Letterpress Impression

I found an interesting passage about type and letterpress impression in Harry Duncan’s essay “The Technology of Hand Printing” published back in 1987. It is important I suspect that at the Cummington Press Duncan was working with dampened papers.

“Nineteenth-century frontier printers must have been brawny indeed to pull full sized newspaper pages on iron handpresses like that - or else, more likely, they used soft blankets and a “kiss” impression. But we felt that a hard, penetrating strike expresses type in its essential virtue, sculptural as it is in construction and application. Some part of the allure that the new method of book production held for fifteenth-century Humanists must have been its happy marrying of two aspects of the classical lettering they admired: it was ink, like Carolingian manuscripts, and at the same time incisive, not unlike Roman monumental inscriptions.”

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Harry’s earliest books had excessive indentation, but he found, as so many printers have, that trying to back-up a sheet with heavy impression is problematic. A lot depends on the paper being used, and the dampening can affect the impression as well. If you examine a wide selection of his printing, you will see that he tended more towards an even impression on both sides, and a much lighter impression than as described in the paragraph above. Because he used Monotype for most of his productions, he noted that the types were “subject to exorbitant attrition”, a factor that would have made it necessary to ease-up on impression, as the types wouldn’t last if they were abused. His heady idealism was certainly tempered by the expense of types and materials, as an examination of his printing reveals.

Theo Rehak once told me a story as related to him by Robert Haas [if my memory serves]. During a visit with Victor Hammer, he observed VH examining his types for distribution. With a magnifying glass he examined each letter, and discarded any that showed the slightest damage or wear. Haas asked, “Why are you discarding letters that any other printer would gladly use, and even covet.” Victor’s simple reply was, “For the greater glory of God.”


p.s. Nineteenth century newspapers printed on hand-presses tended to have a lot of impression. Rubber blankets were used in the tympans, and the make-ready of necessity had to be simple and fast. The types used were almost exclusively set solid, and it took a very strong man to pull even a small edition of a full-sized sheet (much unlike the skinny woman who is supposed to print the newspaper in the current TV series, Hell on Wheels). Hand-press printing was hard work, and pressmen developed a deformity in their rib-cage, and an excessively over-developed right arm and shoulder, causing them to have their torso twisted permanently.

image: VHDialogueOnTheUncial.jpg