Setting a line

   Posted by: rring   in Uncategorized

As one wise bookman said, “the only way to begin is to begin.”  Saturday night I began educating my hands instead of my brain, in my first letterpress class.  This is one of three sessions I am taking (on Saturdays) from my friends and colleagues at the AS220 Community Printshop (http://www.as220.org/printshop/), which is just opening its expanded facility.  They were happy to see me (finally) in front of a case of type (we’ve been collaborating on projects for 3 years), and I have to say that my first experience setting type (5 lines from a Tennyson poem in 24-point Kennerly italic) was one of immense satisfaction.  Composing stick in hand set at 21 pica, hunting for letters and placing (and spacing) them, was actually more fun than I thought possible.  “That’s a good sign,” commented Morgan Calderini, head of the printshop.  “Most people find that the tedious part.”  I’m sure I will find it so eventually, but all I could think about was how VALUABLE it would be to an undergraduate to hand-set a few lines of type in terms of understanding the sheer labor involved in producing a book on the hand press.  It is a small (but profound) window into a wider world of understanding. 

Our instructor was Katherine “Kat” Cummings, a Brown graduate of a few years back who worked for a while in the financial district and then decided to feed her soul.  Aside from AS220, she  also works with Dan Wood (http://www.dwriletterpress.net/), and is an excellent teacher (shown here with me).  The four students in the class set our lines, locked the “form” into a chase with wooden furniture and quoins, and placed it  on a Vandercook proof press (a much easier machine to work than my Washington press, but these are my baby steps).  We tightened any lines that were loose with wafer thin spacers of copper, tapped it all with a wood block (not sure of the term), and spread silver ink (we were printing on red paper) onto the rollers.  We all had a turn cranking them over the type, and we made about two dozen copies.  We cleaned up with vegetable oil (it’s a green shop), re-distributed the type, and put everything away.

Another thing that struck me was how well Kat demystified the whole process.  Printers (like some librarians, and other specialists I could name) tend to create an aura of mystery and difficulty around their work; understandable, I suppose, because everyone likes to be perceived as having a unique skill. However, as one of my mentors often says, “even rocket science isn’t rocket science.”  Most anything can be learned, with an applied will.  I’m eagerly anticipating a time when I have all the materials to hand and can work with the press in earnest.

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