Setting Spaces: A Look Inside The Book Arts Workshop

by Jaden Young | 9/20/17 2:25am


Six of us gather close around a low wooden table.

Each looks up as the next comes in, but no one breaks the cozy hush of Baker basement.

Our instructor for tonight, Bob Metzler, strides in, and immediately sets to letting us know what we’re in for.

We’re printing an October calendar page. Metzler has already set up the calendar part, but we all get to typeset quotes of our choosing to go beneath it.

The other participants are community members, faculty and graduate students. Metzler asks where everyone heard about the workshop; three people read about it in the Vox Daily.

“We don’t really get a lot of undergrads here,” Metzler said. “Maybe they’re too busy — I guess you would know,” he smiles at me.

The Book Arts Workshop offers opportunities to learn and practice bookbinding, letterpress printing, illustration techniques and other aspects of making printed materials. There’s no fee to use the materials and equipment during open studio hours or to attend workshops, although registration is required to attend workshops, with preference given to students.

The workshop, housed in Baker Library’s basement, has been slowly expanding. It started in a few rooms, but studios and offices now take up both sides of the hall next to the Orozco Mural Room.

“We’ll have taken over the women’s bathroom within a few years,” Metzler laughs.

The first order of business is a history lesson. During the 1930s, professor Ray Nash founded Dartmouth’s Graphic Arts Workshop, a precursor to today’s Book Arts Program.

According to Metzler, interest in the program flagged after Nash’s retirement in the ’70s, before the workshop was re-established by three of Nash’s students in 1989.

The presses we’ll be using today, Metzler tells us, aren’t all that unlike the one Johannes Gutenberg created in the 15th century.

“This — letterpress with individual pieces of type — this is a process that you’d use up to the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s,” Metzler said. “Then, it got mechanized — photo offset lithography took over, and, now, digital printing.”

Now, for a vocab primer. It’s clear there are scores of terms to learn here, and I do my best to catch what I can: “knicks” are the grooves on the top of characters, the wooden cases the type is stored in are “California job cases,” lines of type are separated by “leads” or “slugs.”

The California job case is made in a way that provides printers with easy access to the most frequently used letters. The biggest compartments house the most common vowels and consonants: A, O, I, E, R, S, T, etc. Metzler shows us how to measure the size of type and line lengths with pica sticks.

Metzler demonstrates how to set the type into small, hand-held composing sticks, reminding us to mind our p’s and q’s as we set the type from left to right, upside-down and backwards, to ensure proper spelling.

Metzler moves us quickly into the studio, eager for the practical part of our workshop to begin.

“That’s the best way to learn — to get your hands dirty,” he said.

He’s not just speaking figuratively; by the end of the session the lead alloy type and ink stain all our hands.

One by one, we search through examples to pick fonts for our quotes, pull the heavy wooden cases from their storage and begin the painstaking process of finding and setting each letter.

We, beginners, are painfully slow, but Metzler tells us how people used to hold typesetting competitions to show off how quickly they could accomplish the task.

We proof our work individually before adding our quotes to the calendar. Metzler walks each of us through the process. We place our type, roll on ink, add paper, turn a crank to position it under the press and pull a lever to apply pressure.

We’re using a H. M. Caslon iron hand press and a Vandercook SP-20 to print our projects today. Presses like these and other printing implements started disappearing as other methods of printing gained prominence.

“Printing companies were dumping all this stuff in the trash or melting the metal down, and fortunately a lot of people got smart and started saving it,” Metzler said. “I was able pick up some of it over the years.”

It’s harder to find printing materials now. When things break, Metzler said, they fix them themselves. There are, however, still a few people around making metal type.

“We just got some new stuff that was recently cast by a fellow in Massachusetts,” he said.

Having proofed each quote in the first press, we add our sections to the larger form and gather around to begin printing.

Excited to see the product of their labor, each participant takes a turn loading the paper, turning the crank and setting the calendars out to dry.

Then, together, we clean the type and presses. The cleaning fluid, stored in metal canisters, has a bright, sweet citrus scent.

“It doesn’t taste quite as good as it smells,” Metzler quips.

As we finish cleaning, I marvel at the product of our collective work. The smooth, indented surface of the inked parts and the crispness of the type against delicate paper is precious. Holding the physical product of a technique used upwards of 500 years, feeling its materiality, is an experience.

I now understand what Meltzer was trying to show us in the beginning, as we passed around a book printed with tiny, hand set type, and explained the care and time it would have taken for it to be created.

That’s not to say all the techniques used in the workshop are the stuff of history. Metzler even shows us a relief plate made from computer-originated text that can be used in the presses.

Even as it draws on techniques from years past, the work of the Book Arts Workshop is dedicated to making them accessible to the present day Dartmouth community, giving people a chance to feel and experience the processes of the art.

“We’re going to be doing ‘The Night Before Christmas’ before the holidays,” Metzler said. “Everyone will get to set a few lines, so if you’re into that, look out for dates.”