Tag Archives: stamp

This ink is all wrong

What about ink? Writing ink is water-based and designed to flow freely from a pen or brush. Water-based writing ink doesn’t work on metal type—it either puddles or runs off the surface. There’s no adhesion.  Johannes Gutenberg needed to come up with ink that sticks to metal and covers it evenly. Luckily for him some artists in the Netherlands were experimenting with a new kind of paint.

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Composing type

Now we have type. How do we put a bunch of type together to print a page?

We cast all the letters we’ll need and sorted them in a type drawer or job drawer. Back in the olden days a printer (or printer’s apprentice or printer’s devil) had this drawer memorized—every letter, every bit of punctuation. https://marktwainhouse.org/about/mark-twain/biography/

We’re ready to compose the type. We get a composing stick—a small hand-held tray with a clamp—and put the words and sentences together upside-down and backwards. Set the clamp to however wide you want the column. The length of a line of type is measured in picas but the height of a column is measured in inches.* Don’t ask. I don’t know why. Between every line of type you put a slice of lead called leading (sounds like bedding). Leading comes in different thicknesses, measured in points. When your type is composed, you slide it out of the composing stick onto a flat stone slab and put a square metal frame called the chase around it. You can add artwork in there, too, like a linoleum block print. To keep it in place inside the chase, we grab some blocks of wood called furniture. These are shorter than the type so they won’t get ink on them. Leave room on 2 sides for quoins. Quoins are metal wedges you can tighten against each other to tighten the type, linocuts and furniture inside the chase. Now that it’s locked up into one whole unit it’s called a form. Okay—we’re ready to print!

Look at this heavenly place! Her composing demo starts at 8:30. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pg8A0ab6S4

* I’m an old graphic designer. I like to measure in picas when I design something. There are 6 picas in an inch. You can easily divide an inch by halfs, thirds, fourths, sixths and twelfths. Each pica has 12 points.

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Casting metal type

Let’s cast metal type of this Gothic M

Gutenberg was trained as a goldsmith, so he knew all about how to work with metal—even how to make the tools. Here’s how Gutenberg made type: he got a super-hard metal (steel), a medium hard metal (copper), and a soft metal (tin/lead/antimony).

The punch is tempered steel. The matrix is copper.

Gutenberg shaped letters on the butt-end of a short steel rod—maybe he used tempered-steel files or chisels on the carbon steel rod (steel has different hardnesses depending on how it’s treated). When the letter was shaped he got the steel rod red hot then tempered it by dunking it in cold water so it would be really hard. Now he had a steel punch. He hammered the punch into a piece of copper (softer than steel) so there was an impression in it shaped like the letter.

This is a super-simplified drawing, just to give you the idea.

This copper matrix was fitted into a 2-piece mold that got clamped tightly together. Gutenberg could cast copies of the letter by pouring molten tin/lead/antimony into the mold.

The type.

Watch the videos below to get a better idea:

A demonstration of how copper can be shaped by steel (skip to the 1:00 mark): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXbUDCfreqE
It’s the molds which were the true technological big deal of this process. If you want to get into the details, here’s everything there is to know about them: https://www.circuitousroot.com/artifice/letters/press/hand-casting/literature/index.html

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What’s metal type made of?

A little melting pot and 3 lead musket balls from my dad’s collection.

Johannes Gutenberg was a goldsmith. He knew how to work with metal, so he developed cast-metal movable type. He used an alloy of antimony, tin and lead. Type metal has a relatively low melting point—probably you could melt it on the stovetop DON’T DO THIS YOU GOOFBALLS I DON’T NEED MORE ANGRY PHONE CALLS FROM YOUR MOMS.

On the other hand, this site says you need 1980°F to melt type metal. That’s hotter than I expected. A stovetop only achieves 350° but lead melts at 621.5°. Tin melts at 449.5°. Antimony melts at 1,167°F. I dunno—I can melt solder (lead/tin) with a propane torch to join copper pipes.
Soldiers in the 1700s cast lead bullets in the field using a campfire. Here’s a scene from the movie The Patriot—Mel Gibson melts tin soldiers to make musket balls (I know, I know, old Mel probably has a blowtorch off-screen fired up to 3,000 on the Kelvin scale). When your great-grandfather was a boy, kids used to cast and recast their own tin soldiers. Maybe the antimony gives type metal a higher melting point. As a jeweler, Gutenberg had stoves and kilns in his shop designed to generate plenty of heat.

You can use this kit for cold-casting: https://www.hobbylobby.com/Crafts-Hobbies/Clay-Molding-Sculpting/Casting/Mini-Casting-Kit/p/22251?gclid=CjwKCAjwzruGBhBAEiwAUqMR8LvgJH4XhS98M-pZUqhaEPE-KWDQQ-2RNBaSmplBNAmv_s4KQ0HIjhoCS8IQAvD_BwE

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Thanks, Phoenicians!

By the 1400s movable type had made its way west along the Silk Road. Like the compass, movable type wasn’t a big deal in China. But when Johannes Gutenberg got ahold of it, movable type changed Western Civ. Why? The Phoenicians, that’s why.

Those Phoenicians left us a gift: a tight, efficient little alphabet of only 26 letters to represent every sound in any language. Our alphabet is ideal for movable type. You only need 26 upper-case and 26 lower-case (capitals and small) letters, numbers 0-9 and punctuation marks to print an entire book.

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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.

Dig the sneer quotes around the word ‘invented’—like they finally brought that wily rascal Gutenberg to justice:

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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:


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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

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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—

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