The importance of making a good impression
Using vintage equipment, bookmaking students replicate the centuries-old art of pressing ink-stained type to paper

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



Lecturer Les Ferriss instructs students in printing books by hand.
Noah Berger photo

13 November 2002 | In a small, windowless room on the third floor of the Bancroft Library is an old-style printing shop. Shallow wooden drawers, filled with thousands of pieces of lead type, line the walls. A large, iron printing press, circa 1850, occupies the center of the tiny space, and the pungent smell of ink permeates the still air.

Every Friday afternoon, the quiet room fills with activity as a small group of students arrives for lecturer Les Ferriss’ course on bookmaking. During the three-hour class they not only learn the history of printing, but get a chance to make their own book.

“This is a wonderful place to teach this class,” says Ferriss, “because I can illustrate my lectures using actual books from the library’s collection, not slides. The students get to handle such rare items as an original leaf from a Gutenberg Bible, or the ‘Nuremberg Chronicle,’ printed in 1493, as well as handmade books by some of history’s great type designers and printers.”

“We have access to almost every book mentioned in our textbook for the class, ‘A Short History of the Printed Word,’” says Marcus Hanschen, a graduate student in visual studies. “It’s so amazing to see and touch the real thing.”

The students also get exposure to more-modern works, such as a circular book — its loose pages are stored in a round metal tin — printed in 1984 by Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press in San Francisco.

After an hour or so of discussion and inspecting rare books, the students roll up their sleeves and get busy on their own book. Each semester the class selects one of the library’s many unpublished manuscripts to print. This year the group chose a dictated account of H.D. Lamont’s adventures as a California gold miner during the mid-1800s.

Each class member is responsible for hand-setting some of the type, which requires pulling out individual letters from one of the many wooden cases in the shop. Over the weeks, they slowly build each paragraph line by line, collecting the slugs of lead into blocks that they wrap with string to hold them together, until the text for the entire book has been set.

“It might seem tedious to others, but I find typesetting relaxing and meditative,” says Amanda Warren, a senior English major. “It’s a nice switch from my other classes, which are a lot more stressful.”

The class is using a type font called University of California Old Style, created exclusively for the university by the legendary type designer Frederick Goudy in 1936. After UC Press quit printing its own books in the 1970s, a portion of its type collection, including the Goudy type face, was donated to the Bancroft Library.

Once all the type has been set, the actual printing process can begin. The setup, which takes about an hour, includes putting “furniture” (wooden blocks of various widths) around the type — to center it solidly on the bed of the printing press — and cleaning the metal letters with benzene and a stiff brush.

Ferris then plops down a glob of sticky printer’s ink in the middle of large glass slab laid out near the printing press. Using a roller, he carefully spreads it out to just the right thickness. The ink is then rolled over the type in the press.

A platen, with a blank piece of paper attached, is placed over the type and the bed is pushed under the press mechanism. A large lever is pulled from one side to the other, held there for just a moment (the “dwell”), then released. After the bed is pulled back out and the platen is lifted, the printed page is ready to be proofed.

The students watch closely as Ferris, his rough fingers blackened by years of hand printing, demonstrates each step. In the coming weeks, they’ll need to repeat this exacting operation themselves in order to print and bind 40 copies of their 16-page book.

But their hard work will not go undocumented. The names of each student will be printed in the colophon on the back page of the book, along with information on how and where it was printed. The book will become part of the Bancroft’s permanent collection, and each student will receive a personal copy.

“I can’t wait,” Warren says excitedly, “to have a book that I helped make sitting on my shelf at home.”


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail