What impresses me most about the art of printmaking is the time and detail that goes into printing each page. Once a print has been completely finished it is easy to make multiple copies of it but the time and effort it takes to get there is enormous.
The detail required to create a printed page is most noticeable in handset type, in particular with lead type. For starters, each letter has to be picked from the case and set upside down and backwards into the composing stick. During this step there can be some problems. For example it is easy to get some letters confused like n and u or b and d. Also in a shared workspace same cases are well stocked while others are missing letters or the letters are incorrectly replaced into the case. Even without these problems setting a page of type is time consuming and tedious. After all of the type is set the page has to be put on the bed of the press and everything has to be correctly spaced and tightened so that the type doesn’t move under the rollers. Sometimes the spaces that need to be filled are so tiny they require a brass thin to be carefully slid between two leads. After a proof is pulled, the printer may have to switch out worn letters or “make ready” some of the type. This means the printer has to slide a piece of type out, put a tiny piece of phonebook paper down, and then replace the piece of type. With small type this can be incredibly challenging. After all of the type preparation the ink has to be applied in the correct amount to the press and then packing has to be added to the rollers to get a clear print.
Although typesetting demands a lot of time from the printer, a page of hand set type is extremely beautiful. This is especially true when the ink, font, and paper come together to create a work of art.
Press with gold ink on the rollers and type in the bed, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Ania Chandler.
An NPR article about handset type: