“Post-Coaster” with vintage ATF border (part 1)

The weather has not moderated too much since my most recent post, but even if it is still more than ninety degrees, I remain inspired to print something cool with the 1923 American Type Founders (ATF) 24-point holly, bells and ribbon border I acquired last year. While considering how to fashion these beautiful lead types into a Christmas card, it struck me that I could design a greeting to be used on a post-card size beverage coaster. The recipients would know that I wished them the very best sentiments of the season, and could use the card as a coaster for their favorite warm or cold holiday libation.

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The 1923 ATF holly, bells and ribbon border composed and tied to be used later in a form. Note the use of corner quads, which are handy when making up forms of border from multiple sections of type.

The first person I know to have used letterpress equipment to print on heavy coaster stock is Nils R. Bull Young, whose work at The Tagalong Press is really impressive. While I don’t have the same talent (he creates some beautiful original linocuts), I have printed coasters for a few customers over the past several years and have achieved pretty decent results. The great thing about a coaster is that one almost has to print it in the traditional letterpress mode, as its considerable thickness (from .9 mm to 2 mm, or the thickness of a stack of five to ten or more standard business cards) prohibits one from creating them on a laser or inkjet printer, or just about any device short of some variation of vintage industrial age iron printing technology.

I chose the good and efficient folks at KatzAmericas to provide me with pre-cut 3 7/8″ x 5 3/8″ rectangular coasters in a 1.4 mm medium weight, which meet U.S. Postal Service requirements and come in a neutral cream/ivory color that holds ink well. Their plant in Sanborn, New York is not too far from where my dad established the original Norlu Press in 1937. This coaster will allow me to print a full-panel greeting on one side, and to add some additional text and space for mailing address on the reverse.

An example of a printed Victorian commercial Christmas piece.

For this “post-coaster,” I am trying to capture the look of what a Victorian age grocer or vendor may have included as a Christmas greeting in a package from his store or a printed piece to accompany something like a box of chocolates. Given that most of that work was done with engravings, I won’t be able to replicate it, but a good start will be creating the border to frame whatever content makes its way into the greeting.

To form the border on the long axis of the card, I aligned two of the corner pieces of the border on my imposing stone with the corners of the coaster. When I filled in the straight sections, it took five pieces to bring the corners out to their maximum width. Along the short axis, I placed three sections. After adding some small furniture and spacing material inside of the frame, I had the border I wanted and locked it up in the chase.

160802 Christmas Coasters_1

The 1923 ATF 24-point holly, bells and ribbon border, locked up and shown with a blank coaster.

Choosing a color for these vintage types was the next task. The scans made from faded pages of the 1923 ATF Specimen Book and Catalogue clearly showed this monochromatic border printing in green ink, but just which shade was impossible to discern. As a close match, I chose a PMS 357 vegetable-based ink that Rick Harden at Southern Inks specced for me last year when I asked him for “a festive green appropriate for Christmas.”

160802 Christmas Coasters_4
The first of my 2016 “post-coasters” coming off the circa 1863 Gordon Jobber letterpress printing press. The gauge pins are sealed in place with wax, which reminds me of the days when I was learning printing and I would have to obtain proper position on the press for each job. When I was certain I had it right, I would show it to my dad, Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio and if it met his standard, he would command, “Seal the pins, James.”

With the air conditioner doing its best to keep the shop tolerable, I have printed the first two hundred or so of the “post-coasters” and am as pleased with this ink on the KatzAmericas coaster stock as I was with it on Lettra last year.

And now that this part of the project is done, I need to move on to the greeting itself, but if something that complements the ATF border does not come to me right away, I may work on the address side of the post-coaster. Whichever approach I embrace, I will post the results here.

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The post-coasters with their green 1923 ATF holly, bells and ribbon border.

ATF Christmas Ornaments circa 1923

Years ago, as soon as the first snowflake would appear outside our home in Olean, New York, my daughter would spontaneously belt out the chorus of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas,” as made famous by Perry Como. It was as if the song had been living in her heart, her mind, her body since the Christmas tree came down eleven months past, and that song just had to come out, to announce the season that was, or soon would be, upon us.

151219 Christmas Holly Type_1
ATF 24-point Christmas bells, holly and ribbon, circa 1923, as received from Minneapolis, Minnesota letterpress vendor and letterpress lovers Perfection Type.

I have since moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina where it has been near one hundred degrees every day for a week. That is to be expected, of course, since it is mid-July and I live substantially south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nevertheless, the song has been in my head for several days as I contemplate a new letterpress printing project at The Norlu Press because despite the weather, it is Christmas card season!

How can a printer not be in the holiday spirit when there are beautiful antique types, festive green and red inks, gorgeous paper and so many opportunities to create something magnificent on an 1863 Gordon Jobber press?

The material that has me anxious to get to my composing stick and imposition stone came into my possession through an ebay purchase from Perfection Type last December. The remarkable set of 24-point decorative Christmas bells, holly and ribbons arrived too late to be used for the 2015 Christmas card season, but I have been looking forward to incorporating them into a design for 2016 and happily, that time has arrived.

After receiving the beautifully packaged types, I attempted to learn more about them. I was happy to see there were two sets of corner pieces (invaluable sections of type for anyone wanting to form a frame or full border) and that the corner sections included four each of a bell facing into the border and four each of a bell facing away from the corner. Of the twenty-five straight types, twelve featured bells canted to the left and thirteen were canted to the right…interesting. I inspected each 24-point type, seeking a pin mark that might help identify its manufacturer, but the marks that existed were either too worn or not the sort that would help to determine its origin. They were no more than small circles, almost imperceptibly set into the types.

151219 ATF 1923 Specimen Christmas Holly Berry Border_2
Page 659 of the 1923 American Type Founders Specimen Book & Catalogue, displaying the Christmas border as No. 13 in 24 points.

I remembered that there was a discussion about Christmas borders and ornaments on the Briar Press website and was able to find it in the archive. This led me to a digital copy of the 1923 American Type Founders (ATF) Specimen Book and Catalogue and after an hour or so, I found my Christmas bells, holly and ribbons on page 659, and identified as No. 13 under the heading of “Decorative Material” and in the Christmas section. The illustration showed two additional types that were not in my set, but it was an absolute match and from the display in the catalogue, I could see how to assemble the types into a full frame.

All of which brings me to today, when I used some leads and slugs, quads and wooden furniture to assemble these beautiful types and locked the form up for proofing on the Gordon. As I worked in the print shop, the small air conditioner in the window did its best to keep the space at something like a tolerable temperature, despite the July sun pouring in the windows and the heat of the day bearing down on the third building to house The Norlu Press since my dad founded it as a thirteen-year-old boy in 1937.

151219 Christmas Holly Type Locked Up

Border No. 13 from the 1923 ATF Specimen Book & Catalogue, locked up and ready for proofing.


151219 ATF Christmas Holly Berry Proof
Proof of ATF Border No. 13.

While I am still not sure what the border printed from these types will frame, the proof shows a crisp, clean and unbroken image that is certain to reflect “the carol that you sing Right within your heart,” because it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Come back soon to see what becomes of No. 13.



Christmas (Card) Wrapping

This isn’t so much of a post on how to wrap a package as it is how to present letterpress jobs to clients in the 21st Century. For me, this is somewhat new ground, as presentation was not a big part of the printing my dad, and later I did at the original Norlu Press when it was located in Fairport, New York. To be sure, the printing was beautiful, but the wrapping and packaging? I think it would be apparent to his customers that Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio did not wrap the family Christmas presents!

When the press he used and I inherited was manufactured in 1863, job work in most places was almost a commodity. Letterpress was the only game in town, and when one was printing, getting it done more quickly than the guy at the next shop meant everything. Things had not changed too much in my dad’s time, but in the late 1970s and 1980s, we were competing against offset printers and, eventually, copy centers. It was still high impression counts and quick turn on most jobs.

Today, letterpress has become a client choice. Those who are willing to pay a premium for this kind of work don’t expect to wait forever to see and feel their custom designed short-run, artistic work, but the process often takes place at a slower, more measured clip. (Note that this is not so much the case with some contemporary letterpress printers, whose niche is high volume specialty embossing, die cutting, stamping and other work that is characterized by speed and precision.)

What follows are some ideas about how the presentation of printed jobs is evolving at The Norlu Press. It is a short “how to” package a Christmas card order for a customer.

What You Will Need


The picture above shows everything necessary to make a good impression (pun intended) on those whose excellent taste led them to choose The Norlu Press. Pictured from the top left are two lifts of twenty printed Christmas cards, a printed tag, printed wrapping bands, two lifts of envelopes, twine, cellophane tape and a pair of scissors.

Step 1:  Band the envelopes with wrapping bands. Although Hobie never used these, the envelopes we purchased for wedding announcements often came packed with a simple band around them. Adding the name of the shop to a similar band and using these to secure liftWrapping_2s of completed work after they have dried has been popular with stationery printers for years, and it is an inexpensive way to remind customers who printed their job, while also securing the stack of paper and making the next steps easier. Cut the band to the length required, wrap it aroWrapping_4und the stack and secure with a piece of tape. (We are transitioning to glue for our period-appropriate historical jobs.) Wrap each lift securely, with no slack in the wrapper, but do not wrap so tightly that you damage the printed job or tear the wrapper itself.

Step 2:  Wrap the Banded Lifts in Paper. After you have banded each lift for the job, gather up the banded lifts and wrap them in paper. At The Norlu Press, we use traditional brown wrapping paper to achieve the 19th Century look and feel many of our clients are seeking. ForWrapping_6 the job in this illustration, I have selected one lift of twenty Christmas cards and a corresponding lift of twenty printed envelopes and will wrap them together in one package. The technique used for wrapping a gift with wrapping paper is the same technique used at The Norlu Press. Since we are not using tape, multiple small folds of the paper on the flat portion of the package will help to keep the paper in place while yo fold up the ends.

Step 3:  Tie String Around the Package.  The string is going to hold the wrapping in place, so it is not only decorative, but also functional. While holding down the fold on the face and the two flaps you made on the ends, wrap the string around the package asWrapping_7 you would do with ribbon on a gift, making an overhand knot on the back flat portion and bringing the strings around for what will become a square knot on the front flat portion. This is the kind of knot for which you will likely need a partner to hold the first portion of the square knot in place, while you make the second knot of the square knot and draw it down until it is very tight. At this point, the package is secured.

Step 4:  Add the Printed Tag and Sample of the Job.  Slip the hole in your printed tag into one of the free-running ends and loosely make another knot to hold it in place. This is another modern addition to the presentation of a printed job, but it serves two very good purposes. First, it is another branding opportunity for The Norlu Press. Second, because the back is blank, the client may choose to write on the tag, especially if it is for a gift. Once the tag is in place, carefully tuck a printed piece from the job underneath the string. Work it under the knotted strings and down until it is centered on the package.Wrapping_10

The photo above shows a Christmas card order ready to be placed in a box and shipped.

ATF Miniature Perpetual Calendar Logotypes


From the 1957 American Type Founders Typographic Accessories catalog.

A few months ago, as I was going through the last few items that my dad set aside for me from his letterpress print shop, I found a coffee can about two thirds full with what looked like Monotype castings of small ornaments…dingbats as my dad, and later International Typeface Corporation typographer Hermann Zapf would call them. (My dad was a journeyman printer and member of the International Typographical Union. I am assuming that someone other than he had committed the sin of putting all of this type in a coffee can.)

The majority of these ten and twelve point (less than a quarter inch square and a little less than an inch tall) pieces of lead consisted of stars, tiny geometric flowers and leaves and sections of wavy lines, but among them were some larger pieces. These were clearly not the kind of dingbats used to create borders in letterpress printing. Each was three and one half picas (approximately half an inch) in width and their depth varied.

73 Pieces of Lead


The set of calendar logotypes after cleaning and sorting. Numbered days of the week are the larger types on the left. The smaller types on the right consist of the name of the month and the header of one-letter abbreviations of days of the week, S (Sunday) through S (Saturday).

As I separated these larger pieces from the smaller Monotype castings I noticed that they were foundry-cast components of a calendar. I cleaned them with type wash and a toothbrush and found the smaller pieces had the name of a month with “S, M, T W, T, F S” underneath them.  There were two of these for each month. The 49 larger pieces were a variety of calendar numbers sets. Each one had seven days across, but the array of start days and number of days per piece of type varied.


Other than some minor oxidation, these little types cleaned up well, although it is CalendarTypes4unfortunate that some of them have small imperfections due to their being improperly stored for nearly twenty years.

My initial research about these types did not produce results. I had assumed that American Type Founders (ATF) may have sold them as a Handy-Font, but catalogs of types being cast by current day craftsmen from ATF matrices produced nothing similar to these types. I posted some photos of my discovery on the Briar Press forum and two members, parallel_imp and mgurzo, quickly provided positive identification from the 1957 ATF Typographic Accessories catalog.

Printing with the Logotypes


ATF perpetual calendar logotype sections. The header with month and days of the week is on the bottom and the calendar days section is at the top.

Now that I knew what I had, I decided to try and compose the logotypes and print from them.

I obtained a 2016 calendar to determine the combinations of months, month numbers, and day-of-the-week starts and assembled a little calendar using the logotypes. I used a 14-point gutter between each calendar “page,” rather than the rule lines that appear between the pages in the 1957 ATF calendar. The little form came together pretty easily, with the exception of having to justify depth for the varying height of each month of the year. The ATF catalog referred to “dotted blanks, cast on a unit 42×4 points” to “make it easy to even up the number of lines whenever necessary.” If my dad had these when he purchased the perpetual calendar logotypes for the Norlu Press, they did not survive to the present day, which is unfortunate, because they would have been very useful for this little project.

I am not sure what I will do with the calendar form for 2016. Based on the ATF samples, it appears that a merchant or businessman would have used these for an envelope stuffer or handout, perhaps as an insert with his or her latest product catalog or price list. The image size of my form is just 17×11 picas, or approximately 2.75″x1.75″. While I don’t have any requests for this practical little piece of late industrial age technology, It was fun to find it, learn its history and play around with these little logotypes.


In the foreground is the form that I assembled from the perpetual calendar logotypes. Behind the form is a proof of how they printed.








Perforating a Ticket Job on a Platen Press

Tickets have been part of the printing services the Norlu Press has offered since its founding by my dad in 1937. Some of the earliest jobs he printed were tickets, and I continued to print these kinds of jobs-sometimes for the same customers-forty years later as a teenager working in my dad’s shop.


These are some of the tickets my dad printed at the original Norlu Press in Fairport, New York in 1939, when he was 15 years old. The bottom right “Dance” ticket is an example of a ticket with a perforated stub.

We printed raffle tickets for fraternal groups and veterans’ organizations, band and orchestra tickets for our local high school in Fairport, New York and dance tickets for events hosted by a variety of individuals and organizations.

Often, these tickets required a stub to be retained by the person who purchased the ticket as proof of purchase or for a drawing or raffle. In order to do this, we had to perforate a line across the ticket to allow the stub to be torn away the main ticket. My dad taught me how to do this when I was a fourteen-year-old boy in 1978, and in this post, I will share the technique I learned all those years ago. For this lesson, I am using the same 1863 Gordon Old Style Jobber platen press that he used between 1939 and 1942, but I am printing a ticket to a 2015 holiday party.

Caution!  The perforating rule we will be using will damage the surface of your platen and put a nasty cut into your rollers. Please be sure to follow steps 1 and 2 before going any further!

Step 1:  Remove the rollers. You do not need rollers to perforate on a letterpress printing press, and unless you want to carve a ring into your composition or rubber rollers and render them almost useless, remove the rollers from your press!

Step 2:  Place a die cutting jacket or other piece of steel directly on your platen. Unlike the soft lead and wood types you normally print with perforating rule is made of steel.


Its sharp teeth will leave their mark on the surface of your platen if you do not protect it. Some press models have available steel jackets that fit over the platen for die cutting, scoring and perforating. If you don’t have one of these, you can have one fabricated or, as I have done, have a single piece of sheet metal cut to the size of your platen. In the picture above, you can see that I am using a 7″x11″ piece of steel (the size of my platen) to which I have added heavy duty tape along each edge to prevent cutting my hands and fingers.

Step 3:  Add two draw sheets. Add one or two sheets of tympan paper over the top of your steel plate in the same way you would if you were printing a job with types and ink. Secure them in place with the bales.

Step 4:  Begin your form. Now that your press is prepared, it is time to set up your perforating rule in a form. First, select a rule that is one to two picas longer than the line you want to perforate. This is to ensure that your perforation extends the entire length or width of the ticket or other job you are perforating. In this photo, I have selected a 16-piSelect a section of perforating rule that is two to three picas longer than the line you want to perforate. Then select two pieces of six pica furniture a little longer than the rule and tilt it 90 degrees from the normal position or lockup.ca steel perforating rule, because the height of the ticket I need to perforate is 15 picas.
Once you have selected your perforating rule, select two six-pica wide pieces of furniture that are at least as long as your rule and place one along each side of it. Instead of positioning them in the traditional way, rotate them 90 degrees on your imposing stone so that they are slightly taller than traditional furniture. This little trick will provide more support and help to keep the rule from bending on impression with the steel plate on your platen.

Step 5:  Complete the form. Place the rule with the two six-piPerforating_5.jpegca pieces of furniture alongside it in the approximate position within the chase that corresponds to the location of where your rule will perforate. This is the same as positioning types and other matter to be printed, and as with those materials, the perforating rule should be above the center of the chase to maximize impression and ease of hand feeding. Add furniture and quoins, then complete the lockup.

Step 6:  Pull an impression and get position. Place the chase in your press. (At this point, it is a good idea to ensure that you have removed Perforating_6.jpegyour rollers and placed a steel plate on top of your platen.) Cycle the press to allow the perforating rule to strike the tympan paper. If necessary, use a pica gauge and pencil to draw a line over the perforated marks to make them easier to see.

After you can see the line, select a run-up or additional printed piece from the job you are working on. (When you are adding a process like perforating, numbering, or printing multiple colors to a traditional print job, you should allow an overage of as much as ten percent to allow for gaining position foObtain position on the press as you would with a job to be printed.r each successive step.) Draw a line that extends all the way across the edge of your printed piece along the axis that you want to perforate. This line should be exactly where you want your job to be perforated. After this, simply line the printed piece up with the line where the perforation strikes the tympan and set your gauge pins as you would with a printed job. Once you confirm position, use additional printed pieces and adjust your packing so that it becomes easy to tear the stub off, but not so much impression that it cuts too far through the paper and separates the stub from the main ticket.

Step 7:  Perforate your job. Now you are ready to perforate your tickets. In some cases, you may find that the perforation works better when the impression is made on the back side of the job.wp-1449113114476.jpeg

That is all there is to it! Perforating is a lot like printing on a platen press, as long as you remember the nuances described above. It is also an example of something a letterpress printer can do that no laser printer can duplicate.


First Christmas Card for the 2015 Season

This holiday card features Stardream Citrine metallic paper, which is imported from the Cordenons mill in Italy (archival quality and acid/lignin-free). The silver paper, combined with PMS 357 green holly leaves and PMS 485 red berries printed from early 20th Century American Type Founders ornaments, produces a shimmery, festive look and feel. The message is timeless, set in Trafton Script foundry types and printed in classic black ink. Two additional ornaments, most likely from about 1900, complement the text and add to the traditional and classy look of these cards. Inside is blank and the back panel includes interesting information about the card and my print shop. Each order of five comes with five red foil-lined envelopes personalized with your name and address. All inks are soy-based from Southern Ink Company.

Shimmery holiday greeting card in three colors on Italian Cordenons Stardreeam Citrine metallic paper.

Shimmery holiday greeting card in three colors on Italian Cordenons Stardreeam Citrine metallic paper.

Detail of the early 20th Century ornaments cast in lead by American Type Founders and the classic Trafton Script font from the Bauer Type Foundry in Germany.

Detail of the early 20th Century ornaments cast in lead by American Type Founders and the classic Trafton Script font from the Bauer Type Foundry in Germany.

Letterpress holiday greeting card in three colors (PMS 485 red, PMS 357 green and dense black--all soy-based from Southern Ink Company) with complementary red foil-lined envelope.

Letterpress holiday greeting card in three colors (PMS 485 red, PMS 357 green and dense black–all soy-based from Southern Ink Company) with complementary red foil-lined envelope.

Descriptive panel on back of 2015 holiday greeting card from The Norlu Press.

Descriptive panel on back of 2015 holiday greeting card from The Norlu Press.

They are available on my Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/your/shops/TheNorluPress/tools/listings/250582342

A long run (for me in 2015, at least)

While thinking about the third and final of my three posts on “The Things Printers Don’t Carry,” I had the opportunity to crank up the old Gordon Jobber for its longest press run since I reestablished The Norlu Press in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Cougar White Business Card Stock

A long run for 2015: One thousand 3.5″x2″ business cards cut to size from some really nice extra thick 160 pound Cougar white card stock are ready for hand feeding.

This past weekend, I printed 1,000 business cards for my old friend Gerry Messmer, a U.S. Army combat veteran officer who also is a living historian and the owner of Powderhorns and More. Gerry is an artisan who crafts powderhorns and is a purveyor of numerous items for living historians and reenactors.

One thousand cards does not sound like a lot, but my means of production has no electricity, no ink fountain and no throw-off to take the press off impression for a misfeed. Those enhancements were not available when George P. Gordon manufactured my cast iron printing press in 1863. I power it by means of its foot treadle, which requires a constant pumping action

“Who is gonna make it?
We’ll find out in the long run.”
Glenn Frey and Don Henley (1979)

Of all the job printing I did as a teenager and college student with my dad at the original Norlu Press in Fairport, New York, the kind of work to which I least looked forward was the long run. There is a certain satisfaction in designing, composing, imposing/locking up and making ready a job for a customer. That was always the fun part.

The presswork, for me, was always the most monotonous part of the job. The steps prior to the actual printing of a job require one’s complete attention, and when done properly, they keep one’s mind from wandering.  Once a job is in position and the impressions begin, there is substantially less on which to focus. Dad trained me to keep a rhythm, get good position with each feed, check the color (actually a term for the overall ink quality and coverage–even when printing in black ink) and to watch for individual types or cuts working up and printing a bad image, but even doing all of that left a lot of time to think about the party that was a few hours away, the girl you like who might like you, or the lyrics to every song on the Rush 2112 album.

Long runs for me in the 1980s on my dad’s 10×15 Chandler & Price New Style platen press were anything over an hour’s press time. The press operated off of a variable speed electric motor, but still required the pressman (me) to hand feed each piece of stock, watch it print, and then pick it up and place it on the press’ delivery board. Depending on the stock to be printed, I was able to perform about 1,100 accurate impressions per hour. My dad almost never saw a job he didn’t like, and although most of our jobs were business cards, tickets, stationery, wedding invitations and such, with no more than a few thousand impressions, salvaging other printers’ mistakes was an opportunity to make some money. It also was a sure bet for a long run of 10,000, 15,000 or more impressions.

Just seeing ten or twenty cases of envelopes in the back of my dad’s station wagon, upon which I was to print a strike-out rule and line of corrected text, was enough to make myself appear really busy. “Are you sure there isn’t a raffle ticket to run?” I would ask my dad.

Powderhorns and More First Impression

The first of what will be one thousand impressions of my friend Gerry Messmer’s Powderhorns and More business card order.

“What about a wedding invitation that needs to be set? I could put a second color rule around those  membership cards I printed this morning.” No effort to rid myself of the long run worked, and I spent many, many hours feeding that press on those long, long runs.

The Powderhorns and More business card job was, for me and this much slower and older press, a long run…my longest yet. But it was a joy to print, evoking memories of my dad and helping me to remember the joy of being one with an early industrial age piece of machinery…and I was happy to provide my friend Gerry a card that reflects the work he does. The Norlu Press is available for your letterpress printing needs – short runs as well as long!

End of the Long Run

The end of the long run: One thousand beautiful business cards that were an absolute joy to print.

The Things Printers Don’t Carry – Part Second (Imposition) of Three Parts

141101 Holiday Party Ticket_1

The occasion of printing a ticket for a holiday party (finished job shown above) caused me to realize that some of the things letterpress printers don’t carry are accoutrements of the trade normally found at or near the imposing stone.

The customer for this job wanted the tickets double-numbered, with a numbered stub on one end of the ticket for a drawing, and the identical number on the main part of the ticket. This was not a problem, as the founder of Norlu Press (my dad, Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio) saved for me numerous consecutive numbering machines that could be locked up in a forme with types and cuts, and printed. These kinds of jobs were a mainstay of my dad’s shop, and I had printed many of them when I worked beside my dad as a high school student.

Before beginning a job with numbering machines, however, the pressman must set them to the end count (these machines count down from “N” to zero). When I looked for the small wooden tool for doing this, I realized that it was not among the items that I had near my imposing stone, nor anywhere else in shop. Dad had forgotten to leave one for me.

A 20-pica long three point reglet converted into an essential numbering machine turner, based on Lewis "Hobie" DiRisio's technique.

A 20-pica long three point reglet converted into an essential numbering machine turner, based on Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio’s technique.

I remembered that this tool was, in fact, a piece of three point reglet (thin sections of wooden spacing material, similar to leads and slugs, but less expensive) with one end cut to form a point. I selected a reglet of 20 picas in length, used an Exacto knife to make two cuts and form the pointy end, and then I had a handy way to advance the wheels on the numbering machines quickly, accurately and without fear of damaging the individual digits on the 85-year-old machines.

With a few clicks of the numbering machines on my imposing stone, I was ready to print.

Having acquired another one of the things that a printer doesn’t carry (actually, a printer might carry one of these handy little tools in the pocket of his or her apron), I considered the importance of the imposing stone area to a small letterpress print shop.

Using a modified piece of reglet to properly set a number on a letterpress consecutive numbering machine.

Using a modified piece of reglet to properly set a number on a letterpress consecutive numbering machine.

According to the A Dictionary of the Art of Printing (William Savage, 1841), the imposing stone is “The stone on which the compositor imposes and corrects his forms.” For many years prior to the 19th Century, printers referred to the heavy and smooth surfaces where they adjusted types and created forms as correcting stones, but imposition involves more than correcting things like the random damaged serif on a type or poorly justified line.

By its strictest definition, imposition is the arranging of types and lithographic elements that will produce a correctly printed page. In larger print shops and publishing houses, this meant manipulating multiple formes that made pages and arraying them so that when the multiple pages printed on a single sheet of paper, they appeared in the proper sequence after being folded, trimmed and placed into signatures (printed sheets folded to page size for binding together, with other such sheets, to form a book.)

In smaller shops, imposition involves more than what Frederick J. F. Wilson and Douglas Grey (A Practical Treatise Upon Modern Printing Machinery and Letterpress Printing, 1888) described as “the laying down of the plates and adjusting of the spaces between the pages to allow of proper backs and gutters.”  Wilson and Grey asserted that this kind of work was in the realm of specialized tradesmen within the printing industry called compositors, and wrote that pressmen, as the generalists of the trade, needed to know a variety of techniques on the imposing stone to be proficient in their work.

The area around the imposing stone in a small letterpress job shop is where a printer unwittingly exposes something of his or herself, through the array of implements one may find there. Far from being the result of laziness or untidiness, the imposing stone is where printers keep some previous jobs that they expect to print again, where recently acquired curiosities are placed in anticipation of an order that may require their use and where various other implements of their trade reside. The imposing area is where you will find string to tie forms, brushes to clean type, planning blocks to level types to be printed, tweezers and various odd-sized leads and bits of paper necessary to shim up the occasional troublesome forme.

Among modern letterpress printers, there is an urban legend that the one item a printer would never part with from his shop was his imposing stone. Often made of marble, a common size stone for a pressman operating a 10″x15″ platen press might be 3 feet wide by several feet deep. With these measurements, one might expect that the imposing stone could be used for a headstone. The printer, it is believed, would prefer the marble that he used every day to be used as the marker of his final resting place and would have the back side (which would be free of the decades of ink, solvents and general print shop grime that often stain the fronts of imposing stones) engraved with his epitaph.  See imposing stone thread on the Briar Press.

Although my Dad had owned his marble stone for nearly 70 years when he passed away in 2007, he did not use it as a headstone. I recall him telling me that his father had acquired it for him when he began printing as a teenager during the Depression. A friend of a friend knew an Italian mason who was doing some work in marble and one piece had broken off a section while being moved. I use this same imperfect section of marble for my imposing stone today, and knowing how many thousands of jobs my Dad locked up on it makes me smile every time I set types on it to prepare them for printing.

My Dad can’t answer my questions about printing any more, but in the same way that Inigo Montoya seeks his father’s guidance by grasping the heirloom sword he made in The Princess Bride and asking it to speak to him, I sometimes take a breath, say a prayer, place my hands on that imposing stone and listen to Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio’s sage advice.

The Norlu Press imposing area with various implements of the letterpress trade arrayed around the margins of the marble imposing stone.

The Norlu Press imposing area with various implements of the letterpress trade arrayed around the margins of the marble imposing stone.

A piece of marble salvaged by my grandfather, Fioravante DiRisio, for his teen-aged aspiring printer son Lewis "Hobie" DiRisio, circa 1939. The damaged beveled edge is in the foreground.

A piece of marble salvaged by my grandfather, Fioravante DiRisio, for his teen-aged aspiring printer son Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio, circa 1939. The damaged beveled edge is in the foreground.

The Things Printers Don’t Carry – Part First (Hand Composition) of Three Parts

In The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien wrote about a platoon of American infantrymen in the Vietnam War and described the unlikely items these men included in their kit. One wears his girlfriends’ stockings around his neck, believing they have the ability to protect him.  The reader learns also, through a series of vignettes, that that these Soldiers carried emotional weight, along with the physical weight of objects large and small. I one story that happens years after the war, a member of the platoon acknowledges how the weight of the memory of his buddy’s death has affected him.

This reflection is about the things that letterpress printers don’t carry.

Letterpress printers do not generally keep a lot of physical things on their person, other than what they choose to place in the pockets of their aprons. There,once can always find one or two stubs of a pencil, some sort of note pad or scraps of writing paper, a pair of tweezers, a broken or misshaped gauge pin, the odd Linotype slug or nearly dry tube of makeready paste. From my father, I learned the habit of stowing my pica gauge (a 12-inch metal ruler) in the back pocket of my pants, which continues to annoy me on the rare occasions when I have to sit down in the print shop. Invariably, the gauge catches on the back of the chair when I stand up and, bending until its spring-like action reaches a certain point, is pried from my pocket and is then flung several feet across the shop.

140428 Mary and Jim Print Shop_01 (crop)

Mary and Jim DiRisio at The Norlu Press, Fayetteville, North Carolina (2014). We are wearing our printer’s aprons and holding composing sticks while we compose lines of text from individual types stored in a California Job Case. The rack is of my own design, made simply from plywood and two-by-fours. I glued and screwed sections of oak quarter-round moulding to form the rails that support each type case. This design takes up a little more space than traditional (and now antique) racks, but as the rails extend forward approximately six inches further than the type cases, the printer can extend the cases to reveal their entire contents without removing them from the rack. It is still a good idea, however, to take Hobie’s advice and extend slightly the case directly below the one in use, so that it does not “accidentally” fall off its rails and pi the entire case of type.

Rather than carrying them, most printers keep their trade’s necessities within arm’s reach of the place where they are working, and usually in one of three main areas: the composing, imposition and press area.

For composition, or the setting of the individual types into lines, one usually finds a fairly simple arrangement that is based on a rack of multiple type cases, a composing stick and an assortment of leads and slugs. Often, the top of the rack of cases is canted at an angle, which allows the printer to remove a type case from its place in the rack and position it approximately chest-high. This enables the printer to see and reach all of compartments for each individual piece of type, including the lower case “k,” which is at the very top row of compartments and often hidden from view and reach if the case is not removed from its rack.

Lewis DiRisio at Norlu Press (Summer 1986)

Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio at Norlu Press, Fairport, New York (circa 1986). This was the composition area of the shop, and behind him, against the wall, the long black rack of leads and slugs is visible. Below the leads and slugs, in the bottom right corner of the photo, numerous standing formes and sorts of types occupy the work surface real estate that was ideally suited for the type case that contained the types one was composing. The toothpick in my dad’s mouth made my mom crazy, but most of us liked it better than the cigar butt that it replaced.

By the time I began my informal apprenticeship in my dad’s shop, that slanted worktop surface was covered with so many “standing” formes (jobs one expects to print again) and “sorts” of types (incomplete fonts, sometimes only a few types borrowed from another printer for a specific job) that I didn’t have the luxury of using it to make composition easier. Consequently, I became adept at peering over the tops of the higher racked cases and squatting in awkward poses to get down to the lower cases. The fact that those standing jobs included, in 1977, menus for long-closed local restaurants that included 55-cent Highball cocktails and sorts of types with names of people whom I had never known did not seem to matter. For my dad, it was important to have them on hand, just in case (and he would have fully intended that pun.)

As with O’Brien’s Soldiers, not everything a printer carries, or uses, is a physical item. Anyone who prints carries memories of how he or she learned the craft, of the circumstances that made one love the unnameable aroma of ink, old lead, solvents and wood that permeates letterpress shops, and of the people along the way who shared their knowledge. For me, it is impossible to separate my memories or current understanding of printing from the image of my dad, Lewis “Hobie” DiRisio, who established the original Norlu Press and was a lifelong letterpress printer. Initially, this included the image of him with a stub of a cigar (usually unlit) in his mouth, but as I spent more time in the shop, the cigar eventually gave way to a toothpick when he gave up cigars “cold turkey,” as he would say. While I learned enough about printing to take it up again as a hobby after being away from it for twenty-five years, I learned so much more about who I was, where I came from and that family is the foundation of being.

That is what this printer carries.

This printer may go shoeless, but not card-less.


The Norlu Press Business Card, 2014 edition.

In an effort to disassociate myself from the proverbial shoemaker, whose son was said to have to go barefoot, I designed and printed the first Norlu Press business card since 1991. It is a two-color piece (black and blue) that evokes the merchant and calling cards that emerged just prior to the American Civil War. This is all letterpress hand composition, with Engravers Shaded, Bodoni Ultra and Stradivarius as the display fonts.