Te ☞ Printing arts

☞ Te
arts n
By S o nja H a k a l a
Photography by J o n G i l ber t F o x
he windows of Bob Metzler’s basement studio in
North Thetford, Vt., give viewers an eye-level perspective across an expanse of frozen grass to
the Connecticut River, almost lake wide at this point in its
journey from north to south. The natural light that streams
into the large space, even on a frosty morning in midwinter,
illuminates a scene that makes visitors feel as though they’ve
stepped back into the 18th century.
Metzler is a devotee of letterpress printing, what some
enthusiasts call “the black art.” This is the print technology
that ruled the world from the time of Johannes Gutenberg’s
inventions in the 15th century until it was superseded by
more mechanized methods in the early 1900s. It was once
the norm for putting every sort of document — from magazines to books, broadsides, pamphlets, calling cards
and stationary — on paper.
While Metzler’s fascination with this method of printing is not genetic, it’s close.
“My mother bought me a toy printing press when I was
10,” he explains. “I still have it in a case in my shop.”
continued on PAGE 28
Upper Valley Life
Bob Metzler in his North Thetford, Vt.
letterpress studio. He is holding a composing stick
with the 19th century DeVinne wood type.
The Printing Arts continued from PAGE 26
When Metzler was in eighth
grade, his parents upped the ante
by giving him a tabletop version of
a hand platen press accompanied by
drawers full of metal type. A platen
is the plate part of a press where paper is held while it is kissed by inky
letters that make an impression that
we can read. There is an equivalent
in typewriters in the rubber-coated
cylinder that holds paper in place
while an operator strikes the keys.
“This was a common gift given
to boys throughout the 1800s,”
Metzler says. “There was a company
in Meriden, Conn. — the Kelsey
Company — that sold kits with
presses, type and the other tools you
need to print by hand.”
By the time he entered college
to major in print management, Met(Above) Composing metal
zler had his own letterpress shop in
and (right) the printed
his family’s garage where he earned
sample with a photo
extra cash by doing commercial
engraving. The blue ink used
work. Though interrupted from
was a special formula made
time to time, Metzler’s devotion
of three different inks.
to letterpress and setting type by
equipment availhand has remained constant in his life.
able for those who
He’s been seriously collecting equipment,
want to produce
tools and cases full of metal and wooden
beautifully printtype since 1957. He once ran a weekly
ed books, posters,
newspaper in Windsor, Vt. (the Windsor
invitations and
Chronicle), which had a letterpress shop,
brochures by
and now teaches the book arts workshop
hand. Mechaniat Dartmouth College as well as giving
cal presses, such
classes in his own shop.
Printing by Hand
as the eight in Metzler’s basement shop,
Even though no one manufactures
were built to last. “As long as you oil
the machinery you need for letterpress
them, a hand-operated press just goes on
printing any longer, there is still plenty on
and on,” Metzler says.
Unlike other types of printing, such
as digital or offset, letterpress is a handson art, craft and skill. Every element that
You know the “Wanted” posters in
goes into the application of ink to paper
old cowboy movies? Well, the original
in letterpress involves touch.
“Wanted” posters were probably
As any practitioner of handcrafts
printed using wood type. Fonts
will attest, the act of personal creation
in larger sizes are made of wood
gives one a new appreciation for many
because they are lighter and easier to
of the articles we live with every day.
use. Since there’s not a huge call for
Anyone who’s ever knitted readily underbillboard-sized lettering, the wood
stands the effort behind a sweater or a
actually lasts quite a while.
well-made pair of socks. With the touch
of a finger, a woodworker perceives the
Wood vs. Metal Type
skill and time that goes into a bit
of well-done joinery. And when
someone such as Metzler gazes at
a well-designed book, he is aware
of the impact that the combination of font, spacing and placement have on a reader’s pleasure.
In other words, if you’ve ever
spent time setting a few lines of
type by hand, you will be forever
awed by the existence of books.
As with other handcrafts,
it’s important to decide where
you want to go before you begin.
That’s why Metzler starts every
class in his well-organized basement with the same question
— what do you want to print?
A coupon book for Christmas
giving? Tickets for a community
theater performance? Business
cards? A poster? That question is
followed by others such as: What
sort of paper do you wish to use
— something smooth and white
like an index card or perhaps a
cream-colored page that feels
slightly rough to the touch? When
all is said and done, how big will
your final project be?
Like many devotees, Metzler
is a historian about the object of
his passion. He can tell you where
many of the presses that he owns
were once housed, and lovingly
describes how he rescued some
of the wooden cases where his
collection of fonts are kept. He relates
how 19th century typesetters held
contests for public entertainment to see
who could put a page of type together in
the fastest time. One famous typesetter
could correctly pull the letters, spaces,
numerals and punctuation together for a
page while blindfolded. If you turned the
drawer holding the letters upside down,
he could still set type accurately.
Where to Start
Metzler explains that typography
begins with a student’s selection of a
font. A font is the term used to designate
all of the letters, numerals and punctuation marks made in a certain style and
meant to be used as a group. There are
Upper Valley Life
more than 1,000 fonts — in both metal
and wood — in Metzler’s collection. (See sidebar)
When you set type by hand, all
of the letters, spacers, numerals and
punctuation you need of your chosen
font in your chosen size are contained
in partitioned wooden drawers. The
drawers and the cases that hold them
are beautifully made with rugged joinery
that catches the eye.
The letters in each drawer are arranged according their frequency of use.
This is the same reasoning that explains
why the top line of letters on a keyboard
are Q-W-E-R-T-Y and not A-B-CD-E-F-G. Since it can be difficult to
determine which letter you’re holding
— the metal has been well inked over
the years — Metzler supplies a diagram
marking the location of the small letter e,
the capital letter M or the en spacers you
place between words.
As they are selected, each letter is
placed in a hand-held composing stick,
face up but backwards so that when
they’re inked and pressed to paper, the
letters appear in their readable form.
When the composing stick is full and
all of the lettering is spaced correctly,
the student steps up to a proofing press
where the acid test will be administered.
Are all of the words spelled correctly?
Are all the letters turned in the right
direction? Are the spaces between words,
sentences and paragraphs correct?
Suddenly, the student becomes
aware of the delicacy of type, the care
needed to produce an eye-pleasing bit
of text. How much ink is enough? How
much difference does the choice of paper
make? And what’s involved if you want
to print something in more than just one color?
Jane Applegate from Sharon, Vt., takes a letterpress class. She inks up the plate (above) and pulls
the lever (below) of the tabletop platen press to make an impression.
Guardian of the Art
As other forms of printing — offset
and then digital — became the norm in
the 20th century, the letterpress print
industry imploded. Owners literally
threw away their hand-operated presses
and cases of type as interest in letterpress printing faded. But like so much
else in our society, letterpress never died
continued on PAGE 31
November 2010/February 2011
The Printing Arts continued from PAGE 29
completely. In fact, it’s now enjoying a
noticeable resurgence all over the United
States and Europe as enthusiasts gravitate toward the quality of this hands-on
craft, and enthusiasts such as Metzler
are considered the guardians of the art of
Metzler notes that unlike the letterpress practitioners of previous centuries,
most of the contemporary enthusiasts
are women. In fact, most of the students
at his workshops at Dartmouth and the
classes he teaches in his North Thetford
home are female. There are now letterpress societies, museums dedicated to
printing, people carving molds for new
fonts to be used on hand platen presses,
and a lively online trade in printing tools.
Rare book enthusiasts pay large
sums for books printed with letterpress
technology. Martha Stewart sparked
a national lust for wedding invitations
printed in this fashion with a spread
in one of her magazines, and Metzler
receives a weekly newspaper from Colorado that’s typeset and printed by hand.
“He won’t let me pay for it,” Metzler
says of the publisher. “I keep sending him
money but he keeps sending it back.”
When asked why so many people
are drawn to letterpress printing,
Metzler points out that the handcrafted
quality of this art is easily seen. “It’s not
perfect because every decision and every
move made by the printer is reflected in
what you see on the paper,” he says.
In a world where the push is toward
sameness, that quality makes all the
difference. Learn More
Bob Metzler teaches letterpress
printing and typesetting in his home
studio in North Thetford in day-long
workshops on the first Saturday of
each month from November through
April. You’ll find his phone number
in the book, as Metzler says, or you
can reach him at his home address:
PO Box 85, North Thetford, VT 05054.
November 2010/February 2011