Handpress Library #9: Vellum

When someone starts getting interested in letterpress and fine printing, they pretty soon become enamoured with the idea of printing on vellum. Much of the attraction is down to the mystique of vellum* – its cost and related scarcity, and its tactile qualities. Depending how much knowledge acolytes have acquired, they may also appreciate the difficulty of printing on vellum, and the sheer terror fear of wasting a skin with a bad impression. 

I have no idea where one could acquire vellum appropriate for printing these days, and don’t want to know how much a sufficient quantity for even one copy of a book would cost. I guess I’d ask a calligrapher. Vellum suitable for binding is expensive enough, and the kind suitable for printing is much finer. 

Printing a few copies of a book on vellum has been part of printing since the first Gutenberg Bible, presumably a sop to patrons with libraries full of manuscripts. In the early days of the fine press revival, copies on vellum were the cream of the cream. In 1977 the Bridwell Library boasted of having secured copies of the so-called fine press Triple Crown – the Ashendene Dante, the Doves Bibles, and the Kelmscott Chaucer – all printed on vellum. The practice dwindled as the century progressed; in this list of known publications on vellum printed in the United States, you can see the gap between the 1950s and '80s. Of the three American presses listed in that revival, if it can be called that, the Petrarch was the most ambitious. That imprint was started by Peter Bishop in 1985 and published eight titles over the next decade, all printed with a handpress. The imprint was revived after Bishop’s death in 2002, and has continued to print a few copies of each title on vellum (i.e. parchment; I won’t address that distinction here...). 

All of which brings us to the latest instalment in the Handpress Library: Petrarch Press’ 1989 edition of Epictetus’ Encheiridion, printed on vellum (i.e. sheep skin parchment). The printing is enviously consistent and wonderfully black without being over-inked. The leaves may be slightly more transparent than ideal, but not to the point of distraction. The edition was 160 copies, eight on parchment, mine elegantly bound in brown goat with just the title tooled on the spine.

I don’t think this was the first book on vellum I owned: that would have been the De La More Press’ edition of The Prince. I bought it from a catalogue (i.e. sight unseen) in the late ’90s, for about $1,000, which would have been a lot of money for me, but I was in the new-to-printing, beguiled-by-vellum stage. It wasn’t really that lovely. If I recall correctly, the type looked over-inked (De La More was one of those quasi fine presses, like Nonesuch, which claimed to combine fine-printing ideals with commercial methods; I'm sure The Prince’s edition of 1,040 copies was not printed on a handpress, which accounts for the indifferent result). The vellum-over-boards binding was inelegant, and the black lettering on the spine just looked cheap. Plus, my copy arrived with a busted spine, which robbed much of the joy. I used it to acquire something more interesting within a few years. But I didn’t get eight grand in trade!

One question I’ve never answered unequivocally is whether printers dampened vellum before printing, as they would (should) paper. Anyone familiar with vellum knows how it reacts to the slightest change in humidity, so I’m not sure how one would dampen a skin, or if it even helps the impression (as it greatly does with paper). Rummonds, our best contemporary resource for letterpress questions, offers just a page and a half on the subject, and gives most of that to the Kelmscott pressroom overseer: place a skin between (not very) damp blotters for 30 – 45 seconds immediately before printing. The chapter’s unspoken sentiment seems to be, you’re on your own, good luck. 

Robert Baris’ Wind & Harlot Press issued a pamphlet on the subject in 1976 (25 copies, re-printed as a miniature in 1992, 23 copies), printing an exchange of letters between D.B. Updike and St. John Hornby in which the latter reported he printed his vellum dry. 

In the end, the appeal of printing on vellum comes down to decadence, which on its own isn’t that interesting, and is why my interest in books printed on vellum has been attenuated. For the premium placed on a vellum copy, I’d as soon have one printed on good paper and the extra money in my pocket. The closest I’ve come to printing on vellum is Reg Lissel’s vellum paper, made from over-beaten abaca. It’s remarkably similar to vellum in feel and toughness. I used the quick damping between blotters technique, and significantly more impression than would have been required for a rag sheet of comparable weight. If I was presented with a stack of vellum sheets, I don’t know that printing on them would be my first inclination. I’d be more likely to have a calligrapher do something lovely, and tip a sheet into copies of a book. 

* The Mystique of Vellum is the title of Richard Bigus’ bible on the subject, published by Bromer Booksellers in 1984. Copies can still be had, at not much beyond publication price, and each one includes a sheet printed on vellum (shown at top of this post). The April 1987 issue of Fine Print has a fascinating article about binding the 12 copies of Mystique that were printed on vellum, which discusses the challenges of working with vellum quires, and underscores the importance of consulting for printers to consult with their binder before production starts. 

I forgot to include one of Will Rueter’s publications in last month’s post about printing Bewick’s wood engravings: A Brief Description of His Method of Engraving on Wood, Taken from His Memoir, c.1827. Edition of 100 copies published in 1978, a single signature sewn in wraps. Not sure what the two blocks included are from, probably metal cuts, he’d have mentioned if they were original blocks. Beautifully printed on mulberry paper. 
Justine Provino, a graduate student at Cambridge, is working on a thesis about Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), including a census of known copies. If you have one, or know where one is, send her a note: agrippa[at]english.cam.ac.uk


Printing Wood Engravings & Other New Things

Recent news via Mark Askams excellent fine press Instagram page: three new publications from Graham Williams’ Florin Press of particular interest to enthusiasts of wood engravings, and anyone simply wanting to educate their eye and taste. 

Blog visitors may recall previous mentions here of the Florin Press’s beautiful Wood Engravings of Monica Poole (1985). The few deluxe copies of that book included a short essay by Graham about printing the engravings. This kind of (not too) technical discussion assists in appreciating the work of both the artist and the printer. Graham has been printing with handpresses for over five decades, and believes they “are the very best tools for a printer to use to give life to a wood block.”

The first of his new trio of books is Thomas Bewick Engraver & the Performance of Woodblocks. “This book is not a biography of the man but an account of how his talent evolved and how his blocks can still perform their magic,” the prospectus reports. It is printed offset, which normally might not excite me, but it is undeniably the best method to achieve the books purpose, which is to illustrate differences between impressions from the same blocks, as part of a broader discussion of how his blocks were used. 

The first 100 copies of the standard edition will include a leaf from his next new book (due summer 2021), A Collection of Printing from Woodblocks on a diversity of papers. This book is similar in concept to HMs Paper Should Not Always Be White, only much, much more. “What works to print from Thomas Bewicks blocks will also work for older blocks, and be relevant for contemporary wood engraving as well. This collection includes nine different designs.The leaves, printed on a diversity of papers, encourage an exploration of how the same image changes from one paper to another.” This volume has the additional appeal of the content - the combination of printing and paper - being actually printed by Graham.

The third volume focuses specifically on paper, “how we can make our own assessments of three distinct attributes of paper - aesthetic, practical and permanence.” (Image of scary paper mold above.) Like Performance of Woodblocks, this will be printed commercially (offset) and cased in cloth, with a few copies extra-bound and also a less expensive softcover version.

Im a big believer in collectors reading these kinds of books, to develop an eye and appreciation for methods and materials. Too often people seem to place importance on a particular material or method, e.g. handmade paper or a leather binding, without an understanding for how it should (and should not!) be best employed. Its the combination of material, application (function) and execution that matter, and assessing the sum of those elements requires some experience and knowledge. 

The inclusion of illustrations of some kind seems to be essential for many people who collect contemporary press books. Relief prints are the easiest for a letterpress printer to include (I find the combination of letterpress with intaglio more interesting), and wood engravings have become the most common choice, but Im not sure always for reasons that have to do with specific characteristics of the medium. It often feels like the inclusion of a wood engraving or two is simply a formality - how many books have been described as quarter cloth, patterned paper over boards, wood engraving frontis? Yawn. Too often printers (publishers) go to an already known name for the engraving, rather than making the effort to find new talents: too often the artists arent expanding or challenging the traditional wood engraving aesthetic, and too often the engravings are simply illustrations. The truly interesting press books that incorporate illustration add more than (just) a visual element. One of my favorite examples is Constantin Brancusis frontis (below) for Joyces Tales Told of Shem and Shaun (Black Sun Press, 1929). I had a copy once, but the setting was so indifferent I didnt feel the need to keep it; still, a cool frontis, and I believe the only print he ever made for a book. It makes my point about thought-provoking or evocative art vs simple illustrations. 

(I need to interrupt myself & clarify that the above comments primarily apply to fiction. Im all for incorporating images to a story when they add something beyond simple illustration, but I think thats all most fine press fiction books achieve. Its certainly true of contemporary faux fine press publishers like Folio, Suntup, Centipede et al, but their customers dont want art, they want graphics. The Arion Moby-Dick might be a positive example, where Barry Moser’s engravings were historically-accurate illustrations of whaling equipment and methods: Disconnected from the events and characters of the text, these beautiful pictures achieve a kind of abstraction of their own” (). Poetry can lend itself to interesting printmaking, if the publisher recruits an artist rather than an illustrator. Im primarily interested in non-fiction related to history, which generally is enlivened by illustration. My criticism is not of the inclusion of images, its of inclusion with no purpose or value beyond decoration.)
These are the reasons the Williams Monica Poole book has always appealed to me. Her work is unique and deeply engaging, the text is about her work so the inclusion of examples as illustrations is appropriate, and they are expertly printed by Williams. His new books should offer collectors and printers some useful insights to how he approaches wood engravings.  


The Performance of Woodblocks reminded me of a slighter publication from 1946, also employing Bewick blocks to illustrate how a chosen paper affects the appearance of an engraving (and also, like Paper Should Not..., much, much less than Grahams undertaking). The Wood Engravings of Thomas Bewick - An Experimental Printing, by Minne Jane de Thomas. Its one of the better-produced titles from Wesleyan Colleges Art Lab imprint, most of which were printed with a handpress, many of which were focused on some aspect of the books arts. Bromers currently has the most complete collection of WAL publications I've seen (but it doesn't include the Bewick pamphlet). 


Natasha Herman has just launched a kickstarter campaign to share her excellent Stilt book stands with the world. The copies of Fragments & Glimpses she bound last year were each issued with one. The stands design is very clever, it knocks down flat for easy transport or storage, but is sturdy and well constructed. If you like having books on display, or need to keep valuable or fragile volumes open while working, the Stilt is perfect. 


Legacy Press has published a bibliography of the several hundred books published by Peter & Donna Thomas since 1974. Their work is (or should be) well known in particular to fans of miniature books and books about papermaking. In parallel with the bibliography, Peter & Donna have issued 30 sets of sample sheets and ephemera, titled Evidence.


The history of printing continues to be the primary topic for reading around here. Got a book Id only recently heard of, Thomas Hornes An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography (1814). The titles misleading, the book is more like an encyclopedia, or at least a compendium, of information and sources on printing and related topics. Not rare, but many copies are lacking some or all of the 11 plates (not mine!). Anyone with copies of the more obscure Wm Blades publications from the 19th century, please get in touch.


The History of English Printing, in Books

I've been reading about the history of printing in England recently. I jumped in about 150 years late with the Wither project, so I'm going back to the start and working from there.

It all started when I got a copy of Bowyer's History & Origin of Printing. It's not a rare book, but it's not common either. I found one in what looks like a late 19th/early 20th century quarter leather binding, tightback, very well done, unsigned, priced at about one-third of what seems to be the book's going price. It essentially is a reprint of an earlier publication - Middleton's A Dissertation Concerning the Origin of Printing in England (1735) - and the first English version of Meermam's Origines typographicae (1765; not exactly a translation of the original's Latin, more like a condensed version), each appended with comments and notes by Bowyer, a prominent London printer. It also includes an appendix on early Hebrew printing in England (I bought it while working on the Griffo project, hence the interest in Hebrew printing).

The problem is that reading about the introduction of printing to England quickly becomes entwined with a debate over who actually invented what we call printing. Sigh. 

The central thesis of Middleton's book is an argument that Caxton was Englands first printer; it was a question at the time due to a book published in Oxford that had dropped an X from the publication date, thus appearing to predate Caxtons first publication. Middletons essay begins with reference to a pamphlet by one Richard Atkyns, published in 1664, in which he refers to the “Lambeth manuscript,” which lays out the details of how the first book was printed in Oxford. 

So before I could get too far into Middleton, I needed to find a copy of Atkyns’ pamphlet. Nothing online, either for sale or digitized. However, it had been reprinted, apparently only once since 1664, in A Pair on Printing (Bird & Bull Press, 1982). It
s one of Henry Morriss more modest publications. Turns out I have a copy, purchased when Wessel & Lieberman were closing, but I'd never really opened it. It reprints the Atkyns pamphlet in facsimile, which is unfortunate because the original, like much English printing of the time, is not very lovely, and the facsimile seems to make it even worse. The whole thing would have been more engaging if Henry had set it in type. 

Anyway, I made my way through that, and then returned to Middleton. Like Bowyer, his pamphlet is uncommon but not rare, and not too dear when found (three figures, not four). I found one quite inexpensive because (1) it was disbound and some sheets had become separated, and (2) some monster had cropped out the small (& not terribly interesting; see above) engraving that appeared on the title page. I just wanted to see and read the original, so I wasn
t fussed. 

The title page actually had been neatly repaired (and I like old paper repairs), and reconstituting the sheets and putting them in a  case was simple enough. I even had some 17th century laid paper that matched well, for the endsheets. 

I wont ruin the story, but Middleton's main point was that no one had ever been able to actually find the Lambeth MS, and in fact there were reasons to believe Atkyns had made the whole story up. 

Now I was ready to return to Bowyer, and see what he had to say about Middleton
s argument. It gets in the deep weeds pretty quick, and his comments have references to Meermams essay, so I jumped over to skim that. His central thesis was that the invention of printing with type originated at Haarlem with Laurens Coster. This led to the Coster v Gutenberg bun-fight that raged through the 19th century, which is recounted in a chapter of William Blades Books in Chains (1892), so I got lost down that tributary for a few days. (Im not sure why this set of Meerman sold for so much, it can be had for a tenth the price these days. Perhaps because each volume is bound separately here. Not sure if Large paper actually means a large-paper issue, or just that this copy still has most of its original margins.) 

(For a concise summary of the Mainz/Haarlem debate, see McMurtrie
s Dutch Claims to the Invention of Printing.)
Coming back to the original topic of study - the introduction of printing to Britain - I was led to Ralph Willetts Memoir on the Origin of Printing, which originally appeared in the journal Archaeologia (Volume 11, 1792). That volume also included his "Observations on the Origin of Printing." The Memoir was reprinted by S. Hodgson, Newcastle, 1818 in what looks like 16mo, set in a crisp Brevier roman, well printed (with a handpress) on laid paper, and in an edition of just 32 copies (although this is not stated). It was reprinted by Hodgson in 1820 in an edition of 150 copies. The latter is not uncommon. I found a copy of the 1818 printing, and suspect the sellers pricing was influenced to my benefit by the number of 1820 copies online (this number appears to have drastically declined in the past three months, to one). 

In the Memoir Willett mounts a thorough refutation of the Lambeth MS story, points out various flaws in the arguments of Bowyer and Meerman, and weighs in with his vote for Mainz as the origin for printing with type. Unfortunately he also stumps for Oxfords primacy, based solely on the printed date, so he got that one wrong. 

To find a definitive answer to this Oxford/Caxton question, I tracked down a copy of The Early Oxford Press 1468-1640 (1895). Appendix A, p. 247 makes short work of the debate: it was a typo, should have been 1478, Caxton wins. I knew that, I just needed a reference to quote if ever I encountered a Costerian, as Blades called them. Most of The Early Oxford Press is a straightforward bibliography of publications, but the appendices at the back make for interesting reading, along with a handful of reproductions and three sewn-in leaves from 17th century books printed at Oxford! All 16mo in size. The book doesnt have a colophon, but the note below appears at the bottom of the List of Illustrations page:

There is no number in my copy, but each of the leaves is penciled 688, so I’m guessing maybe that
s the copy number. The content of the leaves appear to correspond with the titles. The wording suggests there might be copies outside the 700, without leaves, but even in 1895 I suspect 700 copies was enough to meet demand for this title. Maybe the publisher was hoping for a second edition. 

This wandering among sources and references also led me to a piece of ephemera from the Vale Press, Famous Woodcut Illustrations of the Fifteenth & Early Sixteenth Centuries (1897). Ricketts was too much a fan of the Morris aesthetic for my taste, but this is a lovely piece of handpress printing, my copy folded (8 pp.) and sewn but uncut at the head. Its a guide to an exhibition Hacon & Ricketts mounted. 

One history of English printing I dont have, and probably wont get, is Palmer's General History of Printing (1732). When found its priced an order of magnitude above the books mentioned here, and from what Ive read, it does not tempt. Interesting that it does not seem to ever have been reprinted. 

Im also reading Colin Clairs A History of Printing in Britain (1965), which skates along at a higher level than Middleton, Bowyer and Willett. I have no idea where all this is going. Im finding it all fascinating, but what I enjoy most are the books themselves. 
This maybe is news only to me, but I found a great bibliosite, Architectures of the Book. Interesting & well-written articles on esoteric topics like grangerizing (an HM favorite). And Canadian no less - go Huskies!


Cobden-Sanderson Finally Got Dressed

When Will Rueter published Majesty, Order & Beauty in 2007, I requested a set of sheets and he kindly sent them. I wanted to put my own binding on the book. I don’t know why. 

Among 100+ books published by Will, this is one of Aliquandos high spots. It combines all the things that characterize his work: color, artfully arranged type, lovely papers plus his own wood engravings.

There should be a special place in Hell for people who ask for a set of sheets and then never bind them. If it exists I was headed for that place until this past week. The printing side of things at HM is on hiatus for a few months so Im catching up on various binding and box-making chores, starting with Wills book. 

m glad I didnt bind it until now. My initial plan had been to sew it on vellum slips laced into a limp case of Reg Lissels “vellum” paper, which is made from over-beaten abaca. It feels like vellum, is hypersensitive to moisture like vellum, and is almost as tough. But in truth I knew this really wasnt the right type of binding for this book, and I just didnt feel equal to the task. So the sheets sat in a box. 

Over the past five years – since Aurora Teardrops – Ive been focusing more on my binding (i.e. casing) skills, and theyve come along, enough that I felt ready for Wills sheets. 

s book featured spectacular gold endpapers that had been created by his great-uncle c.1900. (I think they're printed but they might be stencilled.) The endpapers dictated all the other parts of the case. 

I like simple paper-over-boards cases, but from a strength and longevity perspective, they
re really only appropriate for slimmer books. Majesty, Order & Beauty consisted of five signatures, each four pages, plus the endsections; it needed stronger joints than just paper. 

Im not a fan of most quarter cases, particularly the type where the spine covering attaches to the outside of the boards. Whenever possible, I prefer a rounded spine.* So, for Wills book, I needed something for the spine, and something for the boards. 

ve been enjoying painting papers to use for cases. I decided to make something gold for Majesty, Order & Beauty. I started with a sheet of yellow Guarro laid, and applied a dilute wash of black acrylic. With this & each subsequent wash, I let it set for a few minutes, and then dabbed the brush all over the sheet, creating a mottled effect. After the black dried, I applied two washes of gold (not metallic), then added a bit of red to the gold and applied a final wash. A subtle compliment to the bold endpapers. 

Another thing I don
t like are tipped-on endpapers. Theyre lazy and add no strength to the binding. For Majesty, Order & Beauty I hinged the folded endpaper sheet around a white sheet which became the sections center through which I would sew (below)

I sewed the sheets on tapes of Reg
s abaca vellum, and made endbands from offcuts of the endpapers. Before glueing up the spine I "gilded" the head with (metallic) gold ink applied with a stiff brush. I then gave the spine a slight round, applied rice paste and lined it with thin Japanese paper. 

To make the case I lined the outer faces of each board with a plain sheet, and then adhered the cover sheet (there will be two sheets adhered to the inner face, so I want two on the outer, to balance the pull), folding in just the spine edge. 

I then made the spine, laminating several sheets of 200 g watercolor paper together and rounding it as it dried. This was glued into the black abaca spine cover and dried flat. 

The inside edge of each board is then attached to the spine cover, allowing a 0.25-inch joint, and pressed very hard. The portion of the board left exposed is then lined with a sheet of thickness
equal to the spine cover (I used more of the yellow Guarro), to make the inside of the board flat. The remaining three edges of each board are then turned in, and the case is left in the press over night. 

I fit the case around the text block to ensure my measurements were correct (I like a square of not much more than 1/16-inch) and give it a nip between boards.

Then it
s just a matter of glueing out the pastedowns and attaching the boards.

I pondered printing the title directly on the abaca spine in gold, but the printer
s busted and wont work again for a few months, and I didnt want to put this off, so Ill set and print a small label when things are working again.  

And just for fun, since I seem to have miscellaneous Doves Press leaves lying around everywhere, I stuck one into my unique copy of Wills wonderful book.  

(* I think too many printers fail to take advantage of their binders expertise when planning a book, particularly in deciding how many sheets per section – they opt for fewer thick sections, when more thin ones would give the binder more control in shaping the spine. Thats not the case with Will, who does his own binding, its just something Ive seen too often. Talk to your binder early & often!)