Posted by Cait Coker
Previously, I’ve written about getting a press, setting up a letterpress shop, and teaching with letterpress. For first-timers and teachers, it is also nice to have a good reference library of books to explain the process — typesetting, clean-up, the layout of the shop. In this post, I lay out a brief list of books I have found particularly helpful. Maybe you will, too! It is also by necessity a very brief list; there are many, many such books out there; these just happen to be my particular favorites. As always, hands-on work and someone who knows what they are doing are the best teachers, but these will fill out your knowledge base and help you problem-solve issues as they arise. If you can, why not buy these from your local bookstore?
Printing with the Handpress by Lewis M. Allen, 1969
This is an exceptionally beautiful manual, originally printed with a handpress. It pays as much attention to the aesthetic beauty of handpress work as it does to the challenges of the craft, which is what makes it a great place to start. The book is out of print, but can usually be found for less than $20.
Allen includes diagrams and overviews for both iron handpresses like Columbians, Washingtons, and Albions, all of which are gorgeous 19th c. machines. Yes, you do see them come up on the market these days; they have advantages in being fairly portable (much more so than the cast-iron platens of the late 19th/early 20th c.) with easy mechanics. Allen also briefly looks at cylinder proofing press, which are also still extant but often quite expensive.
The rest of the book is given over to examination of nitty-gritty details that can be overlooked: preferred chase layouts (with diagrams); managing your ink supply; advice on selecting typefaces for your shop; and a lot of attention is paid to paper damping, including the useful if somewhat advice of adding “a bit of formaldehyde” to the damping water to minimize the risk of mildew in warmer climates. (I have honestly never heard of this outside of this book; please let me know if you have!)
For the Love of Letterpress: A Printing Handbook for Instructors and Students by Cathie Ruggie Saunders & Martha Chiplis, 2006
This is another beautiful manual, heavily illustrated, and it too emphasizes the aesthetic beauty of print, making it a good counterpart to Allen. It’s also brand new, and can be easily found in most bookshops with a crafting section.
It includes quite a bit of history to contextualize description and discussion, while setting aside a full chapter on how to conceptualize individual printing projects, making it an excellent tutorial for printers who are less comfortable with the art aspect of book art. Saunders and Chiplis dedicate entire chapters to describing different kinds of type, papers, and on, as well as a chapter about the various contemporary forms of printing. For instance, for good or ill, a modern method of printing includes doing all design work digitally, and then ordering metal or plastic plates (yes, they are recyclable) that can be hand-printed.
Finally, one of my favorite things about the book is how the authors also explain the scientific reasons behind various steps, like paper damping (the moisture expands the fibres, making it easier for the ink to adhere, especially if the paper has been chemically sized).
Letterpress Printing, A Manual for Modern Fine Press Printers by Paul Maravelas, 2006
Maravelas’s book is the one I consistently return to in my shop. The manual is heavily illustrated with black and white drawing that highlight both processes and objects, and includes chapters on physically moving presses and equipment, safety, and copyright law, as well as useful appendices on dates of manufacture for various presses and up-to-date studies (through 2002) on lead-handling safety. The emphasis throughout is on practical knowledge and equipment; though there is a brief chapter on project planning, it focuses on how to make estimates on amounts of type and paper that will be needed, rather than on beautiful design.
Maravelas covers in depth the processes of print from type case layout (he gives nine diagrams of various layouts, rather than the one or two common to most manuals) to clean-up recommendations for both metal and wood type, as well as the various machines. Indeed, the author describes at length the various work steps for a variety of presses, making this book a useful go-to for any press operator.
A 21st-century Guide to the Letterpress Business: How to acquire, restore, operate, and turn a profit with your platen press by Marty Brown, 2010
Brown’s book is the most recent on this list, and it takes the topic in two directions that the previous titles do not: 1) It focuses completely on platen presses, and 2) on printing for business. However, this book is a useful reference for novices in that the business aspect means that Brown explicates every process and every challenge with dollar signs. If you want to know cold, hard numbers ahead of time, this will be the best book for you.
Brown also spends a lot of time going over evaluating a press as you’re decided whether to buy it, including separating out various as problems that are either easy or hard to fix—incredibly important issues if you don’t have a convenient printer friend onhand to give you advice. She also provides a number of lists that will be handy for building a shop from scratch, including an extensive resource list of suppliers, services, and further information on topics ranging from helpful listservs to marketing companies.
Do you have any books you particularly recommend?
Let us know in the comments!
About the Author
Cait Coker is Associate Professor and Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is completing her doctoral degree in literature from Texas A&M University. Her current projects include journal articles on women's labor in the book trades in seventeenth-century England. She also frequently publishes on SFF and popular culture including editing the forthcoming collection The Global Vampire in Popular Culture. Contact her at: cait.coker (at) gmail (dot) com.
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- Jul 1, 2019 Research Trips: A Beginner's Guide
- Jun 1, 2019 Building a Letterpress Reference Library
- May 1, 2019 Teaching Manuscript: Writing with Quills
- Apr 1, 2019 Why It Matters: Teaching Women Bibliographers
- March 2019
- Feb 1, 2019 Roundup of Materials: Teaching Book History
- Jan 1, 2019 Building and Displaying a Teaching Collection
- Dec 1, 2018 Critical Making and Accessibility
- Nov 1, 2018 Teaching Bibliographic Format
- Oct 1, 2018 Teaching Book History Alongside Literary Theory
- Sep 1, 2018 Teaching with Letterpress
- Aug 1, 2018 Teaching Manuscript: Circulation
- Jul 1, 2018 Setting Up a Print Shop
- May 1, 2018 Teaching Manuscript: Commonplace Books
- Apr 1, 2018 Getting a Press
- Mar 1, 2018 Teaching Ephemera: Pamphlet Binding
- February 2018