A lost craft

February 20, 2016

I landed at Heathrow this morning to pick up a message from my sister attaching this photograph. He had found some old black and white negatives and had been digitising them. She rightly thought I would want to see this one without delay. I posted it on social media as I was walking to customs and throughout the day have been amused and to a degree surprised by the number of people who didn’t recognise a platen press.

Invented in the 19th Century the press allowed for a sevenfold increase in speed in printing. Basically you compose and lock cold metal letters (the font trays are on the bench to the right in the photograph) into the press, place printers ink on the circular metal disc at the top and then treadle. The ink rollers take ink from the plate and spread it over the type and the operator has to insert paper into the press in precise timing with the overall movement.

When I was at school the local printing works was moving to offset litho so we got their old press and the fonts as part of an arts project. I was involved in that selection as I was not a part of the school magazine production. Creating an illegal one had got me a temporary suspension for breaking the rules and then I was coopted by power on my return. I fell in love with that press. Composing was an art and after the proofs there was intricate work with tissue paper to make sure everything was even. You crossed your eyes to check for runs of white in the text and generally looked not just at the accuracy of the text, but the overall look and feel of the page. Then the joy began, a form of meditation as fresh paper slipped into the press and was drawn out freshly imprinted. I never crushed my hand, although that was a common injury if the safety bars were not properly set.

Over the course of my two sixth form years I think I produced most of the club cards for the school, timetables, concert invitations and the school magazine. It occupied my lunch breaks and hours after school. There was a sense of completion, of draft in the symbiosis of man and machine. Later after University I pushed through the purchase of an offset litho machine for the SCM but while fun, it was never the same. That was a task to be completed, and pleasurable enough, but it never gave the same satisfaction.

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