Step by Step: Creating a handmade letterpress book

For a full photo walkthrough of the finished book, please see the images on my Facebook Fan Page

Update: Copies of the finished book can be purchased here

I’m very excited to be creating a new handmade letterpressed book, “Sideshow,” with the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB) as part of their “small plates” imprint.  This imprint works with artists to create small (4″ x 4″) handmade books.  The book will be hand-printed on Vandercook proofing presses and hand-bound in an edition of 100. The project is scheduled to be finished in July of 2011.

The book will take hundreds of man-hours to complete, and I have a lot to learn about the details of bookmaking! Luckily, the generous volunteers and interns at SFCB will be assisting with the work and teaching me at every step.  I’ll be sharing everything I learn in this blog article, which I’ll update weekly.

Completed steps:

Pre-production: Creating the content

Hand-creating a book is a unique process, so I thought it appropriate to try a unique storytelling method. I took inspiration from one of my heroes, statistician Edward Tufte, to tell the story of the rise and fall of two circuses using only circus posters and newspaper clippings.

Above: original sketches for circus posters

I’ve spent about six weeks creating the plot, illustrations, and newspaper clippings for the book.  I first sketched my ideas, then refined them into final mockups.  The very final book will probably look different than the mockups, since we’ll undoubtedly run into problems with the printing and may have to modify our plan.  But at least we have a base to work from.

Above: final mockups for some of the pages of the book

Working with Rhiannon Alpers, studio manager and project coordinator, we’ve developed a unique binding for the book which will allow the posters to fit in the 4″ x 4″ size and will also emulate the sloping tops of circus tents.

I think we’re ready to start the printing prep!

Meet the Press

We’ll be creating the book on this press, a Vandercook Number 4 Proof Press.  This press works using the same fundamental principles that I use when printing at home: ink is rolled over a raised surface (called a “plate”), paper is placed on the plate, and pressure is applied to the paper in order to transfer the ink to the paper.

Step 1: Mixing Ink Colors

Next we need to figure out the right “recipe” of the hand-mixed colors of the book.  The book contains four ink colors: black, yellow, light blue, and dark blue.  Additional colors will be created on the paper by layering one color over another.  We need to utilize this layering effect in order to make sure the project can be done on time.  Each color takes dozens of man-hours to print, so adding an additional color is no small consideration.  Four colors is already pushing the limits for the scope of this project, so we have to come up with some clever workarounds!

Inks are mixed with a palette knife on a marble slab.  Proportions of the different inks are written down as a “recipe” for future reference.  A Pantone book of color swatches gives some general guidelines on how to create different ink mixtures.

After we find a pleasing yellow color, we work on mixing the blues:

To test the color, we run a test block through the inked press, first in yellow, then in blue.  Between the two inkings, the rollers of the press have to be carefully washed and cleaned.   Just traces of ink left on the rollers can alter the final printed color:

Below is our color test to see how the yellow and blue will mix on the paper, creating a green color:

Step 2: Creating Plates

The book will be printed using photopolymer plates.  Photopolymer is a material that changes its hardness when exposed to UV light.  This makes it an incredible boon to printers, because instead of needing to hand-set wooden or lead type letter by letter and hand-carve all imagery, then meticulously set all the pieces in their proper places in the press bed, you can create one photopolymer plate which contains both images and text and which are pre-arranged correctly.  There is still a *lot* of work to be done to create a good print (as I’ll show you later), but photopolymer saves time and makes very detailed imagery and complicated type treatments possible.

To create a photopolymer plate, UV light must hit only the areas of the material that will become part of the final plate.  The unexposed plate will be washed away, leaving the final hardened plate. The two machines seen below are used to do this: the machine on the right exposes the plate to the negative, and the machine on the left washes away the unexposed plate material.

A film negative is used to isolate the exposed plate areas.  The image files I’ve created on my computer are sent to a film manufacturer, who creates a black film with the text/imagery “knocked out” as clear areas. Below you can see the negative for the yellow Strong Man plate. The negative is sitting on a white background.

In the exposing machine, the film is carefully smoothed on the plate material and is covered in vacuum-sealed plastic to secure the film to the plate during the exposure process.

A roller is used to smooth any bubbles out from between the film and the plate material.

Bubbles will bend the film slightly, distorting the light that hits the plate. Below: a bubble formed under the “O” of “One” and the resulting plate had a squiggle in the “O”.

The machine then is exposes the plate and negative to UV light.  The light is able to penetrate the clear areas of the negative, hardening the plate beneath.

Below is the plate material after exposure. The clearer areas are the exposed areas, and the milky areas are unexposed.

The plate then goes to the washer, seen opened below.

The exposed plate material is stuck to the blue top plate. The top plate folds over into a bath of warm water and a bed of bristle brushes. When the machine turns on, the blue top plate rotates over the brushes, gently scouring away the softer unexposed plate material.

This leaves the final plate with only the hardened exposed areas.

Now it’s time to test our first photopolymer plate!  This is really exciting for me, as it creates the first tangible artifact of all my design work:

The plate, inked, on the press bed

The final test prints!  How exciting!

Next week we’ll start with the first official printing of the book pages.

Step 3: Printing the newspaper clippings

The book is formatted in two sections.  Showy, multi-color circus posters will be on the front of all the pages.  More subtle black-and-white newspaper clippings will be on the back of the pages.  These clippings are very important as they give all the details of plot development.  This week we’re going to focus on printing these newspaper clippings.

We start by inking the press and carefully positioning the photopolymer plate on the metal base of the press. The metal base is secured to the press base using pieces of wood called “furniture”.

A detail of the plate on the press bed. Many factors need to be calibrated so that the print quality is even and crisp.

Above is a picture of our first run-through.  You’ll see that some of the letters aren’t printing crisply (most notably, the top text (”Kim–…”) and the “TO” of the title.)  To fix this problem, and many other problems we encountered trying to get an even, crisp impression, we needed to check many aspects of the press.

Is the plate flat on the press bed?  Are the ink rollers calibrated correctly, so they’re not over- or under-inking the plate?  Are the ink rollers straight, so they’re not inking one side of the plate more than the other? Is the plate itself damaged? Is the packing correct? (”Packing” is paper put behind the sheet to be printed, to push it closer to the inked plate). Meticulously checking all these aspects takes a lot of time and care.

In this case, we determined the problem was in the packing of the press.  We fixed the problem by putting tape on the areas which printed too lightly.  The press is so sensitive that even the thickness of a piece of Scotch tape will push the paper closer to the inked plate.  That fraction of a millimeter can mean the difference between a properly printed plate and a yukkily printed plate.

The tape worked! This page now prints well. Now we can go ahead and print all 135 pages needed in this press run.

Of course, there’s another catch: the more packing you add to make the ink impression better, the more the plate is pressed into the paper, and the more the paper will be punched down by the plate.  Usually that is part of the charm of letterpress, however in this case our paper is thin and so the impression shows as raised bumps on the other side.  We need to print big swatches of color on the other side, and if the paper is uneven it will alter the color in patches.  So we need to reach a compromise between a good ink impression on the black and white side vs. good ink coverage on the color side.  I don’t think it will be able to be perfect on both sides, but the beauty of hand-printing is that these types of imperfections highlight that handmade and unique nature of the work.

Thank you to two of the interns that are volunteering their time on this project!  Here, they are quality-checking one of the black and white pages of the book.  The process of correctly printing this page took a few hours.  And this is just one color, one page!  You can see how time-consuming this process can be, especially when the chance for messing up a page increases exponentially the more colors you add (that is, the more times it has to be run through the press).

Step 4: Printing the yellow

Next we will print the yellow of the first five images.

These were created in the same way as the black and white pages, but these images (having a lot more surface area) needed a lot more inking.   We had to add more ink about once every 5 pages.  With 135 total pages, that added a lot of time to the process.

Above: Interns Meredith (left) and Erica print “Pino the Clown”.  Meredith feeds the paper into the guiding pins (detail below).  This assures the paper is properly “registered” (that is, that the paper will hit the plate in the same place each time).  This is especially important when it comes to printing additional colors on top of the first color.  Usually this method of registration is pretty accurate.  If the pins are faulty, then it becomes kind of a nightmare to get the registration right.

Then she turns the crank (below).  The pins grab the paper and roll it onto the inked plate.

The inked papers are laid out to dry with sheets of newsprint in between.  The ink is so heavily applied that they could stain the backs of each other if they were stacked.

Below: The first page, yellow only.

Step 5: Cleaning the Press

Between printing each ink color, the press needs a thorough cleaning.  Even the smallest residual ink left on the rollers can change the color of the newly applied ink.

Our first stop?  A can of Crisco!

This non-toxic cleaner does a great job of cleaning out the majority of the ink on the rollers.  Dollops of Crisco are applied to the front rollers.  As they spin, they disperse the grease to all the ink rollers.  Then a rag is used to wipe off the grease and ink.  This is a great alternative to using mineral spirits or other gnarly high VOC cleaners.

To remove the grease from the rollers, along with any lingering ink, the rollers are wiped down with California Wash.  This is kind of a mystery juice to me, but it is less toxic (than some cleaners), lower VOC wash.

Step 6: Checking In, checking off

When we’re done with the yellow color, we check it off of the master list.  I’ve been impressed with how well Rhiannon Alpers, studio manager, has organized this project.  Every page is put in its own package, with all the supplies ready and at-hand.  This has saved time and confusion in a project that has so many steps to keep track of.  I am definitely not this organized, so I’m taking notes!

Step 7: Adding the Blue

The first blue color is added to Pino!  He’s looking mighty sharp.

Already you can see some deviation from my original mockup.  In designing the project, and not being very familiar with the Vandercook press, I became worried that tight registration (that is, lining up the yellow and blue printing accurately) would be too difficult to achieve on the press for all the print runs we had to do. I thus decided to save some headaches by overlaying the blue color on top of the yellow (instead of knocking out the yellow plate exactly where the blue plate would print).  This indeed did make the printing of the blue a lot easier, because it had more wiggle room and didn’t have to be perfectly placed, but it also meant that the blue-plus-yellow made a green color, instead of the pure blue I had designed.

However, I’m pretty stoked about the way it’s turning out and I really like the vintage-y look the color combo gives.

Step 7: Design Tweaking

We encountered one hitch in the designs this week.  To save on the number of colors used in the artwork (and thus save on time), I had planned the second half of the posters to create 3 colors using the overlap of 2 colors.  This looked great in Photoshop, where I designed the images (see above).   But in reality the overlap didn’t work as planned.

The problem lay in the amount of contrast between the two colors.  The color test showed that, if we were to use two colors that made an acceptably dark 3rd color (left, above), the amount of contrast between the colors was not enough to form those nice rays of light behind Kim.  If we made one color darker than the other, in order to highlight the contrast between the rays (right, above) then the 3rd color became too light. (The plates are not registered very well, hence the white in some of the rays)

To solve this problem, I re-designed the  blue posters to eliminate that 3rd color (below).  Now there is only a light blue and a dark blue.  It was an interesting design challenge to find something to take the place of the light rays, whose symbolism I really liked.  But I think this solution is very nice, with Kim’s sweeping cape looking both very devilish and also like she’s raising (or lowering) the curtain on a show.

I re-designed all the blue images to get rid of the 3rd blue color.  While doing so, I also took out the yellow on some of the posters.  This was both to save printing time and also because I thought the symbolism was more meaningful.

Below are the posters before (top) and after (bottom).

These, of course, are the Photoshop versions.  We’ll see how they look once they’re printed!

Step 7: Printing the Blue Posters

WOW!  The blue posters turned out amazing:

Printing these blues gave us the printing blues, and took a heroic effort by everyone on the printing team.  The issue was two-fold: first, the paper was not cut exactly square, and second, the feeding of the paper into the press was not always consistent.  Both those issues meant that the second ink color could not always be perfectly registered.  Which led to many blurred, misprinted, and tear-stained posters.

The unevenly cut paper was an issue for all the pages of the book, which led to a frustrating time with the second color printing of all pages.  We had to go through and sort the posters into groups, measuring each page to see how crooked the margins were.  That determined our printing strategy for the second color.  Although the work was worth it, it was an extremely tedious job!

Step 8: Printing Cover and Assembling the Final Book

Now that all the pages are cut down to size, it’s time for the final steps: printing the cover and assembling the book.

We devised an accordion format whose profile is reminiscent of circus tents.

Above is a mockup showing the tented accordion format from the top of the book, and below shows the backside of the same mockup

I’ve designed a cover to the book which folds up to protect the book and also deliver a foreshadowing of the main character’s devious personality.

Below are Paola and Erika hard at work assembling a mountain of books.  Without the help of many dedicated interns and volunteers, this book would never have been completed!

What an incredible saga this was– thank you to San Francisco Center for the Book, all the volunteers and interns who donated their time, and the excellent project coordination of Rhiannon Alpers for making the book possible.

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