knees and toes

Greetings from my knees and David’s nose and some really cool wood type!

Well, we may have disappeared from the Internet, but we’ve been busy here at Flat Cap. Last week I spent several days at Inter-Ocean assisting David with the final printing of Moby Dick Made Me Do It. In case there was any doubt, let me remind you how much work David has been doing–I spent a couple of afternoons and one full day in the shop and it’s exhausting!


(at least for David…)

We printed the two wood engravings for the body of the book, and then finally, we printed the cover. All of this happened on the studio’s Washington-style hand press, born around 1895. The Washington is pretty similar to Gutenberg’s press, except made out of iron (not wood). Here’s the press, with David mixing up some ink to the left.


This press is different from the press used to print the body of the book in that it’s totally hand-operated and closes straight down instead of like the shell of a clam, which gives you better control over inking and pressure and the rest of the printing process for detailed, delicate, finicky things (like wood engravings), but it’s also slower because it is totally hand-operated.

Traditionally, these presses were operated by a team of two people on opposite sides of the press, kind of like in this image from a “Dance of Death” cycle (whatever that means) that apparently dates to 1499, making it “the oldest known image of a Gutenberg-style press,” according to this website.

Dance of Death

So in that picture, David would be the skeleton in the center of the image, and I’m the strange midget holding the skeleton’s hand. Then it goes like this:

1. The midget loads the paper,

2. The skeleton inks the type or image:


3. The midget folds the paper onto the type,

4. The skeleton closes the press with a crank and pulls the lever to squish the paper and type together (see the picture of David earlier in the post), and

5. The midget opens the place where the paper goes and unloads the printed sheet.

Repeat 200+ times.

The engravings are beautiful, and enhance the text wonderfully. And the cover–ah, the cover!–what can I say? I’ll just show you:

all locked up
c'mon midget!

all stacked up
See? Delightful.

Now I know each and every one of you is sitting there thinking, how can I get my hands on this beautiful object? The book is not officially on sale yet (don’t worry, we’ll let you know when it is), but if you are in the Denver area, you have a unique opportunity to see the book and purchase your copy. MDMMDI is on display in a gallery called Abecedarian in a show called “Works from Wood.” Alicia Bailey’s gallery is worth a visit any time, for any show, but may I highly recommend that you try to catch “Works from Wood” sometime before it closes on August 7th?

If you can make it out for the Third Friday Art Walk (a chance to stroll through the Santa Fe Arts District and visit galleries without the insanity of First Fridays), you can come to the Artists’ Reception TOMORROW, FRIDAY  JULY 16th from 5-8pm. Abecedarian is at 910 Santa Fe #101. We’ll be there! and so will Moby Dick

flat out gorgeous

Title pages!

Ages and ages ago, I wrote a little about composing type. I wrote about my love of hand-composition, despite the horror some others seem to feel at the thought of such a laborious process. And I said I’d try to follow up with further exploration of the details.

Today I want to talk about imposition. I’ve explained that composition is the process of selecting and ordering the individual pieces of metal type according to the demands of that manuscript. I also mentioned that, in letterpress printing, the composition stage must be followed by the imposition process, which I described this way: “composed type is […] secured in a metal frame called a chase, which allows the type to be loaded into the press for printing”.

Not much of an explanation. In fact, this now seems like a pretty bad analysis. I jumped right into the middle of a philosophical problem here, if not into the jaws of a true paradox. The problem, often faced by philosophical analyses, is that the explanans is in as great a need for analysis as the explanandum.

Okay. By now I’m sure I’ve lost just about everybody to sleep, catastrophic depression, or at least television. So, to indulge myself, I’ll include a brief italicized interlude about philosophical analysis, which everyone should probably skip and go on to the paragraph immediately following, which returns to letterpress issues.

Herewith departs the Self Indulgence Express, direct to Solipsism, MT. The paradox of analysis stems from the following worry. Suppose I attempt a conceptual analysis. It seems like only two things could happen. Either (a) I could end up saying something true, but not interesting (that is, it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know), or (b) I could say something interesting, but not clearly true.

In the present context we have this other common problem: my analysis is right, but it doesn’t amount to an informative analysis since (for pragmatic reasons) it maybe doesn’t mean anything to anyone who didn’t already understand all the terms to begin with. In other words, for someone to know enough to make use of my analysis, they’d have to know so much that my analysis would be irrelevant. The explanans wasn’t any more accessible than the explanandum.

Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s consider how printing works. Not laser-, digital, photo-offset, or none of that other stuff, about which I know next to nothing, but old time letterpress, relief printing. Say we’re going to print an ad flyer for Joe’s Super Awesome Coffee Beans of Bklyn, NY. What we’re going to do is, we are going to grab a composing stick and go over to the type case and pull out all the sorts (individual pieces of type) that we need to spell out:

Joe’s Super Awesome Coffee Beans

select varieties


Offer limited to stock on hand.
Joe’s Super Awesome Coffee Beans of Bklyn, NY

So we’re going to pick out all the sorts in order, laying them on the composing stick, attempting to bear in mind that the letters look upside-down (or sdrawkcab) . We’ll stick some pieces of lead spacing in between the lines in order to space them out like we like. We’ll have to pick from four different types: big heavy bold for the headline, italic text for the priceline, roman caps for the exclamation, and, finally, small, bold, roman text for the fine print.

Alright, now we’ve got it all on the stick. We’ve even centered all the lines on the measure, by adding matching pieces of spacing on either side of each line of type.

Now what?

Somehow we’ve got to make it so that our beautiful type-form (all that metal in the composting stick) can go into the press to be inked and so forth. Let’s tie a bit of string around the type (so we can put down the composing stick without fear; it’s heavy) while we think about this.


So our printing process works by applying ink to metal types and then pressing a sheet of paper against the inky letterforms. Now, in our case, we are printing on The Brute, a 10 x 15 Chandler & Price New Style Press. What’s important for this discussion is that this press is set up to hold the type in a near vertical position. The press opens and closes like a clamshell, allowing the operator to feed sheet after sheet into the maw. In order for this to work, we take a steel frame called a chase, load the composed type into it, and block up the type with wood and metal spacers. Finally, we’ll insert quoins at the edges of the chase. Quoins (pronounced like coins) are adjustable wedging devices that can be tightened until they take up enough space that they wedge tight the other contents of the chase.

Composing stone mess, showing chase, type, furniture, and quoins. Also corrected proofs, brass and copper spacers.

Okay so that was technical. The importance of doing a good job in this stage is nonetheless easy to grasp, since there are two possible outcomes from this procedure. Either (a) all the type gets locked in nice and tight or (b) it doesn’t and remains wiggly. In the first case, the chase is locked up tight and we can expect that when we load it into the press, we’ll get pretty good results. On the other hand, we can imagine what happens in case (b) when we try to load up and run the press. Instead of Joe’s ad printing as it was designed to look, we might get something that looks kind of like this:

J  e’s   per A    ome Co  fee B   ns

$  /lb.
s  le
t varie ies


Offer lim  ed to st  ck o  hand.
Jo  s Su   r Awes me Co  e B a s of Bk  , N

This, clearly, will not stand. Joe would be likely to withdraw his patronage of our printing establishment. What has happened is that some pieces of type have jumped above their fellows and get hit harder (printing an irregular sort of bold), while others have dropped down or perhaps fallen out of the chase altogether, probably to get crushed in the massive steel jaws of the press.

The Brute. How handsome he (she?) is.

Good lockup requires method and patience. The typesetter must fit all the lines of type to match one another, down to the 1/2 pt. If standard word processing type size is 12 pt, then you’re talking roughly 1/24 the height of one line of standard text. We do this by inserting lead spacers, 1 pt brass spacers, and 1/2 pt copper spacers into the lines of type. We carry out this procedure on polished stone or glass surface, so we can be sure that each piece of type is standing up straight and level among its fellows.

If we’ve done a good job imposing (and our type is in good condition) we’ll be ready to get printing straight away.

Me, feeding The Brute.

Art Storm

April 5, 2010

Rain Torn Through Parchment Skies

Today I bring exciting news to our far-flung readership. Our good friend, loyal partner, and tireless mentor Ray Tomasso has a new show up in the gallery of Denver’s Byers-Evans House Museum.

It’s a beautiful show and we’re fortunate that it will remain up and viewable into next month. One piece, titled Bound Up by Thoughts of Moby Dick, even gives a nod to our own current book project. It’s actually my favorite piece in the show and was even before I knew the title!

Bound Up by Thoughts of Moby Dick

I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to watch as these compositions came together over the last several months. Ray’s work provides a great example of successful contemporary abstraction. Folks interested in hand-made books will especially appreciate the strong tactile qualities of Ray’s pieces and everyone stands to be floored by what can be achieved through manipulation of such a humble material as paper.

So Ray: Congratulations!

Everyone else: Come and see the show!

Photos from

– d

I got shot

March 17, 2010

I spent one day last week going to gun shops. I’m not used to gun shops – I don’t own a firearm nor even care to have one. I was looking for lead shot with which to fill a leather bag.

Perhaps I should back up.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time during the last many months doing research on relief printmaking techniques, focusing most closely on wood engraving, hoping to use this method to provide some illustrations for Moby Dick Made Me Do It.

Relief printing techniques include letterpress printing, woodcut and linoleum cut, as well as stamping, which provides the best example of the operative principle. Imagine a rubber stamp. Or, better yet (to my way of thinking anyway), a potato. You cut the potato in half. Taking one potato half in hand, you then cut the outline of a star into the flat surface. Now strip away all the potato flesh surrounding your star, taking the surface down about an eighth of an inch, say.

Your star is now cut in relief. If you dip the face of your potato into food coloring, ink, or paint and then slap it down on paper, you will (if your potato hasn’t been crushed from all this handling) produce a reverse image of the star design you cut in the potato.

Maybe this illustration is superfluous, since we’re all pretty familiar with rubber stamps, even if we’re not all practicing printmakers. We all know, moreover, how when you look at a rubber stamp, say one designed to print a word like PAID or CLASSIFIED, the word reads backwards or upside-down, depending of course on which way you look at it.

But I like the potato case. I like to think about how there’s really no important difference between printing types, a Dürer woodcut, or the bank’s rubber stamp (“DENIED”) and a potato.

A detailed technical discussion here of the distinguishing characteristics of the various relief printing techniques would probably be misplaced. The internet, after all, is full of information. But I’ll say a few things about what I’m up to and then provide some pictures.

To get back to the issue of the gunsmiths and their wares, I’ll point out that it is traditional, as well as sensible, to employ a leather sandbag when cutting a wood engraving. The reason for this lies in the nature of the tools used in this process: the sandbag allows the engraver to raise the block off the surface of the workbench, so that she might hold the block by its sides, keeping her hand below the surface and out of the way of the cutting tool she wields in her other mitt.

Spitsticker, engraving block (for Stingray), two shotbags

Unwilling to buy what I can only expect would have been a very nice (read: expensive) bag from a printmaking supply outfit, I got some scrap leather from a shoe repair shop just down Colfax, cut circles from it, and sewed the circles together. I decided that it might be rather difficult to fill the bag with sand, or, more accurately, it might be difficult to keep the bag full of sand, given that the seam was to be hand-sewn by an untried leatherworker.

I considered using beans or lentils for filling, but was discouraged when I considered how light the resulting bag would be. I imagined it skating around on the bench while I hacked at a moving block and nicked my hands full of scratches.

The solution, I determined, could only be lead shot. Which, it turned out, I would have to travel ten miles (by city bus) to procure and could only be purchased in 25 lb. bags.

Another time I’ll talk more about what I find so captivating about wood engravings. In the meantime, pictures. Interested people should check out work by contemporary engravers Michael McCurdy and Barry Moser, as well as books by the late master Lynd Ward and technique pioneer Thomas Bewick.

Note: The shots of the proofs are pretty bad; I haven’t got a scanner, so in the meantime these’ll have to do. I apologize. Hopefully better photos (and better proofs!) will follow.

Proof for "Stingray". Wood engraving.

Proof for "Whale Tale". Wood engraving.

Zumbi and his favorite leopard-print body pillow

Post-post script: I’m going to be adding links to interesting stuff related to art, literature, and people we know. Keep an eye on the links list!


I’ve mentioned that Flat Cap’s letterpress work is happening at over at Ray and Diane Tomasso’s Inter-Ocean Curiosity Studio in Englewood, CO. There are some pictures in earlier posts from the studio, but perhaps some of you have been curious about the putative curiosities produced so industriously at Inter-Ocean.

Now you can slake this urgent curiosity! Visit and learn all about Ray’s arresting artworks in cast paper! Read about hand papermaking and letterpress printing! Meet the artists and craftspeople who work at Inter-Ocean or employ Inter-Ocean-crafted curiosities in their own studios! Discover opportunities to acquire papermaking and letterpress prowess yourself!

Indulge your curiosity about the Inter-Ocean Curiosity Studio right away!

– david

Ready? Set Tpye!

March 9, 2010

from Updike, Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use. Harvard: 1922.

When I start talking to most folks about letterpress printing and how I’m printing a book, I usually find myself talking about the process for a few seconds before I’m interrupted.

– “Wait, metal type? You mean like with all those little pieces? Like you do this by hand?”

To which I have to try to reply in a dignified tone, maybe pretending that I’ve never been introduced to a computer or the concept of offset lithography:

– “Yup! It’s great!”

I’ve consistently found that it’s this aspect of letterpress work that confounds folks new to the process. The thought of spending hours picking up and ordering hundreds of tiny pieces of metal seems to make their skin crawl a little. Presumably, this has something to do with that modern and highly American way of thinking about doing things, which we all share in some measure: unnecessary labor makes us nauseous.

Now, what makes some activity “unnecessary” can be debated. Generally speaking, though, in our society, there are few things we’d prefer to see done by hand if there’s any way we can achieve a similar result through a mechanized, largely automated process.

I’m not going to try to make a case here for hand typesetting or hand-work of any kind over digital typesetting and automation. One either gets it or one doesn’t. Argument won’t persuade anyone who thinks letterpress printing is inherently a waste of time in 2010, the age of twitter and iMaxiPads (to be sure, an ironic pronouncement from a trained philosopher!). Besides, plenty of others have weighed in on this over the last couple of centuries (those interested in reading more can seek out writings by Arts and Crafts movement icons like William Morris and Eric Gill).

So there are folks out there who never get the chance to make things or fix things or do other work with their own hands and there are those of us who labor, perhaps foolishly, as letterpress printers, type founders, calligraphers, carpenters, bookbinders, papermakers, illustrators, and what have you. We’re very fortunate here in Denver to have a quite vibrant, enthusiastic, and warm community of artist/craftspeople of all sorts.

For my part, composing metal type is perhaps the best part of my work in the shop. I find composing very soothing, especially when compared with setting up and adjusting a 100-year-old printing press. Once you learn the lay of the case, that is, which letters go in which compartments of the type case, it’s not even that slow a process. Of course, I can’t compose type as fast as you can type your comments to this post, but it’s not as though the compositor stands over the case picking – one – letter – out – of – the – case – every – ten – seconds –

So it’s not that bad; it only takes about two hours to compose a page!

Maybe next time I’ll discuss more technical stuff about typesetting.

– David

from Updike, Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use. Harvard: 1922.

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan considers her Kindle collection and explores how it stacks up (pardon the pun) compared to retronymic “traditional books.” She finds it “curious” that one thing people claim is missing in the experience of e-books is the scent, and goes so far as to “suspect that those who gush about book odor might not like to read. If they did, why would they waste so much time inhaling?”

Let me assure Ms. Heffernan, some of us–probably most of us or all of us–who profess a love of the smell of books love to read. Scholar that I am, I can brandish my literary theory to ponder how e-books present an interesting opportunity for the words of a book to stand on their own (an idea hinted at in the Times article), but this intellectually interesting idea can’t compare to the total experience offered by a physical book–with pages and ink and spine….

One of the lovely things about a freshly letterpress printed book is that it smells of ink, sharp and heady, a solid and assertive smell that easily to outdo the weak, powdered, flat odor of warm plastic and electronics.

Trust me, when you order and receive your copy of Moby Dick Made Me Do It, you will receive an experience worth every cent you paid for it.

The paper for the interior of the book has been selected for the way it feels in your fingers, the way the page moves when you turn it, the weight of the complete volume in your hands (and yes, the smell). The paper for the cover of the book has been made by human hands (David’s and Ray’s) specifically for this project–the color and weight tailored to enhance the text.

Each letter has been hand-picked and carefully placed, the typeface and layout considered for maximum visual delight and to best reflect Felicia Zamora’s carefully chosen words. The shade of the ink is unique, and it is lovely. You can feel the letters on the page if you touch them gently with your fingertips. Each page is produced with an inherently physical, sensual process (letterpress printing is totally mechanical, and just ask David, it involves the printer’s entire aching body). Your copy of this book will smell like paper and cotton, like ink, like beeswax and thread, like type metal, like my apartment and the Inter-Ocean Curiosity Studio, like human hands and bodies, like frustration and success and salt and whales and wood. And don’t worry, it won’t distract you from the words. It’s part of them.


February 19, 2010

Work on the new book has been underway for nearly three weeks, yet only one project-related post has made it onto the blog in that time. Why so slow? Where are all the pictures, the riveting accounts of presswork?

One way to account for this situation is to point to (you could say blame) the slow rate of progress in the shop. So what I’ll try to do is provide an outline of  the phases and steps that make up our production process and then reflect on where we’ve gotten so far.

Here are the principle phases of our production of hand-made books:

  1. Editing
  2. Design
  3. Printing
  4. Binding
  5. Distribution

Of course, each of these phases involves a number of steps, and we’ll talk more about the details of all these areas as time allows. For now, though, what’s important is that we are deep into phase #3, Printing.

Now, since we are engaged in letterpress printing, we can divide the printing phase into the following activities:

  • Typesetting: composition, imposition
  • Proofing and improvement
  • Press set-up and run
  • Review and repeat

Composing type on the composing stick.

In a nutshell, this is how letterpress book printing works. Small pieces of metal type are arranged in order, in a process known as composition. The composed type is then secured in a metal frame called a chase, which allows the type to be loaded into the press for printing. This is called imposition.

Type tied up on the stone, waiting to be imposed

Once the type has been set, the printer must print a test copy or proof from the type. This allows mistakes in composition to be fixed and bad pieces of type to be identified and replaced. When a good proof is pulled, the type is considered “good to go”, and the printer proceeds to adjust the press for printing and then print as many copies as necessary of the page(s) that have been composed. After the prints have been pulled, they must be evaluated once more to make certain that all are acceptable for inclusion in the book.

Corrected proof sheet.

Now, our new book will have 24 pages, which means that it will be printed on six sheets of paper, since the sheets will be printed on both sides and folded in half — 4 book-pages per sheet (you can check my math by making a pamphlet yourself!). Of those six sheets, we have completed printing of one sheet and have composed half the type for the next sheet. Puts us at something just past 1/6 of the way toward completing the printing phase.

In the coming posts, I’ll explain the various phases of the process in more detail. Drop us a line or leave a comment if you have questions or harbor some specific curiosity about printing and related pursuits.

Last word: the shop we work in is at the Inter-Ocean Curiosity Studio in Englewood, CO. All these photos were taken there and some were taken by Ray Tomasso, owner of Inter-Ocean.

Until next time,


An Introduction

February 6, 2010

Remember the segment on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood where he would visit some kind of factory or workshop or something and you would learn how trumpets are made, or who is in charge of carving “Hershey” on every square of the chocolate bar (spoiler alert: nobody. It’s a machine!!!), or what the best part of working in the gumball factory is? It was great, right?

This blog is going to be kind of like that (sans sweater vest). We here at Flat Cap Publishing believe that part of what is so remarkable about small press publishing is the potential to involve an entire community in every step of the process of creating a book. We’d love to have each and every one of you over to the Inter-Ocean Curiosity Studio to set type, pull impressions, and cut and fold and sew….But realistically, you and I both know that’s probably not happening. And besides, it’s a little crowded over there even with just David in the shop –

So: what is this entrancing process we have to share with you? Nope, we’re not going into the trumpet business (not yet anyway)! We are in the early stages of production for our second chapbook, Moby Dick Made Me Do It, by Colorado author Felicia Zamora. As we go along, we’ll use this blog to share photos of the process, musings on writing, bookmaking, small press publishing, and anything else that strikes our fancy. Questions of all sorts are always welcome (email us at, and will be answered to the best of our ability.

Don’t forget to check out Flat Cap Publishing for more information.