Tag Archives: block printing

The Chinese invent movable type

If you’re printing something with words, like a poster or an announcement or 95 Theses, every letter of every word needs to be carved out of your wood or linoleum block. Carving blocks for pages of an entire book is a king-sized headache.

Way over in China in the ad 1000s, printers got tired of having to carve every stinkin’ character on a block. One printer, Bi Sheng, thought: “Why not make individual characters ahead of time that you can mix and match to make paragraphs and pages?” That’s what he did. He made teeny little blocks with only one character. They were interchangeable. You arrange them together in a frame for printing. This idea is called movable type.

Bi Sheng’s characters were made out of fired clay so they were kind of fragile—they chipped easily. In the 1200s another Chinese printer, Wang Zhen, introduced characters carved out of wood which were less likely to chip. Around the same time Korean printers were using characters cast in bronze or iron.

Believe it or not, movable type didn’t make books in Asia any cheaper. It was actually less expensive to carve an entire page of characters from one block. The reason could be this: the Chinese written language has over 3,500 characters. It was maybe too time-consuming to organize thousands of characters into an efficient sorting & printing system. By the time you finally locate the characters you need from a supply of 3,500, the guy with the chisels has a page carved and ready to print. So movable type didn’t take off in Asia back in those days. There’s at least one Chinese printer today that still uses cold type, though (see the links below).*

* The type was stored on big lazy-Susan-style discs that rotated so they could get to all the characters (kind of funny: food used to be served in Chinese restaurants this way). Chinese printers used a rhyme to remember where all the characters were. I’m not a Chinese speaker so I don’t know what the rhyme is, but it’s the same kind of rhyme you use to remember which months have 30 days—a mnemonic.

http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/songdynasty-module/tech-printing.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LvhjgW9zh0
Dig the sneer quotes around the word ‘invented’—like they finally brought that wily rascal Gutenberg to justice:
https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/world/world-record.html
http://idsgn.org/posts/the-end-of-movable-type-in-china/
https://ich.unesco.org/en/USL/wooden-movable-type-printing-of-china-00322
http://www.silk-road.com/artl/movableprt.shtml

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That one afternoon hanging out at the winery really paid off

Johannes Gutenberg

Now we know what relief printing is. What really got the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation going was the printing press. Printing is for making multiple images, the printing press is for making many multiple images quickly.

What if you could save time by applying even pressure across an inked block with a giant screw instead of laboriously rubbing it down with a baren?

In 1436, in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the screw press idea, or at least he saw a wine press in use and adapted it for printing. A wine press has a straight-sided barrel with gaps between the staves. You load the grapes into the barrel, then lower a heavy metal disk on top of them to break the skins and crush the grapes. You put additional pressure on the disk by turning a big vertical screw. The grape juice runs out the gaps in the barrel and into a tray.

Gutenberg’s press

Gutenberg used the same technology to exert pressure on an inked wood block and paper. Watch these Youtube videos to see how it works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeikqw0kyqI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE

http://www.bargaintraveleurope.com/12/Germany_Wine_Museum_Rudesheim.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_wine_press

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How block printing is done

The block or plate is a flat piece of wood or linoleum that you cut a design into with cutting tools.
You spread the ink onto the block with a brayer—a rubber roller. The ink goes on the parts that stick up.
You lay a sheet of paper on top of the inked block and apply pressure to it (make sure the ink is pressed to the paper) with a baren.
Carefully pull the sheet off the block and hang it to dry.

Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about block printing— https://www.boardingallrows.com/block-printing
https://www.dickblick.com/categories/printmaking/tools/

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Relief printing

Wait a minute—how did the Protestant Reformation become such a big deal so quickly? How did copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe? Copies? Who copied ‘em? Not the monks—copying 95 Theses was the kind of thing that got you fired from your church job.

One word: printing. Er—no, make that 2 words: printing press.

Let’s talk about printing first. Printing allows you to make many images that are all alike.



Printing is a graphic design process where you transfer an image onto a surface. Printing can be as simple as leaving muddy footprints—you transfer the image of your feet in mud onto the clean kitchen floor. That’s called ‘relief printing.’ ‘Relief’ refers to the raised treads on your sneakers. Relief is the part that sticks up. A rubber stamp is a relief printer. The raised parts transfer ink onto a piece of paper. Maybe when you were young you cut a potato in half, carved a drawing into the flat surface, dipped it in paint and pressed it onto a piece of paper. That’s relief printing.

Print artists carve an image into wood or linoleum, roll ink onto it and transfer the ink onto paper by applying pressure—
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-printmaking
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-process
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/family-how-to-relief-printing

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