Destinations: To the Grabhorn Institute with the Ladies of Letterpress

[Jessica White and Kseniya Thomas] As part of the gala weekend of printing we recently enjoyed in California, the directors of the Ladies of Letterpress visited the Grabhorn Institute in San Francisco’s Presidio. This place has everything: museum, type foundry, press room, bookbindery, education program, interns and lots of coffee brewing….

We arrived late but were still graciously conducted around the place. It’s essentially a working book factory — which inspired the printers on the tour, including us, to 1) try to make our spaces as meticulous as theirs, 2) print more with movable type, and 3) never take spell-check for granted.

First we went from the foyer downstairs to the pressroom, where we were greeted by printer Jerry, who was busily running envelopes for Don Quixote prospectii. He showed us how the manuscript proofing process works for printing books with lead type; not surprisingly, it’s arduous. We learned that a kill line is a line of text that has been accidentally duplicated in the proof, either by caster or human compositor. Jerry recalled that, when printing Moby Dick from type, they had three people setting type nonstop, and one person distributing (putting back) the type that had just been printed, as there wasn’t enough of one typeface to set the whole book in one go.

Down a type-lined hall (aside: Can you imagine how this much type in its cases smells? Let us tell you: good!) is the type foundry, staffed by two fresh-faced guys who have learned enough about the machines to be able to talk to tour groups and cast type simultaneously. The smell here is decidedly less delightful — molten metal and smoke — but still evocative of a process one doesn’t associate with books these days. There are silvery splashes of lead, now cooled, all around the floor, and raw lead (called pigs) stacked up, waiting to be melted down into letters designed by typographical geniuses of the previous centuries.

We learned that, among all the other problems accompanying this 19th-century technology, the paper spools that are punched by a keyboard to tell the machines which letters to cast are becoming scarce. What will happen when more blank spools cannot be found? The answer: A programmer and compositor in Maryland is working on a computer program that will send copy directly to the caster. Thank heavens. (Look here for a concise description on how Monotype casters work.)

Down at the other end of the type corridor is the bookbindery, where the atmosphere is as fresh as the foundry’s was smoky. Here the bookbinders sew deluxe editions of the institute’s books by hand … and less-deluxe editions with a machine, which works approximately 100 times faster than a human seamstress. The quality of the machine’s stitches, though, is far less sturdy. Bookbinding, an allied trade to printing and casting, has its own peculiarities: tools called sheep’s feet, glue made from rabbit extract, leather made from African goats. Taking all these separate craftspeople into account, we’re not sure if the whole — a beautifully proofread, printed and bound book — is really greater than the sum of its parts.

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Jessica White and Kseniya Thomas are cofounders and directors of Ladies of Letterpress, a trade group for letterpress lovers of all stripes. Ladies of Letterpress’ first conference, Art+Industry, will be held August 5–7, 2011.

The nonprofit Grabhorn Institute owns Arion Press and M&H Typefoundry, and is one of the few remaining places to house a type foundry, letterpress print shop and bookbindery under the same roof. Tours of the facility are held Thursday afternoons at 3 p.m. (reservations required; cost is $7), and the upstairs gallery is open weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Photos: Jessica White and Kseniya Thomas

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