Archives for posts with tag: letterpress

blindpigpress would not exist without bill poole.

i met bill upon returning to niagara after graduating from nscad (nova scotia college of art and design). professor robert dawson of the dawson print room at dalhousie university asked me if i had ever been to the wayzgoose in grimsby. i said that i hadn’t. he said that i ‘had’ to go—and that when i did, i should introduce myself to bill poole.

my need to print must have been great because i wouldn’t normally talk to someone without knowing them (the technical term is ‘shy’), but i did.

bill said that i should come up and print at his shop on the escarpment in grimsby. i did and i never went away. i’m not sure if this is exactly what bill meant, but nearly every weekend for a decade i would go up to the printshop and put together books, posters, etc. bill and his family became great friends to me.

there were so many things that i learned from bill and from working in the shop. many of them had to do with beer.

the three most important things (to me) were 1) never be afraid to scrap a bad idea, 2) if it’s not fun, don’t do it, and 3) design and work are tangible and fundamentally ‘good’ things.

in the years since his death in 2001, i have, in varying degrees and with varying success, tried to work all of these things out.

in the printshop it was easy to throw things away that weren’t working. you would try, you would explore and if it didn’t work, you had scrap paper. the cool thing about the process was it actually took time, but that was all it took. you had to invest time to see a result. there was a direct correlation between the thought and the work and the result. bill was never bothered to throw something away.

to me, the greatest thing that bill did was print books. this takes the sort of dogged and plodding work ethic that well suited him. there is a repetitiveness in book design that he liked and also a ‘pretty’ usefulness to the object that i think appealed to him. he certainly printed a lot!

one of bill’s famous sayings was, ‘if it isn’t fun, don’t do it’. bill liked fun things. he liked play and he liked whimsy. he liked doing something for no good reason (okay, maybe there was a reason in there that only he understood). he liked discovery : this was all part of the fun (it was also a part of his printing work). if things couldn’t be fun, he became irritable.

i have found that i too need things to be new and interesting and fun. as i get older this is more essential or central to what i do. if you can’t have fun printing and designing and making things, the you can’t have fun. bill liked to be interested. he liked to be busy. he liked to take things at their own pace.

bill worked at his printing a lot. in my mind’s eye, i can see him setting type. his long, nimble fingers plucking the letters from the case. his eyes moving between the copy he was setting and the composing stick. the thin clicking sound of the type in the stick mixing with the tuneless humming over the radio playing low in the background.

it might be an overstatement to say that bill thought work was sacred (we didn’t really ever talk about that sort of stuff), but i would say that he did think that work was important. what you did was a part of what and who your are.

if your work was immoral (bill invariably spoke about lawyers, real estate agents, stock brokers and bankers as being not good things to be—he once told me that he was glad none of his children ended up being lawyers).

there was always something on the go in the printshop—always a project, always a crusade. human effort and endeavour were important. it was only through this effort that change came about. only through this effort that culture got built. you do not start an art gallery unless you believe deeply in culture (and bill started an art gallery from the ground up).

bill understood and respected the process by which work and design took place. design was a process for bill, he understood the steps he repeated and how things progressed and went together. this built in him an ease of working that was deceptively simple. when he was working he didn’t look like he was working.

i once saw him put together a turkey box to transport his chickens to the beamsville fair. he made it out of corrugated and his cuts, scores and folds were assured and done by someone who knew his materials, but someone who had also repeated the process many many times.

this ease of work and enjoyment of work (along with his overalls and generally dishevelled appearance) made bill appear to be more of a quaint figure than he was. bill was gentle of demeanor, but he was fiercely committed to his work (you don’t produce as much work as bill did without being driven).

and yet he did it with the minimum amount of ego required. he never really articulated to me his reasons for printing all these things. again, you don’t do something like poole hall press without being committed to the work.

i think bill wanted the things he printed to be brought into existence. his interests were not that of the mainstream : modern classical music, printing, typography, lewis carroll, canadiana, art. i think part of why he did what he did was because he wanted these things to exist (or, in some cases, re-exist) and he didn’t see them out in the world, so he set about to create them.

i think bill was too much of a child of his time to not value hard work. but he didn’t value hard work for its own sake. the most difficult way of doing something was okay, but there had to be something at the end : personal satisfaction, culture, a book, beer. tangible, real things.

the time i spent with bill was good time. he influenced me in many ways, most particularly in my ‘thinking’ about work, design, and what we do as human beings. how we relate to others and how we relate to the world around us.

i miss him. a lot. i think he may be the only one who understood.


so, it seems a little weird, but as of 1 january 2016 blindpigpress is twentyfive years old.

like most things, i’m not really sure how i feel about this. i guess i’m sorta weirded out because it’s been twentyfive years. that’s a lot of years. twentyfive is the kind of year that you have a big party over (i haven’t yet).

on the other hand i’m sorta proud that i have stuck around for that long. i don’t like feeling proud because there is something fundamentally wrong with that. you know there’s going to be trouble coming down the pipe if you start feeling something approaching good about yourself or what you do.

but it is certainly something.

i’m lucky in the fact that i look like i could have been doing something for twentyfive years. there’s lots of grey hair (in fact, most). the beard is pretty much all grey. the eyes are weak and i have to look at stuff up closeup to see it properly. the body is bent and messed up in a way that looks like a repetitive strain injury.

at this point in my life i can’t weed the me out of what i do. there was a time when i thought that blindpigpress was something on it’s own : an entity that had a life that existed beyond . but now i think of it as me. it’s a part of my personality. or my dna.

but i’m not sure why.

i started blindpigpress as a private press because bill poole told me that i had to. i had just graduated from nscad (pre-u) and i really really liked letterpress printing. i didn’t know what a private press was (i still don’t). but over time and a lot of reps, i have become it. i don’t think that it has become me.

i wanted to do something symbolically on new year’s day to celebrate, so i thought that destroying all my previous work would be a good thing. so, bright and early on 1 january i set about to destroying all the stuff that i hadn’t been able to sell (small joke) or give away (slightly smaller joke).

i started by trying to burn some of it, but that didn’t go too well. it was really cold outside and it was taking too long and i was having trouble burning that much stuff in a tiny little mini bbq that we have (i don’t approve of bbqs).

the next step was to cut it up quickly in my cutter. this worked like a charm. i chopped up all the posters and broadsides and other crap in no time. it was very freeing. i would recommend it to anyone.

as soon as i started chopping it up i knew i was doing the right thing. instead of thinking about the old stuff i had, i started thinking about the new stuff that i wanted to do. it also cleared up a lot of space in the paper drawers.

then i started all over again.


letterpress printing and typography have taken me to many odd places. weird basement print shops in hamilton. meeting Hermann Zapf and Gudrun Zapf von Hesse a buffet line over lobster newberg. holding the gutenberg bible with my bare (and not altogether clean) hands at an unnamed museum.

it also landed me (on a regular basis) at the tools of the trade antique tool show in pickering.

i sort of getting into woodworking in order to learn more about woodtype and to help me complete the big project. the big project (i will talk about it more in posts to come) is the creation of a new font of woodtype using traditional techniques. i’ve designed the type, acquired a pantograph and all i have to do is surface the wood to the .918″ thickness.

however, i got really into the wood. and i started taking cabinetmaking courses at a local college. i started making furniture and i must admit that it rekindled an interest that has laid dormant in me since high school. it also has connected some intellectual dots linking typography, craft, letterpress, design, and the materials that we use (and one of the reasons for this blog).

this almost brings me back to the tool show in pickering.

the first time i went, i found a book press and lots of other small letterpress stuff that i really didn’t need. but who can’t use a bookpress. so i bought it.

the next time i found some a massively overpriced wooden composing stick. with herculean restraint, i did not purchase it.

this time i found : a book press, a Rouse slug cutter and three composing sticks. i held off on the book press (in another act of restraint), but couldn’t resist the slug cutter and the composing sticks.

the slug cutter was in amazingly good nick. i just propped it up on the type cabinet and it looked like it had been there forever.


the composing sticks were pretty cool. two of the three were from the stephenson blake type foundry in sheffield, england. i bought them because, as a left-handed typesetter, they have a little indent on the right-hand end of the stick that allows the thumb of my right hand to hold the stick more steadily than the other sticks i have.

the other interesting thing about the largest of the three sticks was some engraving on the back.


it seems one D.R. Coats won first prize in ‘Stage III’ composing in 1953. and now i have his stick.

i will never win any prizes at the speed of my typesetting, but it sort of feels cool to have something like this to work with. the stick had seen much use over the years (D.R. Coats obviously put the stick to good use) and i hope to be able to use is as my primary stick for setting longer lines of type — maybe book composition.

in some ways tools are unimportant. they are there to do a job. i don’t know who D.R. Coats is. 1953 isn’t that long ago. but it does, somehow, make me feel better than if there had been no engraving on the back.

on another stick, ‘D.R. Coats’ is inscribed on the back. the engraving is hamfisted and not up to the quality of the other work. it’s better than the other one, though, sweeter. it’s like someone was doing it to imitate the other stick and not doing a good job of it.

i like that even more because it also describes the process of craft.

note : i just looked up the name ‘D.R. Coats’ on the googles and found that there is a D.R. Coats ink and resin compant in mumbai, maharashtra, india. the information seems to indicate that the company began in 1998.

so, for the past billion years or so, i’ve been working on a typeface. Flapjack.

Flapjack started out digital (it was called Bismarck at that point). then i wanted to use it for letterpress printing, so i cut it in linoleum (that’s when it was redubbed Flapjack by a colleague). i like it so much that i thought that there should be a woodtype version and that’s where the trouble began.

i acquired a small pantograph machine which i thought/hoped would do the job. and then came the unbelievably difficult task of acquiring end-grain maple that had been surfaced to the required .918″ for printing. this just about broke our bulldog pluck, but we at the press figured that we could make the stuff ourselves, so we set out to gain valuable woodworking skills to assist us in this vital task.

along the way we learned a whole bunch of stuff which we will be detailing later on, but the most persistent question from those who would not understand what we needed to do was this : why don’t you just cut the type on a CNC machine? my answer to this was usually a two-word vulgarity followed by : because that would be too easy.

i think i knew i had to cut it in the way i knew i had to cut it in was because i just knew that i had to do it that way. doing it the long, painful and difficult way would satisfy some deep-seated need to do it that way and it would (i thought/think) achieve the look and feel that i knew i needed.

to that end, i’m almost ready to bring this woodtype experiment to a beginning and (hopefully) and end. but not before my wife intervened with the nerdbot3000.

the nerdbot is a 3d printer. she had purchased on for her school that turned out to be quite a lemon and didn’t want to bother her with the idea for generating type this way. but when she got the nerdbot3000 v. 2.0, and it was working much better than the first one, i decided to plunge in.

first off, i took the vector drawing of the uppercase G of Flapjack and manipulated it in a software program called Autodesk123D. to save build time on the nerdbot, i wanted to create a piece of type that could be mounted on a piece of .75″ plywood that i had used for the linoleum version. i extruded the raised part of the letter to 10 mm, left the base at 5 mm, exported the results and fed it into the nerdbot.

to my surprise things worked out pretty well. below you can see the actual printing of the honeycomb that formed the middle part of the Flapjack letter sandwich.



the printing too about 45 minutes to complete. the letter itself was attached to a printed substrate which allows for a smoother build and better adhesion of the material to itself.


after the detaching the letter from the substrate, this is what i had :


i held the letter up to the light so you could see the structure of the build a little bit better. this clearly shows the honeycomb pattern that the printer uses to build in strength while cutting down on build time and material usage. i was a little worried that the letter would simply crumble when it was proofed on the press.


i took it out to the print shop to ink it up and proof it. here are the first results :


the observant observer will of course see that i made an amateur mistake by forgetting to flip the letter in reverse at the beginning of the process. but i will tell that observer to suck eggs and remind them that i was excited to test the build and it wasn’t about whether the letter printed correctly the first time. i would be lying.

you can see that the printed image is rougher than a badger’s arse, so i did some benchtop sanding with 220 grit sandpaper to smoothing things out a bit and see how the edges would print. below is my next result.


i’m not really convinced that the nerdbot is the way to go for printing type. or at least to get a smooth, flat surface that i am used to with woodtype. the way that the printhead lays down the materials is just not conductive to traditional letterforms. i have seen one example on the old interwebs (actually, a friend sent it to me in a taunting manner because i had previously dismissed 3d printed type as being too rough for letterpress after experiments with my wife’s first printer) that factored the way the printer printed into the design of the letters themselves — they created ‘wireframes’ for the letters which meant a smooth surface wasn’t necessary.

when i looked at the final product the traditionalist in me was frankly appalled, but i understood what they were trying to get at. i’m not sure if they used an over-the-counter sort of 3d printer that i did (the article only mentions a ‘polyjet’ printer) and the photos are maddeningly lacking the detail that i need to determine if it’s the same basic build structure as mine is. but i think it’s safe to say that it’s similar.

i was quite surprised that the letter held up the way it did to a number of proofings. it seemed sturdy enough to withstand a short press run, but i would have to mess around with that a bit more.

the big factor for me was the time involved. 45-minutes for one letter means that printing all 26 letters would take approximately 20 hours. that’s without any punctuation or numerals.

it almost makes using the pantograph seem easy.

there are few things in life better than typography. there are fewer things in life better than metal type for printing. my mind reels to think of anything better than a brand new font of a much-loved typeface cast in foundry metal.

well, gentle reader, as you may have guessed, that’s exactly what i’m talking about. eighteen-point Perpetua Italic.


a chance meeting at an antique woodworking tool show reintroduced me to dan jones from Pygment Press (more about what i found at the show in a later post). dan casts beautiful foundry type on his Montype Supercaster. i have two other fonts from Pygment : 26-point Sanders Condensed and 18-point Perpetua Roman. both print amazingly well and the Perpetua that i have is one of my ‘go to’ fonts when i really want something to look good.


when i first got the Perpetua Roman i printed a small broadside of a Thomas Merton poem. the type bit into the weird paper i used really well and maintained its edge on a difficult surface.


because of its size, the type sets really easily in the composing stick. but the best thing about the type is the crispness of the printed image. all metal type for printing is made from a combination of lead (for malleability), tin (for toughness) and antimony (a hardening agent). foundry type is harder than type that is cast to be used once or twice and melted down. most new type that i have is not foundry metal and you can feel the difference on the press and on the paper.

Perpetua was designed by the very famous british catholic sexual deviant Eric Gill and released by Monotype in 1929. originally (and on the misguided advice of the very weird Stanley Morison), the companion ‘italic’ was a sloped roman named Felicity, but Monotype hated it so much that Gill redesigned the italic that we know today. one of the things i like best about Perpetua is the generous ascenders and descenders; which means you can set it with little leading and have it not look cramped. for me, the lowercase ‘b’s, ‘d’s, ‘f’s, ‘g’s and ‘y’s in both the roman and italic are of surpassing beauty. the ampersands are fantastic as well.

i think Perpetua is a more lasting testament to Gill’s genius with letterforms than the more famous calligraphic sans serif that bears his name.

one of the things that makes Pygment’s casting exciting is the addition of very useful @ symbols, which are invaluable to a modern letterpress lad like me with the advent of the interwebs and email addresses and such.


without new type to use, as printers, we are going to be screwed royally. and these typefaces need to be fairly readily available and the typefaces need to be good as well. we are not going to be able to print with Copperplate Gothic, Cheltenham and Cooper Black forever. there are so few resources for new typefaces that we have to find a way to support and nurture those that we have.


whenever i get some new (or new to me) type, the question becomes what to print with the new type. it may sound weird, but the first job you work on with a typeface will determine your feelings about that type in the future. a good first choice is a good thing. so, since the type arrived i’ve been trying to think what i should do with it. letterhead (i just used my last sheet)? business cards (i don’t have any right now)? some quote by a famous dead person that i like (the path to real obscurity is littered with blindpigpress quotation broadsides)?

i’m still thinking about it.


and that’s one of the best parts of the letterpress design process : because you can touch and feel the type, it will tell you what to do with it.

you just have to remember to listen.