Caster’s jerks and knocking up the balls: Adventures in hand-press bookmaking

Me in a printer’s hat.

The first week in June, I had the privilege of attending the Book History Workshop (BHW) at Texas A&M University, where a group of twenty workshop participants and six instructors created a facsimile edition of an 18th century publication–setting the type, imposing the pages, pulling the press, and folding and binding the gatherings into pamphlets–in addition to experimenting with other aspects of book production, such as typecasting, making and decorating paper, and creating woodcut and wood engraved illustrations. These pursuits were all in the name of empirical bibliography, a term coined by Todd Samuelson and Christopher Morrow, instructors of the BHW, which they define as “an effort to understand the manner in which a book was constructed through immediate physical experience (including the systematic and repeatable process of testing and verification based on historical methodology)” (Samuelson and Morrow 86). We made books, therefore, following appropriate practices and technologies of the hand press period (ca. 1450-1800), in order to develop a deep understanding of book construction that would inform our future work with these books as librarians, curators, and scholars.

Reproduction common press at Texas A&M University.

We did indeed develop a bodily understanding of the process and labor of book production–I went to bed physically exhausted every night! Let me take you through some highlights of the workshop.

Our first full day in the pressroom, we came to tables set up with job cases full of type, equipment for composing and setting type, and an assigned number of lines to set individually:

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Once we had set our individual lines of type, we had to join them together into a page–being careful not to pie the type (spilling the lines we had so carefully composed)!

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Once we had our page locked up in its galley, we printed proof pages to see which corrections were needed.

Page of type surrounded by a metal frame with metal pieces holding the type firmly in place.

Locking up the page in a chase for a galley proof.

Finally, all the pages to be printed on a sheet were imposed on the press bed:

Day 2 began with a new experience: “knocking up the balls”–that is, putting wool into wooden ball stocks and fastening pelt over them with nails. These created padded ink balls that we used to apply ink to the type. One of my classmates joined an instructor in knocking up for this first time:

After knocking up and inking the balls, we had the chance to print the pages–wearing our printer’s hats, of course!

We also had another set of lines we each had to set.

My lines to set for day 2–longer this time!

Day 3, we had a final set of lines to set, and we experimented with two illustration techniques, wood cut and wood engraving. I plan to rush over that, however, to talk more about typecasting, which we did on day 4.

Typecasting first began with making the matrix, or the mold used to cast a single piece of type. You begin with a blank (a piece of metal that will become the matrix), and a punch (another piece of metal that is used to make the impression in the blank). Punchcutting is an entire craft unto itself, and the thought of the skill and fine touch needed to make punches blows my mind. We were given punches that we hammered into blanks, after which we filed them down to make sure the impression was centered on the matrix.

Once we had our matrices made, we were ready for typecasting. The matrix is put into an adjustable mold that is held closed with a spring. Then comes the part I was a little bit scared about–molten metal is poured into the mold, while the caster makes a “caster’s jerk.” This is an upward, jerking motion that forces the molten metal all the way into the letter form of the mold. I had some trepidation about handling molten metal, but with safety goggles and gloves, it was all pretty safe. See me below looking a liiiiiittle unsure about this whole process.

Amy getting ready to typecast. Not feeling too sure about this whole idea. Photo credit: Jo Collier.

The metal begins to solidify almost instantly, and it does not take long to cool. What comes out of the mold is a piece of type with an extra piece of metal, called a jet, attached. You break off the jet, plane off any ragged edges, and file the piece of type to type-height. And there you have it! A piece of type!

The end result of our week of labor? A 22-page facsimile pamphlet of Thomas Paine’s Thoughts on the Peace, from an edition published London in 1791. It is printed in three gatherings, or groups of folded leaves. The gatherings are sewn into a blue paper wrapper (paper made during the papermaking part of the workshop) meant to mimic the type of cheap paper wrapper that printers would frequently sell their books in. These paper wrappers were not meant to last. They were a means to hold together the gatherings of a book until the purchaser could take them to a binder to put a more permanent covering on them. In this case, though, I’m planning keep the blue paper wrapper. I’m proud of our work!

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Work Cited

Samuelson, Todd, and Christopher L. Morrow. “Empirical Bibliography: A Decade of Book History at Texas A&M.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 109, no. 1, 2015, pp. 83-109.

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