The Pathfoot printing press

November 20th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on The Pathfoot printing press

It had been standing at the end of the room ever since we first came to the University. Strictly forbidden to touch but marvelled at every time we got into our computer lab in C7 – the Pathfoot printing press. On the 9th of November we finally got properly introduced in a printing press workshop with Kelsey and Dawn.

The Adana 8×5

The 19th century Columbian press, one of the first generations of iron printing presses, had spent some sad decades in the basement of the University’s library before it was rediscovered and brought to C7, only to dust in a little bit more. It was only this year that Kelsey Jackson Williams proposed the idea of starting a project in the course of which a printing press would have to be acquired. And so the press came into use again.

It is now in nearly constant use and several printing projects have been produced.

Next to the Columbian in C7 stands the newer Adana 8×5, a much smaller, self-inking press which was invented in the 20th century when the huge hand presses for books and newspapers became obsolete. Unlike the Columbian press, which has to be operated by two people, the Adana can easily be operated by one person, it is much faster, but the paper size is far more limited as it is designed to print mostly cards, like wedding invitations or, in this case, the Principal’s Christmas cards. Those are ornamented with a beautiful swan, the template for which had been custom-made for this occasion. So we watched the printing process. Well, that didn’t look too hard. Apply some ink to the press, even it out, put in the paper, bring down the handle and that’s it.

Typecase for Bembo 14pt

Well, obviously it’s not that easy. The most time-consuming part lies before the actual printing and that is typesetting.

When designing text on a computer, we have a nearly unlimited number of fonts, styles and type sizes at hand and they all change on a simple click, making it easy to test different styles and adjust the text over and over. The Pathfoot printing press came equipped with three typefaces – Caslon, Bembo and Plantin – all of which are available at a variety of sizes – but that is it. New sets of typefaces can still be bought – interestingly, they are bought by the number of a’s in a set – but they are expensive – keep in mind, it does not end with one letter in every size.

The process of typesetting takes its time. It starts with assembling the letters out of the typecase, where they are sorted by frequency of use. It takes a lot of practice to get to set type fast! Imagine sitting at a keyboard for the first time and having to find all the letters. Except here you don’t only have to press a key but take out the letter and put it in the composing stick in the right direction – a little nick on the side of the letter helps here. The type is then adjusted in a chase to build up the forme (there is a lot of terminology involved here). Once all that is done even the smallest change can mean, that the whole thing has to be taken apart and reassembled. Thus, it is crucial to know exactly what the text is supposed to look like before starting the process. The press itself has to be adjusted, the printing surface has to be evened out and the paper has to be adjusted in exactly the right position. And don’t even start thinking about printing in different colours, for that takes even more time as every colour needs its own printing step, with the type in the forme and the paper in the press being aligned in exactly the same position as with the first colour. Hand press printing is a craftsmanship that requires a high level of accuracy.


The Columbian press in action

And the work is not over when the text is printed. Now, cleaning the press and “dissing” the letters start. This is the process of distributing the letters back into the typecase – and each letter in the right compartment.

It is a lot of work but it also is a fascinating craft at the end of which a beautifully printed product stands.