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Letterpress.

Why, in an age of 400-fonts-at-the-click-of-a-mouse, instantaneous desktop publishing, would any sane person spend free hours setting metal type and laboriously hand feeding a letterpress -- technology not far removed from Gutenberg?...

Why, in an age of 400-fonts-at-the-click-of-a-mouse, instantaneous desktop publishing, would any sane person spend free hours setting metal type and laboriously hand feeding a letterpress -- technology not far removed from Gutenberg?
Todd White, owner of Duluth's Recknynge Press, laughs at the question during an interview at his Woodland home. Then he delivers a host of answers.
"Because I really enjoy it," he said first.
Then he noted the craftsmanship involved, citing "a little epiphany" with a Depot project where writers and artists interpreted each others' work. He traces the roots of the private press movement, a reaction away from commercialized, ugly books.
It's a hobby, too. "If I'm not doing something creative, I tend to go toward mischief," said White, a librarian by trade. "It's a good way to keep myself busy."
There is also the possibility of making money. White is currently working on the press' first book, a print of "The Selfish Giant" by Oscar Wilde with an original illustration, handbound with leather and a marbled paper cover. The book, made from acid free paper and handbound to last, will be "decadent," he said, and ready before the Christmas season, possibly retailing at more than $45 for the limited edition.
But when pressed, White's confession of a belief in books may hold the real answer to his obsession. He said certain books have changed his life and the way he thinks.
"There's something to them, where you feel the book and read the book," he said. "... You keep them on the shelf because they're friends; you own them in some way."
So White sees letterpress as a way to make special books. "People who are in the private press movement contend you can't make a more beautiful book than you can on letterpress," he said.
Averse to making money or not, this is clearly a labor of love and an investment. For the run of 100 books, White says he has lost track of the hours put into the project, snatched late evenings between family and work. The typeface for the project, an exact replica of Poliphilus, originally designed and used in the 15th century for a scholar and printer named Aldus Manutius, cost several hundred dollars.
And don't forget paper -- White says our "paperless" society of Internet connections has resulted in a doubling of paper use since 1982. The paper he is using for the book is 77-pound Rives cotton paper, which he describes as "almost like fabric."
"We're so used to just throwing paper away," he said. "In Elizabethan times, you would work at scraping away all that writing so you could use it again."
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"(Paper is) very valuable to me, because I haven't told my wife how much it's going to cost to buy these things," he added, wryly noting the great tradition of press owners going broke.
Then there is the quality. How does one value a book that can outlive its owner?
"With a little maintenance, my book will be the same 500 years from now as it is today," White said.
Recknynge lives in White's basement, where the self-taught printer operates on a Chandler & Price Old Style II with an 8 inch by 12 inch chase size he bought from a Duluth warehouse owner. The press was made to be fed manually and was cast in 1898. Except for the fact it's self-inking, the press is the same technology Gutenberg employed, said White.
Each page of type is hand-set, and once that's done, the printer can get in a rhythm churning out pages -- maybe 400 impressions in an hour.
White's mother-in-law has collected initial capital letters for him. He looks through books of typefaces, considering their history and their feel in deciding what to use. In the case of Poliphilus, getting the type made and ready to use took months.
In hand setting the type, White worries over running out of the letter "e" and can tell when a piece of type is out of place by looking at the printed page. He speculates that his paper choice, because of its absorption, may have a minute effect on the blackness of the type.
In short, he's a craftsman. Who frequently gets ink on his shirt.
Just think what you could have done with the money you paid for a PC. "For the price of a modern computer, you could get yourself a pretty good press," said White.
For more information about ordering a copy of the book, contact Recknynge at 728-6062 or by e-mail at
recknynge@altavista.com .

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