Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Printer's Omelet















 The destination....
                                                                                                              ....and the journey


 “What dire Offence from am'rous Causes springs,” writes Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock; “What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things!”  He could count on his classically educated audience to “get” the allusion to the opening of Virgil’s ├ćneid where we learn—if we take the old poet seriously—that practically everything that happened to ├ćneas, not to mention most of the rest of ancient history, came about because the queen of the gods was snubbed by an Arcadian shepherd in a beauty pageant.

            Well, I myself have spent a week of unintended consequence laboring in the Augean stables of my back press room.  I cannot call the genesis of this mighty Contest  trivial, though it undoubtedly springs from am’rous Causes.  You must understand that in my library-study there are, among other things, three printing presses, three type cabinets holding about seventy cases of metal type, two large composing tables, an industrial paper cutter, and various lesser accoutrements of the letterpress printer.  In a small storage room behind that, mercifully kept out of sight behind a closed door, are eight more type cabinets, two galley cabinets, a large store of paper, and everything else that must find a “temporary” home on the rare occasions when I really clean up the study.
            Returning to the am'rous Causes part: to our great delight our number-one son Richard recently declared matrimonial intention.  I will save for a dedicated essay my praise of the delightful and accomplished daughter-in-law elect; but it's safe to say that Rich is marrying up.
            But if you’re going to have a wedding you have to have wedding invitations; and if you want classy and distinctive invitations, you’d better apply at my study.  So Rich, who is himself a typophile, came down from Red Hook.  After a day of unintentional comedy—something like the Lower Two-Thirds of the Three Stooges—our collaboration emerged with a masterpiece of understated elegance.  The stock is a high quality mellow yellowish cream, the ink appropriately named “Brick Dust”.  But we—or rather I-- also emerged with a royal mess in the pressroom, which, I realized, I hadn’t properly cleaned up after the last wedding invitation.  That was number-two son’s (Luke’s), two years ago.
            Rich returned to New York, leaving me with a fatal thought, which was this: “You know, you could actually clean this mess up if you were really willing to work at it for half a day.”  That was ten days ago.  On none of those ten have I worked less than eight hours at my task, and on one of them I had the fully engaged help of my son Luke.  The results  of nearly a hundred work hours so far approach those of a controlled explosion in the demolition of an abandoned factory.
            You know that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.  It is, however, quite easy to break eggs without achieving an omelet.  Letterpress is a technical term denoting the technology that defined printing for the first five centuries following Gutenberg.  Its principal process involves pressing paper down against the inked surfaces of carefully arranged movable types, which are pieces of cast heavy metal of varying surface size but always just under ninety-two one- hudredths of an inch in height--.9186 of an inch, to be exact.  In the second half of the twentieth century letterpress technology rapidly became obsolete.  For commercial purposes it was almost completely replaced by other methods (usually called “offset”) based in photography and photo-lithography.  More recently computer technology has effected a second revolution.  The products of letterpress remain, however, the gold standard of the graphic arts.  Happily, fine letterpress work continues among arty or eccentric amateurs.  I am happy to see that the Boy Scouts of America still include what they call “relief printing,” if only as an afterthought, as a possible path to the “Graphic Arts” (formerly “Printing”) merit badge.
Some letterpress tools: Kinko's, eat your hearts out!


            There are a few salient features of letterpress equipment, as viewed from the perspective of one who would set out to clean it up.  (1) it tends to be very heavy; (2) it gets very dirty; (3) there are thousands of little pieces that need precisely accurate sorting and storing; (4) it is the easiest thing in the world to scramble these pieces.  (5) When you are tired or in a hurry there is an invincible temptation to postpone sorting and storing.  Hence (6) it is laughable to think you will get anywhere in half a day!
            One way to make progress is simply to throw things away.  I’ve used that technique to the extent of twelve wheel barrow loads.  It is now possible, if I suck my gut in, to move (sideways) from one end of the storage room to the other. But Luke and I also spent one whole day simply sorting reglet—the thin, precisely cut pieces of maple wood used for line spacing.  I’ve spent three days at the wire wheel of a bench grinder cleaning the rust off steel furniture—the larger and even more precisely cut spacing material needed to surround the blocks of composed type in the chase, the steel frame that holds the printing form.  All the while I have to try to convince my spouse that beneath the mounting midden of eggshells, not yet quite visible, a scrumptious omelet is taking shape.
            Let me wish my fellow patriots a most happy celebration of the anniversary of the publication, in letterpress, of the declaration of our national independence.