24 November 2009

Robert Smail's Printing Works, Innerleithen

Wow, two posts in 24 hours! Don't get too used to it: we've got a bit of a backlog, so we're trying to catch up.

Anyway, last Wednesday Nana and I took a field trip with my book history program to Robert Smail's Printing Works, in Innerleithen, in the Borders.

Robert Smail's, a National Trust for Scotland property, is a working 19th-century print shop and stationery store that doubles as an industrial heritage museum. The property owns and operates an iron hand press and a variety of later-19th-century powered presses. They still do jobbing work--posters, tickets, brochures, etc--but most of their revenue these days comes from visitors like us.

Now, as a book history dork, I could go on for hours about all the details of how work got done in this kind of shop, but I'll spare you. (Though I'd be happy to elaborate if asked.)

The basic process is this:
  1. Arrange all the bits of type you want to show up on the page in a big rack called a forme--this is called "compositing."
  2. Stick the forme (or a copy of the forme called a stereotype) in the press.
  3. Insert paper; ink the stuff on the form; impress; lather, rinse, repeat as needed.
  4. Fold, cut, bind the finished product; clean and maintain the machine; put the type back where it belongs.
  5. Profit.

At Smail's, you can watch just about every step of the process except the fourth (you get to watch step five in the gift shop!). But you actually get to do step one in the compositor's room, where visitors compose their names (upside-down and backwards) and have them printed on a little keepsake bookmark.


The highlight of the tour: I got to use a special "ff" for my name!

That little thing I'm holding is called a "compositor's stick," or just plan "stick." You put the type line-by-line into the stick first before putting it into the forme.

The second highlight, though, was the machine room, where the heavy-duty stuff is kept. The machines still in use included a wacky pedal-powered clamshell press, an enormous old cylindrical poster-printer, and a blisteringly fast German windmill auto-feeder. None of which terms made any sense to me until I saw them in action! Alas, I forgot my memory card, so I only have this picture to share, which shows the pedal-powered clamshell in the lower-left and one of the older auto-feeders in the upper-left.

The machine room also included a paper guillotine that can easily cut through a stack of paper as thick as your arm in one swipe. Yikes.

In any case, the day was full of fun facts. It turns out that several English idioms come from printer's jargon: out of sorts, for example, means that one or more of the boxes (aka, "sorts") in your typecase is empty. Upper case and lower case, of course, come from the fact that capital letters were kept in the top half of the typecase, and when you're taking type off the form and sorting it back into the case, it's important to mind your p's and q's, as those letters are almost identical in most fonts.

On the whole, the trip made for a very fun day, and I'd definitely recommend a trip to a print shop if there's one near you. It's fascinating how easy it is to ignore how what we read is put together!

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