‘The Letterpress Shakespeare’ from Matrix 27

It started with a phone call. Joe Whitlock Blundell, design and production director of the Folio Society, rang in September 2004 to ask for an estimate. He was planning a quarto letterpress edition of Shakespeare plays, and could I give him a price, please? We discussed the extent, run and illustrations (there were to be none), and Joe asked me the maximum sheet size my press could handle.

I can no longer remember if I actually jumped for joy after this conversation, but I might well have done. For a printer who aims for top quality work there could hardly be a better job. What is more, the large scale of book work represents a sizable order for a jobbing printer.

The estimate went in and my day to day work continued. Occasionally I would hear that the project might still happen. I was thinking about the practicality of printing it.

I had owned a Heidelberg cylinder press for about fifteen years. Although considered by some to be the finest letterpress machine ever made, working on mine was a struggle. The bed was worn and I had twice had it ground down and a metal plate screwed to the surface to bring it back up to height. The impression was still uneven, though, and I had to spend a long time on make ready to get a half-decent result. To make matters worse, I had terrible trouble with rising spaces, which wasted paper and time. All this was just about manageable on a small job, but I would need something better if I was to print the Shakespeare in anything like a reasonable time.

There is a flourishing market in the service and supply of Heidelberg cylinders as they are used extensively in the trade for cutting and creasing. I had long fantasized about buying an as-new rebuild from one of the firms who specialised in them. They looked fabulous in the brochure, but so was the price. I thought I would see if they could repair the one I had, so I gave them a call and told them the problem. They said they could best fix my machine in their factory and gave me a  rough price, but they would not know the extent of the damage until they got the machine apart.

This was going to be a major investment, but it had to be done if I was ever going to print to the standards to which I aspired. Then I remembered that I had the details of two other engineers who offered similar services. I really ought to get competitive quotes. One of them said that the machine was not worth fixing and gave me a part-exchange price.

The other, Graeme Smith of Letterpress Solutions, was more interesting. He would not give me a price until he had seen the machine, which was a good sign. After a couple of conversations I felt that he was the right man, and in September 2005 he came to have a look. He said that he would replace the bed and fully service the machine on site and for substantially less than my other estimate. I decided to go ahead, and Graeme came back the following week with a replacement type bed.

Machines are part of my pleasure in printing and there is something fascinating about seeing these great assemblies of metal being taken apart and put back together again. I saw more of it than I had expected, because a test print revealed a depression in the second hand bed Graeme put in. He arranged with his supplier to swap it for another the next morning. That too was dished. Somewhat in desperation he took away the original bed, had molten metal sprayed onto it and then had it ground back to the correct height. This time the test print was perfect. Graeme had never tried this technique before, and he was at least as pleased as I was that it worked.

The service, the new bed and the new set of rollers I ordered at the same time made the press print like new. I was absolutely thrilled. The investment was considerable by my standards, but was only sixty per cent of the first estimate I had received. I hoped that it would pay for itself in three or four years even if the Shakespeare project did not happen.

I have not tried to work it out, but my return must have come within a year. In that time I did two major stationery jobs that would have been just about impossible without the repairs and I was using the press more for other jobs too. Whereas in the past I would print on  my platen whenever possible, the refurbished cylinder press was such a pleasure to use that I no longer shied away from it.

In the spring of 2006 the Shakespeare started to take off. On 7 March the formal decision to go ahead was taken, and Joe and I were able to have a celebratory drink after a Double Crown Club outing that fortunately fell on the same day.

By this time substantial work had gone into the design of the book. When I visited Joe’s office some days later he showed me the dummy that he had had produced. Stan Lane at Gloucester Typesetting Services had set and proofed some sample pages. The text was set in 16/18 point Baskerville with running heads in 18 point italic. Each new act was announced in 36 point Caslon italic, a brilliant touch that added extra weight to the display. It was a combination of faces that I would never have considered and it looked fantastic. The book was large, 350 x 250 mm, with generous margins.

16 point Baskerville is an unusual size. It was issued in 1929 and only thirty-eight sets were sold. The one used by Stan came originally from the Oxford University Press, who had put in a complete range of die cases from 6 to 24 point, compete with accents and ligatures. It has been speculated that they put in the unusual larger sizes to set books for George Macy’s Limited Editions Club. The equipment is part of the collection at the Whittington Press, who made it available to Stan.

It is also not a size to choose for economy of use. The matrices are too large to fit roman, italic and small cap alphabets in the same die case, so Stan has to cast the italic separately and insert it by hand.

The paper Joe had chosen was from the Italian Magnani mill, a choice that suited me well. Unfortunately, as the summer wore on it became clear that they were not going to be able to deliver because of an industrial dispute. Discussions between Joe, John Purcell and me came down to two possible alternatives: Zerkall and Somerset. Joe wanted a heavy weight for opacity and bulk, which made me nervous of the Zerkall. I knew from long experience that above about 120 gsm their paper tended to have a pronounced curl. Printing the side that curls downwards is not usually difficult, but when the sheet is backed up there can be real problems. The machine will tend to either fail to pick up and therefore stop, or take two sheets together. Both are clearly undesirable, particularly on a long run, large scale project, so we did some trials. The Somerset seemed fine, but the Zerkall did indeed curl, and I did not think that we could use it successfully. However, an essential part of Joe’s design was that the finished book should have deckle edges at the foot and fore-edge, with a trimmed, gilded head. The Somerset has only two deckle edges, so that was out.

John Purcell suggested that we try the smooth version of the Zerkall as the calendering tends to flatten it out. Joe was concerned that it would not be sufficiently bulky, but we were running out of options and the scheduled starting time was approaching. I gave it as rigorous a trial as I could manage, and it seemed to run. The order was placed.

During this process I had been thinking about lay marks. It is my usual practice when working on the cylinder press to impose a piece of rule to bleed off one edge of the sheet. Its chief purpose is to mark the lay edges to reduce the likelihood of backing up the sheet the wrong way round. The mark is trimmed off after printing as part of the finishing process. As these books were to keep the deckle edges this was not going to be possible. It seemed certain that at some point there was going to be a serious mistake. Eventually I arrived at a solution: run the rule off the middle of the sheet where it was to be trimmed after folding to form the head. Joe agreed that the sheet should be an extra 10 mm longer to accommodate it.

Stan delivered the type for Hamlet, the first volume, on 6 October 2006. He had locked its 136 pages into galleys, covered each one with corrugated cardboard and loaded them into two mobile galley racks. These were held firmly in place in the back of a courier’s van. Once the peril of the camber outside our entrance had been negotiated they simply had to be wheeled in and the galleys swapped for empty ones from one of my racks.

Three days later printing started. I imposed the first forme to the margins Joe had specified, and he came over to see it on the press. The first pull, while not perfect, was good enough to vindicate further my decision to have the press refurbished.

We folded sheets and trimmed them, and moved the type a little until Joe was happy with the layout. Then we adjusted the inking, and I marked the sheet that he passed. It was to be the standard I would use to maintain the colour for the whole volume and, should they sell, the thirty eight that were to follow it. We remarked that what we were doing that afternoon was setting a standard for the next five years. Now all I had to do was to print them.

In one sense a project like this is like any other. The forme must be imposed, the position checked, make ready and inking adjusted and the job run. What is different is the scale. Hamlet alone was thirty-five workings, and the run, initially 2000, was finally set at double that. Make a mistake and the price to pay in lost time and materials is substantial. Take too much longer over it then estimated and the whole thing becomes uneconomical. On top of that the printing had to be first class and there was a tight deadline.

If I was to handle everything myself the chances of delivering even vaguely on time were minimal. The amount of time that is spent in tasks like stacking up printed sheets, packing pallets and loading and unloading vans is surprisingly large. I got some of it back by contracting out imposition and pallet packing to my printer landlords, who are one of the last in London to employ a compositor.

The first few workings of a job like this are usually the hardest. After a while I know which areas of the forme are likely to need make ready, roughly how much ink is needed, where to set the feed mechanism and so on. That is not to say that the printing later becomes boring. There is always something to be done, whether checking the weight of ink against the standard, pre-loading the next stack of paper or inserting racks onto the delivery table. The Heidelberg has a neat mechanism for this last operation. A set of metal prongs can be inserted above the table to catch the delivered sheets. While it is in place the table is lowered, the rack inserted, the table raised again and the prongs removed. The purpose of the racks is to limit the height of the delivery pile, which reduces the likelihood of set-off. I soon found that each rack would take 450 sheets and that I could get four layers on each of my two delivery tables.

There were also usually some problems. In this case it is rising spaces and the curly paper that I was concerned about at the start of the project.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to rising spaces. Before Graeme had repaired the bed I had suspected that they were more likely in certain areas of the forme. That was no longer case, and the could happen anywhere. I got round them by checking every 3-400 sheets and pushing them down with a piece of reglet, which was fairly effective but added to the running time. After printing the whole of Hamlet and half of King Lear I tried adding a couple of extra quoines to the forme, which helped enormously.

The curly paper is equally mysterious but not as easy to remedy. I have tried combinations of printing the inners first, stacking the paper with layers turned alternate sides up and different makings. There is no apparent single cause. I can roll the grip edge to flatten out the sheets, but this makes printing slower and creases the sheet. As the weather has turned warmer, however, it has run rather better, and I suspect that the overhead heaters in our premises were drying the paper out too fast and exaggerating the curl. 

One question that had not been settled at the start of printing was whether the title of the play on the title page should be in a second colour. When Joe decided that it should he gave me a Pantone reference as a starting point and again came to see the result on the press. Once we had a colour he liked I sent the formula for the mix, carefully weighed on electronic scales, to Shackell Edwards, whose inks I use. They mixed up 1 kg of it and labeled the tin ‘Hand & Eye plum.’

It turned out that the printing of Hamlet took the equivalent of six weeks’ work. It was spread over about ten, though, because of jobs for other customers that could not wait until the book was finished.

As I was coming to the end there was a morning spent as a photographer’s model. Folio were producing an illustrated prospectus to send to their members. Some of the photography had already been done at Gloucester Typesetting. My part in it was a strange experience, as what looks right and natural to the camera is not always the same as what feels right to the body. For example, a shot of me examining a printed sheet by the press had me contorted to a position where my head was so close to the paper that I could not focus on the type.

It worked, though. The sheets were finally shipped to the Lachenmaier bindery in Germany before Christmas, and in early January the prospectuses went out. They showed the handsome binding, the annotated Oxford edition of the play that is included with each volume and the solander box in which they sit. The response was extremely good, and sales had reached Folio’s target within weeks. This remarkable achievement was for a book selling at a pre-publication price of £200.

The prospectus did nothing to prepare me for my first sight of a bound book. The box is covered in a sumptuous red cloth with a leather label on the spine foil blocked with the words ‘The Letterpress Shakespeare, Hamlet.’ The book itself is quarter-bound in red leather and paper hand-marbled by Ann Muir, and the title is foil blocked in gold on the spine. The end papers are also red.

The inside of the book looks as monumental and easy to read as I had hoped. Baskerville is one of my favourite type faces, and it looks really handsome in 16 point. The 2 point leading is just right. Overall the feel is of a really substantial piece of work. As Joe had said, it is a once in a lifetime project, and while my eye catches elements of the printing that I would like to have improved, I hope that they are not too obvious to most readers. And, of course, they give me something to which to aspire in future volumes.

Once Hamlet was finished and Christmas out of the way I reviewed how things were going. Two things became clear.

Firstly, I was not going to be able to meet Folio’s production schedule. They wanted to produce eight books a year, or one every six weeks, which was more than I could handle. They were unable to find anyone else in Britain to take it on, so an interesting sounding letterpress firm in Dresden are currently printing alternate volumes.

The second was that I needed an assistant. The fees I paid my landlords for their work on Hanlet were alone enough to pay the wages for another pair of hands. There was all my other work to do be done too, and that was falling badly behind. I was quoting 6-8 weeks delivery for stationery and wedding invitations and not always meeting that. Most fortunately I was able to take on Patrick Randle, son of John and Rose, who is printing on  both proofing and platen presses as well as imposing, packing and cutting.

The Letterpress Shakespeare will almost certainly be one of the last letterpress projects of such a large size to be undertaken in this country. As I said in the prospectus, I know of no other publisher who would take it on. Nor can I imagine a better one with which to work. I feel part of a team of publisher, typesetter, paper mill, paper merchant, printer, marbler and binder that is working together to make exceptional books.

One of the things that pleases me is the industrial scale of the work. Monotype machines and Heidelbergs were made for mass production, and we are attempting to do that to the highest standards. It is an honour and a pleasure to be involved in it, it is taking my business to a new level and it is allowing me to share my skills with a younger generation.

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9 Responses to “‘The Letterpress Shakespeare’ from Matrix 27”


  1. […] Pages‘The Letterpress Shakespeare’ from Matrix 27 […]

  2. mrstock Says:

    Wow! You write well. Thanks for this.

  3. Jo Says:

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article. I have all the Letterpress Shakespeare volumes published to date. They are truly a joy to hold and read. Knowing about the care and craftsmanship that goes into their production makes them even more special.


  4. […] have been extremely fortunate to receive a day’s tuition from Phil Abel at  Hand & Eye Letterpress, in the fine art of ‘make-ready’ and ‘overlaying’ on the letterpress […]

  5. Claudia Stein Says:

    Hallo,
    very interesting to read.
    I´m writing my thesis about these books. Can you tell me which kind of heidelberg zylinder you used? Was it a 56×77?
    Thanks a lot,
    claudia

  6. Gerald Storey Says:

    I am a member of the folio society and had never read much Shakespeare except “enforced” readings in high school (USA) long time ago. So I purchased the Hamlet in the clamshell box version, then more followed, now I read Shakespeare quite often. What an accomplishment, my highest compliments to your artistry and craft. The Letterpress Shakespeare is quite beautiful and a signal accomplishment in the printing/publishing world. My most heartfelt thanks. Cordially, Gerald Storey


  7. […] ‘The Letterpress Shakespeare’ from Matrix 27 […]


  8. […] ‘The Letterpress Shakespeare’ from Matrix 27 […]


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