Printing 101: Transcript

Steven Galbraith is a co-curator of the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition and Andrew W. Mellon curator of books at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

STEVEN GALBRAITH: This is a model of an early modern hand press.

[Operates printing press]
And this is the device that would have printed books. Books such as Shakespeare’s First Folio and the King James Bible would have been produced on a press such as this. This is a working model, and it's about one third, or a quarter, size of what a press would have been back in that era.

[Places type in a composing stick; selects more type]
So, the beginning of the printing process begins with setting type. And I’m taking individual pieces of type, which have letters at the end of them, and setting it in my composing stick to create words and sentences.

[Displays full type case]
The type I’m using today is all put into one case here, but a compositor working in early modern times would have had two cases, one for upper-case letters and one for lower-case letters, and that’s where we get our terms "upper-case" and "lower-case. "

[View of printshop image from Folger collection]
The three main people that worked at a print shop were the compositor, and that’s the person who set the type, and then two pressmen, one who would apply the ink, and another who would put the paper onto the tympan and pull the handle once everything was set and ready to go.

Once the compositor has filled the stick with several sentences, he’ll move that to a galley and tie that type up, and then fill the stick again. Once there's a page worth of material, the type is moved from the galley to what we call a "forme."

[Shows forme in place on press]
So I’ve just inserted the forme. In our model press, our forme has a metal bottom, which is kind of cheating. In early modern times, there wouldn’t be a bottom to it. It would be more like a frame that is tightened around the type and the different furniture that holds the type together.

[Inks a roller, applies ink to type]
So the next step is to apply the ink to the type. What I’m using is an ink roller. That’s not what they would have used in early modern times. What they would have used was what was called "ink balls." They were leather balls full of wool on sticks, almost like lollipops. And they would roll it into the ink and then beat it onto the type. Early modern ink was made from soot, or lamp black, and it was mixed with an oil, such as linseed oil.

Two people operated the press. The first applied ink, while the second put paper onto the tympan and got ready to pull the handle.

[Puts paper onto tympan, operates the press]
So the paper was put onto the tympan. Small nails hold it on. The tympan is lowered onto the forme. And using a handle called a rounce, we slide the carriage underneath the platen and pull the bar. And the bar is going to push the platen down onto the tympan, which pushes the paper onto the type, and it makes the impression.

[Reads from printed paper]
"A Model Printing Press, designed by students of Bucknell University, Class of 2001. Folger Shakespeare Library." And to add a little illustration, we put here Shakespeare’s coat of arms.