27 March 2012

Back to the typewriter again

I've let myself wallow in quite a dry spell the past few months. I guess I just had so many other projects I wanted to work on in my very limited free time and I sent writing back to the end of the line over and over again. It's time to push through that. Spring is here and a new year of writing begins now.

Submissions have opened again for The Fairy Tale Review. This one will be The Yellow Issue and is to be guest-edited by Lily Hoang! If you haven't read any of her work, do it now. The Evolutionary Revolution (from Les Figues Press) knocked the wind out of me. She also has a book published by Fairy Tale Review Press called Changing, which is on my nightstand now. I'll probably crack that open after I've finished The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, by Kate Bernheimer (the last in the Gold sisters' trilogy).

As a very minor side note which is completely off the point,  the wildflowers (or, to some of you, weeds) in the picture above are called hairy bittercress. Isn't that a fabulous name? In the last year or so, I've become fascinated by the colloquial names of wildflowers and weeds. They really are much more interesting than the names given our standard cultivated botanicals. I've been looking up the names of all the ones I was surrounded with growing up in the woods and I am in love with them all over again: lady's thumb, mayapple, jack-in-the-pulpit, may weed, scarlet pimpernel, Queen Anne's lace, scutch, pokeweed, common groundsel, henbit deadnettle, dayflower. When I first met them, they did not have names; and now that I know them, they are even more mysterious and wonderful. They had these secret identities all along.

20 March 2012

The first time is a messy one

Getting my first print job ready was definitely quite a bit of work. It should get easier after this one because this project was a BIG part of the getting-to-know-each-other process with my new printing press. And I discovered that there were quite a few things to be adjusted. Here's how we began:
  1. Setting the type: letter by letter, line by line on the composing stick. As the composing stick fills up, the set lines are removed from the stick on to a galley.
  2. Locking the form into the chase: when all the type has been set, the chase is laid on a flat surface (the floor, in my case) and the text and/or woodcuts/linocuts are arrange within its frame. Then the rest of the space is filled in with press furniture and the quoin locks it up tight.
  3. Securing the tympan sheet and adjusting packing: tympan paper, pressboard, and any other packing paper should be cut to the size of the platen (with the tympan sheet long enough to overlap at top and bottom, so it can be secured under the tympan bale).
  4. Measuring and setting line gauges: these are the guides on which the paper rests on the platen. They make sure the paper stays in the right position as you print.
  5. Adjusting grippers: these help to keep the paper in place post-impression, but they cannot touch the type in the form (in the chase) or the line gauges because the type and gauges will be damaged. They should only touch the margins of the paper.

When everything is set up, it's time to ink the press and start printing. This is where things start to get messy (inky, really) and the problems reveal themselves. So here were some of the problems I encountered:
  1. Form margins too narrow for grippers: the way I had designed things, there wasn't enough of a margin between the end of printed area and the edge of the paper that wasn't also obstructed by a line gauge. 
  2. Uneven impressions: I got a nice crisp impression of the bottom third of the form, but it appeared the top two-thirds hadn't even kissed the paper.
  3. Uneven ink distribution: after a few passes with the rollers, and an attempt to turn the ink disc by hand, I discovered that my ink disc had been welded into place by a previous owner. So it was unable to rotate to distribute the ink evenly over the ink disc and the ink rollers, and, therefore, the type as well.
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At this point, ink all over your hands (and also everything else you've touched) and things just not working right, you quickly lose patience. You want to put your head in your hands for a minute to feel sorry for yourself, but then you remember that you'll get ink on your face and in your hair. Time now to take a deep breath, go to the sink to scrub your hands and: troubleshoot! Lucky me, I have this indispensable guide book to dive into when I run into problems: Letterpress Printing: A Manual for Modern Fine Press Printers, by Paul Maravelas
  1. For my problem with the grippers: Maravelas suggests stretching a rubber band or two across them. So I moved the grippers out as far as they would reach, then stretched a rubber band across them at the top, just where it would hit the top margin of the paper. So we catch the paper across the horizontal rather than the vertical; and it worked great! I did have to change the rubber band a few times though after it got inked accidentally. You don't want that touching the paper.
  2. To correct my uneven impression: first, I tried adjusting the packing under tympan. Adding more pressboard or paper; taking some away; even taping down more packing in certain areas that weren't getting printed. Nothing. And the latter trick really just made it worse. So when that didn't work, I looked to Maravelas who drew my attention to another possible culprit: the impression screw(s). Since the book did not go into detail here, I looked around and found this very helpful how-to blog post on how to balance a platen. So (after calling my stepfather, who had the right tools), I (he) tightened the top two impression screws. That did the trick.
  3. To correct my uneven ink distribution: I bought a brayer to roll the ink out over the disc in an even layer. It works perfectly! (Side note: You DO need a brayer which has a rubber roller, and NOT a cheap paint roller. The paint roller not only fails to move the thick ink out over the disc, but also deposits lint-like fuzz in the ink).
After all that, I think I've gotten it down. Captain and I have one broadside under our belts now. They're not perfect but they're mine and I love them.

13 March 2012

Lessons in linoleum

There are a couple ways you can print your own hand-drawn images on your letterpress. The more expensive way is by having photopolymer plates made from your image. I've tried that before and it works really, really well and is very efficient. But I wanted to give linoleum carving a go this time: it lessens the modern plastic intrusion into the printing process and adds to that imperfect, rough handmade goodness. The mounted linoleum blocks are pretty inexpensive and the carving tools (the best are made by Speedball), are as well. Letterpress printing does require mounted linoleum blocks to make the relief type-high. So here's how I went about it:
Since my drawing skills are pretty poor, I practiced drawing the image I wanted to print. I also figured that, since I haven't had much practice with carving anything, the simpler the design, the better. More like a silhouette. Once I had the image, I drew out a final draft in pencil (it does have to be in pencil for the image to transfer to the linoleum). It can be done on tracing paper, but I found regular weight copy paper works just fine.

Then I flipped the image over on top of the linoleum block (so that it was facing the linoleum surface) and traced over the image I drew on the other side, making sure to put a good amount of pressure on the pencil so the graphite on the linoleum side transferred over, kind of like that annoying carbon paper.

Then it's time to carve! It wasn't easy to find the right surface to work from with this, but I eventually settled on the lap desk I had tucked away, which was actually quite perfect. Even the cup holder came in handy for catching all the linoleum shavings! When I got to the carving part, it was almost like re-learning to color in a coloring book: you have to work hard to stay in the lines. So I started with the finer carving heads on my lino cutter to outline the image, then gradually moved up to wider and wider cutters as I carved farther away from it. I managed to cut my finger only twice.

In my next post, I will show you the results of printing with my first linocut. I definitely broke a sweat putting together my first printing project with Captain.

06 March 2012

Closing credits: type on the big screen

Being a letterpress-dork, the thing that really caught my attention the first time I watched Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (which I love) was the title sequence. I said, "Wait a minute! That was letterpress type!" Isn't it gorgeous? Very clever of him.


But this isn't even a new idea in the world of movie title sequences. While re-watching a favorite of mine from a previous decade (before my induction into the world of printing), I noticed the same thing. Although in Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York, they used wood type instead of lead type. But the effect is perfectly striking and really helps capture the historical atmosphere of the movie.


So what is it about the physical look of wood and lead type rather than the inked impressions they create? Maybe their very physicality is part of the draw. Both of these movies are set in the same historical time period, right around the American Civil War. Maybe it is a metaphorical link to the backstage of history that these films are trying to recreate. The idea that written (and printed) history is stagnant and lacking the grit and color of the daily life in that time. And the idea that these films are trying to bring it back to dirty, grimy life. Sherlock Holmes is set in the heavily industrial, steam-powered belly of nineteenth-century London. Gangs of New York is of the still-forming, wooden rafters of Civil War New York City. And these tactile titles say all of that. 


Note: If they wanted to be even truer to life, these letterpress block letters and sorts would be backwards. But I have a strange feeling that that would affect readability, which is, rightfully, more important in this case than strict accuracy.