Wednesday, February 23, 2011

J. Ben Lieberman and the Kelmscott/Goudy Press

I first met J. Ben Lieberman on a family vacation trip to White Plains, New York in the mid-1960s. By this time he and his wife Elizabeth were deeply involved in the world of letterpress printing. They were warm and hospitable hosts, happy to welcome yet another hobby printer (my father Gary Hantke) and his family into their home.

The thing I remember most about J. Ben Lieberman was that he was a fount of enthusiasm and energy. A tireless promoter of letterpress, he was intrigued by the idea of it being affordable for anyone interested. So he invented the “Liberty Press”, a small tympan-pack tabletop model that could easily be built and used in a limited space, and wrote about it in his book, “Printing As A Hobby”. Later he would publish another highly useful book, “Types of Typefaces”, still a fine basic for anyone’s printing library.

At the time we visited White Plains, J. Ben had recently acquired the historic Kelmscott/Goudy press. This iron hand press had been owned first by the famous printer and designer William Morris, who was instrumental in the Craftsman movement of the late 19th century, and then by the eminent type designer Frederic Goudy. Even though I was young, I was familiar enough with the names William Morris and Frederic Goudy to know that I was looking at the Holy Grail of printing presses. I was even more awed when J. Ben invited our entire family to print bookmarks on it.

For those not familiar with iron hand presses, they are massive. They also require strength and manual dexterity to operate. First, the form of type needs to be evenly inked with a roller. Then paper is attached to a tympan, which is like a frame that can fold flat, holding the paper just above the freshly inked type. Together, the type and the tympan with the paper are cranked under the main body of the press. To make an impression, the printer pulls a heavy bar to squeeze the paper against the type. The bed of the press is then cranked back out again, the tympan unfolded, and you have your freshly printed piece inside. (See picture of a similar iron hand press below.)

Even though my sister and I were kids, J. Ben was perfectly willing to let us pull an impression on this priceless old press. He patiently explained just what to do and how to do it safely. What a thrill when I took out my own personalized bookmark, printed on the actual press William Morris and Frederic Goudy had used!

I had no trouble printing my bookmark, but my little sister was too short to reach across the press to pull the bar on the press. And she wanted to! So J. Ben picked her up by the waist and lifted her so she could grab the bar and print a bookmark, too.

Today the late J. Ben Lieberman is regarded as a key figure in the modern private press movement in the United States, starting the American Printing History Association, popularizing the idea of chappel gatherings of printers, originating the proprietor’s or “prop” card, and maintaining a checklist of private press names. An extensive collection of papers from his Herity Press is housed at the University of Delaware. But when I remember J. Ben Lieberman, I think of that kind and encouraging man who held my little sister up so she could print on the Kelmscott/Goudy Press.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The La Crosse Job Case

Our basement print shop features something that may be unique. If anybody else has La Crosse job case cabinets, I’d love to hear about it! These circa 1886 mahogany case stands have a different arrangement of compartments for the characters in a font of type than the standard California job case. Probably very few were made, and the two we have may possibly be the only ones that have survived for about 125 years.

So how is a La Crosse case different? Actually it’s a 2/3rd size case condensed, with three rows of compartments in front, which allows room for capital letters and all the extra characters in a font of type. (See diagram and picture of the case below)

According to an article published in the January 1886 Inland Printer, the La Crosse case was designed by Mr. N.P. Tucker of La Crosse, Wisconsin for his printing company. Marder, Luse of Chicago manufactured the case stands for Tucker, and offered them for sale to other printers of the day. At this point nobody knows how long the La Crosse job case was manufactured or how many may have been produced. Maybe it wasn’t that popular. A Marder Luse specimen book from 1890 shows several kinds of type cases, but not the La Crosse job case.

So how did we come by these unusual type cabinets? We inherited them from my father, hobby printer Gary Hantke. He bought them from the defunct Inland Printing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Inland Printing had acquired the equipment of its nearby competitor Spicer and Buschmann, which in 1884 was a few blocks from N.P. Tucker Company. In an article printed for “It’s a Small World”, my father speculates that these may have been the cases made for Mr. N.P. Tucker. Certainly they’re of the same design.

Obviously this begs for further research, and at some point we hope to learn more about the La Crosse job case. But for now, these beautiful old type cabinets with their square cut nails are a centerpiece in our print shop. And they are terrific for storing small fonts of display type efficiently. I would think Mr. N.P. Tucker would be proud that his innovative type case design is still on the job in the 21st century!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Letterpress Valentines

There’s something special about any handmade valentine. In grade school I remember cutting white construction paper scallops and pasting them onto the edges of a red heart with a poem for my mother. But some of the nicest handmade valentines I’ve ever received or given were printed letterpress.

As children, my sister and I always received hand-printed letterpress valentines from my father Gary Hantke. Each year Dad would go down into the print shop and hand-set the type for a poem for us. It was the same poem, but each year he’d set it fresh, and design a different valentine for us girls. He’d use different paper, different types, different borders. He’d get everything just right, then print only two valentines, one for me and one for my sister. Then he’d distribute the whole form. No saving anything until next year. Each year he went through the entire process — designing, setting, proofing, and printing — all over again.

Now that’s letterpress love. Because letterpress by its very nature is designed to create multiple copies. It takes a lot of work to get the first letterpress copy. The next 500+ are comparatively easy. Usually all you have to do is feed the paper into the press straight and watch the ink level. But to create a new design and print only two copies — that’s something special. And my dad printed another valentine with a different poem for my mother the same way, this time just one copy. I guess you could say that our letterpress valentines were extremely limited editions. The inside of one of my valentines from Dad and the outside of another are shown below.

I wish I could say I’ve followed the family tradition and printed letterpress valentines since. But I haven’t. I always think I need more Valentine cuts to make a good card. But really I don’t. Type and border can be used in so many decorative ways that cuts aren’t even necessary. Below is my sole attempt at a letterpress Valentine, this one created for my husband. Maybe after writing this blog I’ll get inspired and print him one for this year!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Letterpress Make-Ready: I'll Do Anything to Make It Print!

Letterpress printing is one process where the end justifies the means. You try to get the most attractive printed piece, regardless of what nutty method you use to get there. Make-ready, that innocent sounding term, means getting the entire form to print evenly. Not so easy with older, worn type and cuts!

In theory, make-ready consists of underlays and overlays (see pictures below). You put small pieces of paper called underlays behind the form in the press. Or you put pieces of paper called overlays beneath or on top of the tympan paper. Underlays and overlays increase pressure on the parts of the form that aren’t printing well and make them print darker.

Here's the form for a Thank You card before make-ready.

The A, K, and O aren't printing well, so we added underlays beneath the letters to make them print darker.

Here's the overlay, a sheet of paper beneath the tympan paper to strengthen general impression.

And here's the finished Thank You card, looking a lot more even.

That’s the theory. In practice you can end up with a crazy quilt of little bits of paper held on with adhesive tape. Then there are the great equalizers, ideally spongy materials that will either pad out the type or squish down to nothing. Facial tissue is one. A printer friend of my father’s always used a sheet of X-ray film packed under the tympan. Every printer has their own secret (or not so secret) method for getting an uneven form to print. So long as it works, anything goes!

Often older type and cuts aren’t exactly type-high. (Type-high is 0.918 inch from foot to printing surface—and come to think of it, how did somebody come up with that odd measurement?) They may be worn down from too much use, or they weren’t manufactured type-high in the first place.

Sometimes you’re pretty much defeated from the start. For example: look closely at the two U’s in the font of 4 line Pica Ornamented below. Because they were cast incorrectly, both U’s sink in the middle. So try to print a July calendar page using one of those U’s. After much padding, packing, and muttered words, the results were still less than ideal.

A font of 4 line Pica Ornamented -- pretty old stuff, and it's not all type-high.

Can you see the sunken U? It's almost concave, with a big dip in the center.

After much fiddling, this was the best the U would print.

Older cuts are notorious for make-ready problems, especially if you use several in one piece. It’s like trying to get a roomful of opinioned people to agree on religion or politics. You could say every cut has its own idea of type-high. When my husband and I printed the piece below with a bunch of old advertising cuts from a print shop we bought out, we had to get pretty creative with the make-ready. The patchwork on the tympan was a mess, but the result, happily, was better that the U in our July calendar.

Old wood type can create another make-ready nightmare. There are high letters, low letters, and maybe a few that are just right. It can be a challenge to get larger wood type to ink evenly anyway, especially on a platen press. Below is a poster we printed using wood type, metal type, and a very old cut – a real exercise in make-ready. But the fun we had dreaming up copy for the poster made up for the tough time we had printing it.

Just remember, the key to make-ready is patience. It helps to think outside the box, too. Use whatever you can to make it print!