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Printing a Book One Page at a Time

By Jeff Carlson

It’s been a long while since Glenn Fleishman was an ink-stained wretch, but today this technology journalist is publishing a book the old-fashioned way: cranking sheets one at a time on a vintage Vandercook proof press.

Fleishman is printing a collection of articles about printing and typography that covers topics such as curly quotes, the 19th-century origins of SHOUTY CAPS, and the centuries-old “This page intentionally left blank.” (He funded the printing with a successful Kickstarter campaign, “Hands On: The Original Digital.”)

The Hands On book-printing project echoes Fleishman’s career. He started as a typesetter and designer in college, and then moved away from ink and into pixels in the form of desktop publishing and, eventually, Internet publishing and podcasting. But his return to his roots isn’t all nostalgia: The heavy iron and inky aromas of the press room are melded with modern technologies, such as building layouts in Adobe InDesign CC, making photopolymer plates, and laser-cutting chapter numbers.

For months now, Fleishman has been a fixture at Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts, which houses a small but vibrant—in activity and hue—room dedicated to letterpress printing.

The ink mixing station at the School of Visual Concepts is a thing of beauty.

Inks come in a wide variety of colors and formulations. Even the black that Fleishman used for the body text—which you’d think would be pretty standard—required experimentation. He started with a litho black and didn’t like it, so he switched to a “dense” black that wasn’t in fact dense enough for a single ink pass. He had to ink the form twice for every impression he pulled to get the desired density of black. The image at the top of this page shows Fleishman mixing brown and translucent inks on the light table with a spatula to get the just-right hue for the chapter numbers.

Printers create a rigid form in a press so that type, images, and other material don't move when ink and paper pass across it. These wooden blocks of various sizes, collectively known as “furniture,” fill in empty spaces to help achieve a locked-up form.

Although the press room is filled with drawers of metal type, nearly all of the content in Hands On was composed in InDesign and output as raised photopolymer plates. Photopolymer is a resin that’s activated by ultraviolet light; the exposed text sections harden, and the rest washes away with water. Each section still requires placement on the press bed by hand, but photopolymer is much more cost-effective than metal plates. Plus, metal type is not just slow to set by hand, it’s also in short supply. In this shop, there’s no font—a single typeface, size, and style—extensive enough to set book pages.

Printing on the Vandercook press is a full-body dance, positioning the sheet on the tympan, cranking the carriage with one hand, and then pulling the sheet off with the other at the end of the pass. Click above to see it in action.

After running a sheet through the press, Fleishman uses a loupe to check for ink coverage. It takes several adjustments, sometimes requiring removing the heavy top ink rollers, before he’s satisfied with the result. Once the pieces are all set, however, the bulk of the printing proceeds fairly quickly.

It’s important to regularly spot-check sheets using a loupe to verify that the ink in going on smoothly without shifting or bleeding.

Finished pages are stacked and measured using a caliper to get a rough page count. Fleishman is printing on paper with deckled edges, which adds to the tactile experience of the book but also makes it more complicated to determine the layout of page signatures.

As he mixes the ink for the pass that includes the chapter numbers, Fleishman speckles a test page with finger-paint impressions to gauge color and translucency.

Printing often involves trial and error. After the chapter number appeared too dark on sample pages, Fleishman applies “transparent white” to the roller to make the ink more translucent. When he engages the power, the rollers spin and distribute the mixture.

To create the chapter numbers, Fleishman took a decidedly modern approach: each number was laser-cut using a Glowforge 3D laser printer out of 1/8th-inch maple plywood. The numbers were then adhered to blocks for mounting in the press bed. Despite a process that requires a lot of heavy metal, the press itself is capable of delicate work: To achieve a slight impression in the paper, Fleishman added single sheets of tissue paper under the block to raise its level.

A freshly printed chapter number decorates the signature that begins the first chapter. Only several hundred more impressions to go for this stage. Interior illustrations were also printed in a similar color, with each signature requiring a new setup.

Although all of the hand-printed copies are spoken for by the Kickstarter backers, Fleishman is selling an ebook version and the ebook with a limited-edition printed keepsake at his site.