There are many facets to the production of hand-press era books, but for our purposes, we will look at two with a very broad lens: Paper and Presswork. These two processes are quite general to assembling a hand-press book, but offer a fundamental starting point for those who are looking to gain a better understanding of what they are looking at when faced with a book from this era.
The following video tracks the experience of students at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book as they attempt to recreate the process by which sheets of paper were handmade prior to the 19th century.
Briefly, the process shown in the video for making the paper that would be used in 16th century books, like the books of Dr. Poste’s donation, would involve creating a “liquid porridge” made from wet, minced rags dissolved in heated water that would then be molded into the shape of a page as it is spread out in a rectangular tray known as the deckle-and-mould. With great skill, the paper is ultimately formed by a series of shakes that “lock[s] the fibres together” and “shut[s] the sheet” (Gaskell 58).
The following video features a master of hand-press printing practices as he walks us through the steps of pressing the text onto the page in true old-form.
The process shown by this printer is far less complex than that of making paper, and excludes explanation of making type and typesetting, the most skill-based aspects to printing. While details of making type and typesetting will not be found on this website, if you’d like to learn more about them, please follow the links to a series of comprehensive videos.
The machine used in the video to hold and press sheets of paper is a wooden hand-press known as the common press. A printer would begin by arranging the metal type for the page on top of the “press stone” and evenly covering the type with thick, black varnish-based ink, beating it into the type in a rocking motion using leather covered balls with wooden handles. Once the type was covered, the paper affixed to the tympan and frisket (the large, movable frame) would then be lowered onto it, the press stone promptly rolled beneath the platen (the block attached to the press’s large, protruding handle) which is pressed down onto the sheet to adhere the ink to the page (Gaskell 118-20). The page is then removed for the ink to dry before being returned to the press to stamp the opposite side. This process continues until it is time to fold the sheets, and eventually bind them, which will be discussed on this page.
Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995).
“Chancery Papermaking,” YouTube, accessed January 18, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-PmfdV_cZU.
“Visit to Benjamin Franklin Print Shop.” YouTube, accessed January 18, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhurdry4WMI.