Two women stand at a desk. One is using a glass muller to blend green ink on the desktop as the other watches. In the foreground is a tray with type for letterpress printing
All photos by Polina Teif

We’re Going to Print Like It’s 1899

Having grown up with all things digital, these students are learning how to make books the old, old-fashioned way

At a time when books are increasingly downloaded, some U of T graduate students are learning how to create traditional printed volumes – using 19th century letterpresses and a large collection of wood and metal type in the Bibliography Room at Massey College.

The students come from a variety of disciplines but are all interested in the history of the book. They say the hands-on experience of painstakingly setting type and mechanically printing a single sheet at a time sometimes takes their studies in new directions – and encourages them to use their brain differently.

“The slow pace of letterpress printing allows for a more thoughtful creative process and lets me demonstrate an artistry I didn’t think I possessed,” says Kathryn Middleton, a Master of Information student and one of three designated Printing Fellows working in the Bibliography Room this term, as part of the Book History and Print Culture program.

Printing a quarto using an iron hand press. Video by Polina Teif
A hand holds a small wooden block of type for the letter K
Students learn how to set type – painstaking work that involves selecting the required letters from their storage trays, putting them into a “composing stick” and eventually loading them onto the press. Typesetting a single page can take an hour or longer.
A small black ink roller moves over a tray of type, in preparation for printing.
Here, ink is being applied with a "brayer" to create a “quarto” – so-called because it combines four pages of text onto a single sheet of paper. It is important to cover the entire printing area with ink and to use just the right amount: too little and parts of the document won’t print; too much and blotches appear.
A woman sets a large piece of white paper in place on an upright tray. She is standing in front of an iron hand press with a metal tray containing inked type.
Printing Fellow Kathryn Middleton carefully attaches a sheet of paper to the “tympan,” making sure the paper is properly positioned. Before she prints, Middleton lowers the “frisket” – a metallic frame (top left) – to help keep the paper in place.
A woman covers a tray of type as she prepares to use a 19th century iron hand press. Another woman in the background works at a desk, making her own green ink.
Middleton lowers the tympan so the paper comes into contact with the inked type. She will then roll it under the press's heavy iron "platen."
A close-up of two hands pulling on a large lever attached to a black iron press
Middleton pulls back on a lever to press the paper firmly and evenly into the inked type.
A woman looks at a page she has just printed. The page is attached to the tympan part of an iron hand press. The woman is wearing a face mask over her mouth and nose to protect against COVID-19.
She then reverses the process and removes the freshly printed sheet. The page must now be placed flat to dry.
A number of posters created using a letterpress hang on a bulletin board. One of the posters says
College printer Kit MacNeil has pulled together examples of letterpress projects created in the Bibliography Room and elsewhere to build a “wall of inspiration.” These works include greeting cards (which the room sells), posters, bookmarks and chapbooks.

One of the purposes of the program, says director Yulia Ryzhik, an assistant professor in the department of English at U of T Scarborough, is to get students from various disciplines thinking critically and analytically about the physical nature of the book and the implications of how books are made and distributed. This involves everything from examining manuscripts and marginalia to typography and book binding to paper- and ink-making.

A hand moving in a figure-8 motion uses a glass muller on a flart surface to mix and grind the ingredients for green ink.
Making ink. Courtesy of Adriana Ciocci.

Adriana Ciocci, a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and also a Printing Fellow, is making her own verdigris ink using a 17th-century recipe. She says finding an ink recipe from the era was difficult because print shops fiercely guarded these formulations – as food companies today would a “secret sauce.”

She likens the diverse group of students and professors who use the Bibliography Room – under the expert guidance of college printer Kit MacNeil – to an artist studio: “an environment that encourages experimentation while acknowledging the inevitability of making errors while learning.”

A hand holds up a strip of copper a few centimetres wide that has been soaked in vinegar. Horizontal bands of of a green and brown patina has formed on the copper.
To make her own verdigris ink, Adriana Ciocci begins by soaking a piece of copper in vinegar. Verdigris forms on the copper in green bands, (shown above). The word “verdigris” comes from the French “vert-d’aigre,” which means “green of vinegar.”
A hand holds out blue-green crystals over a table top with a lot of crystals on it. Another hand holds a small bottle of the crystals.
The vinegar turns turquoise-blue and is poured into a dish to evaporate, leaving crystals behind. Ciocci then mixes the crystals with a thick linseed oil and turpentine.
On a table with green ink is a glass pestle. A hand holds a knife with a wide blade that scrapes the ink along the table.
She uses a glass “muller” to grind and blend the ingredients. When the ink is ready, it should have a uniform pigment, spread evenly and adhere to the type. The right consistency is thinner than honey but tacky, says Ciocci. When it is rolled out with a brayer, there should be a slight hissing sound, she adds.

Sophie Edelhart, a PhD candidate in Yiddish Studies and a Printing Fellow, is making a Haggadah – a book that sets out the order of the Passover Seder – using Yiddish type acquired from a Jewish newspaper in Hamilton, Ontario.

Edelhart says the process of typesetting and binding the Haggadah, which they hoped to use at their own Passover celebration, has given them a deeper appreciation for books as objects and introduced them to a craft that they now consider a passion. “I really value having a space where every week I get to walk in and just be creative.”

Two shelves against a wall hold large wooden blocks of type. In the foreground are two desks, each with several narrow drawers, which hold smaller type sizes. On top of the desk are also several trays of small tyoe.
The Bibliography Room has more than 350 wood typefaces – one of the largest such collections in North America – and a wide array of lead typefaces. These range in size from six points (about 2 mm), kept in the small compartments shown on the desk, to 72 picas (about 30 cm, or one foot), stored on shelves. The large range in sizes allows students to create everything from footnotes to poster headlines.
Two hands hold up two small blocks of Yiddish type. Below them is a small box full of blocks of Yiddish type.
The Bibliography Room has type for several languages besides English, including French and Dutch, and a few that use the Cyrillic alphabet, such as Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. While poking around one day, MacNeil found a box with symbols they couldn’t identify; it turned out to be Cree syllabic type. The room’s collection of Yiddish type (as shown above) was acquired from a socialist Jewish newspaper in Hamilton, Ontario, that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.
A woman operates a galley proof press. Next to her is a desk with several narrows drawers containing type.
Sophie Edelhart, a PhD candidate in Yiddish Studies, notes that because Yiddish is read right to left, it needs to be typeset differently than English. Here, they use a galley proof press to print test pages of a document she has typeset. They will proofread the pages to ensure no mistakes appear in the final printed text.

About The Author

Author image: Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson

Editor, University of Toronto Magazine

The experience of being a Printing Fellow sometimes takes the students outside the Bibliography Room together. The group visits historical book shops, attends book fairs and other events and often catch up outside of Massey College at the Crafty Coyote, a pub on Bloor Street West. “There’s a lot of camaraderie amongst the ‘Bib Roomers,’” says MacNeil.

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  1. 8 Responses to “ We’re Going to Print Like It’s 1899 ”

  2. Dr. David W. Roe says:

    I once worked at William Lyon MacKenzie House on Bond Street in Toronto. My job there was to give short lectures about the printing press used by MacKenzie himself, and to demonstrate how it worked. It was extremely interesting!

  3. Thomas Worcester says:

    Having written a dissertation on a 17th-century bishop who published some 250 books, it is great to see print culture given such care in what is thought of as a digital era.

  4. Elizabeth McDonald says:

    As a Master of Library Science graduate who is now long-retired, I found this article fascinating! Reading suggestion: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish.

  5. Mora Gregg says:

    I worked for a small publisher in Toronto for many years and spent many inky hours in the proofreading room at the printer. I enjoyed interacting with the printer's staff and with the other customers. We would help each other proofread the final page proofs to catch any errors that may have been missed. I witnessed the shift from hot type (male typographers) to cold type (young women and men). The printer kept a hand press for special projects until they went out of business.

  6. Kathryn James says:

    My father oversees a printing museum in a small town in southern Manitoba (Crystal City). Last summer, we were excited to discover Gianni Basso and his printing shop in Venice, Italy. Such an amazing glimpse into Venetian printing history. I highly recommend reading about his background or visiting his stamperia in person!

  7. Ali Ahmed says:

    I took a one-year multimedia program at Algonquin College and I wish we'd had this kind of setup. From the lead-letter pressing, students can learn how to design fonts and everything in between and beyond. Printing and assembling books can be so much fun, and it helps even young learners appreciate printed books. I hope U of T uses this for a "create-a-book workshop" for high school students. This could become a pipeline of creators!

  8. R W Fisher says:

    The Bib Room is a treasure! Printing is an art and fundamental to culture. It's wonderful that these techniques have not been not lost in our age. The knowledge of creating the printed page will endure thanks to Massey College.

  9. James Douglas Thwaites says:

    The printing industry provided a fertile base for the emergence of trade unions in Canada. You had to be literate to work in this field, which contributed to the emergence of a dynamic, articulate movement. The Toronto Printers' Strike of 1872, in which workers sought shorter (nine-hour) workdays, contributed to the legalization of trade unions in Canada. This had repercussions across the country during the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald. The trade union movement grew, and in 1891 the Roman Catholic Church adopted a favourable position toward the working classes in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.