could pi. A piece of wood furniture props up the chase.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mr. Willow Press: Gary Hantke

During the mid-1950’s my father Gary Hantke worked at Trane Company in La Crosse, Wisconsin as a designer of air conditioning equipment. Though still an active hobby letterpress printer, much of his energy necessarily went toward providing for his wife and two young daughters. By now his basement print shop housed about 20 fonts of type and two presses, a treadle 5 x 8 Pearl, and the faithful Baltimorean tabletop. Then he made an acquisition that absorbed him in letterpress printing in a big way.

My father learned that A.A. Liesenfeld, founder of a quality commercial print shop that had been in business for over 50 years, was being forced to sell his type and machinery because of poor health. As Dad tells the story in Brief Biography of a Basement Printer, “It was then that I visited him, hoping to buy a few fonts of used type. The old printer was reluctant to part with the material he had worked with for so long, but realized that he could never again use it.”

I visited A.A. Liesenfeld as a little girl, and remember he was kind to me. Dad had been having a hard time talking the old printer into selling the shop. Maybe Dad thought his daughter would help to establish his reliability. I wonder now if the old man somehow sensed his print shop would be carried on to the next generation. At any rate, he agreed to sell to my father.

Dad began hauling. And hauling. And manhandling literally tons of type and cases and equipment down the steep stairs into our basement. Fortunately there was an anchor point -- a large willow tree in our back yard. My father tied heavy ropes around its trunk to lower the 8 x 12 Chandler and Price press and 25” paper cutter into the shop.

So Dad named his press Willow. As he explains, “Custom dictates that any printery, private or commercial, have a name; and since this is perhaps the least costly item required, my shop too can afford this small luxury. It will be called The Willow Press, not for its flexibilities of use, but for the willow tree in the backyard. Had it not been for a stout rope slung around its trunk, the press might never have reached the basement in usable condition.”

Now the real work began, as Dad sorted galley after galley of standing forms, putting away type that hadn’t been distributed in years. The resulting cases of type overflowed. Apparently in the commercial shop it had been easier to cast new type rather than putting things back where they belonged.

After over a year of sorting, Dad got the shop in order. He kept it in order through years of use, and taught me the value of running a clean shop by keeping up with form distribution. To this day Bob and I distribute our forms soon after printing – most of the time! A good discipline -- thank you, Dad!

Advertisement for the Liesenfeld Printing Company - Notice the two-color registration, printed in two separate, carefully aligned impressions.

Dad setting up a form for the press. The form is locked up in a rectangular metal frame called a chase.

Dad with a copy of "Brief Biography of a Basement Printer". A 1923 ATF specimen book and a copy of a Gutenberg Bible page are on the desk in front of him. Notice also our 1950's era TV in the background.

Carole with the Chandler and Price press, shortly after it was moved into the house. The big paper cutter is on the left.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Purple Ink and No Composing Stick

Seventy-six years ago my late father Gary Hantke became a letterpress printer, trading his chemistry set for a 5 x 8 Baltimorean hand press, two fonts of Caslon, a tube of purple ink, some leads, and a lead cutter. The year was 1934, and he was 14 years old. Dad had become interested in printing through advertisements in the Kelsey catalog, which urged depression era boys to earn extra money with their own press.

With no type cases, no composing stick, and no instruction, the would-be printer faced challenges. The first time Dad printed his name, it came out upside down and backwards. But he was determined to learn. A school friend’s father owned a print shop, so Dad started helping out. Gradually his printing got better, as he termed it, “slowly, painfully, and without sensational results.”

The young entrepreneur discovered a gold mine in printing graduation name cards for seniors at his high school. He charged 40 cents a hundred and made a grand profit of 18 cents on every order. But everybody needed graduation name cards, and 1935 wasn’t a time of great wealth. Dad was encouraged by the jingle of change in his pockets. He bought a little more type, a composing stick, and a tube of black ink, “having gotten tired of purple by now.”

Then came a huge order for 50,000 envelopes. Dad started printing as fast as he could pump the handle of the little Baltimorean press. After several thousand pumps, though, he started thinking of ways to mechanize the operation.

A little cobbling came to the rescue. As Dad writes in his booklet, “Brief Biography of a Basement Printer”: “Quite by chance, our old washing machine, after years of faithful service, chose this time to spring a rather bad leak, necessitating replacement. With parts from the old washer and some odds and ends the press was motorized, and I was clicking off a thousand impressions per hour almost without effort. Although the press lacked a throwoff, misfeeds caused me little trouble, for by use of the washing machine’s wringer control gear mechanism, I was able not only to stop the press, but even reverse it when necessary.”

So the young printer’s hobby was launched. Dad printed for 56 years of his life, until his death in 1990. Along the way I learned from him, as did my husband Bob after we were married. We owe our printing heritage to my father. His Baltimorean hand press resides in our basement along with his other presses, and it is still being used.

Dad passed away 20 years ago today, on May 12, 1990. This series of printing remembrances, past and present, humorous and serious, is written in his honor. Dad, we hope you’re puttering around somewhere in an incredible print shop in another world with all your old friends. What marvelous things you’d be creating! Without you we wouldn’t be printers. Thank you for teaching us, and giving us this wonderful hobby to enjoy!

Dad's autobiography, "Brief Biography of a Basement Printer", printed in 1958.

Carole in the printshop with the Baltimorean, shortly after moving it in.