The boy communes with Gutenberg

by DRM


I spent a summer comparing a schematic like this that I’d found in an old dusty book to a partly-dismantled Washington & Hoe printing press that was in my mother’s studio.  I was 16 years old.  Over the course of a month I tried different pieces of cast iron against one and other.  Finally I got it to work.

Along the wall by the door were two big cases of type drawers, the trays filled with classic fonts.  The books that I loved the most were set in Bodoni and I used that type.  I sat and cleaned the heads of the narrow metal pieces with a metal pick and cleaning fluid, chipping away at crusted flecks of ink jammed into the tight spots of an “h” or “r.”  The letters were elegant.  The metal was finely cut, slanted to punch into the moist paper like an axe into a young tree.  I set a few lines in a chase and centered it on the bed.  It printed.

I loved the quiet of the studio late at night.  The florescent lights  created an igloo of white against the ink-black of the high windows.  The de-humidifier clicked on and off in the back of the room.  Before I left, I’d empty the bucket below the humidifier and watch the water spiral down the wide mouth of the utility sink.

There was no one to ask about the presses.  They were past their usefulness.   I felt my way along, made clumsy mistakes that a master would scold an apprentice for, and then figured out my own workarounds.  The satisfaction was in doing it, in making the old press work, discovering the answer on my own, designing a page that I could look at as it hung and dried off the press.  I did that, I thought.

I was right there in line with my heroes:  Gutenberg, Martin Luther, Ben Franklin.

After that summer, my interest waned.  The presses gathered dust.  I moved on to other things.

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