The Process

The story begins with the engravings, themselves.
You might imagine what a Hamilton Type CasEngravingse (a big flat drawer in layman’s terms) would look like from this small sample. These images have already been identified — the post-it notes on their sides have the name and any other note I thought necessary on them. You might notice the “Veins of a dragonfly wing” in the top center has notes indicating what the various cells on the wing are called. They have also been alphabetized to make it easier for me to create the text for them and arrange them into the book.

MeasuringEngravingWhat you see here is the form I created to make a log of the engravings I’m borrowing from Yale so I have a record of what I take and that they are all returned. It’s hard to see the engraving, but it’s “Velvet Grass” and it’s 5 picas wide. The engraving is sitting on top of the International Dictionary. When I get the engravings back to my shop I pull out my old dictionaries to see which dictionary the engraving first appears in, I check my spelling (I’m a terrible speller), and I copy down Latin names or other interesting features – say if an engraving has labelled parts etc. In this picture, just above the ruler, there is a funnel shaped image – if you look above, you can see it (“ventriculate”) in the lower left portion of the photo. This borrowing sheet now becomes my guide for linotyping the text to accompany the images. —– —- —– —– ——

linotypingHere I am at my Model 8 linotype, and it’s summertime, and I’m correcting something in the composing elevator. Notice the sheet above the keyboard where I type in the text. The linotype is an amazing machine — an operator merely types on the keyboards and brass mats assemble in the composing elevator w/ steel spacebands forming the spaces between words. Each mat has the mold of a letter punched in its backside. After a line is assembled, the operator depresses a lever and the machine takes over, casting this form into a line ‘o type and then re-distributing the mats and spacebands so you can start again.

cuttingslugsThe shiny silver things are the 7 point, 12 pica slugs cast on the linotype. The pen is to mark the metal for chopping on a leading cutter so the slugs will match the width of the engravings. This is an image of Umbel – the first line beneath it reads “Umbel” backwards so it will print correctly (Letterpress is direct as opposed to offset which is an indirect printing process.) on the paper. The second line has the number associated with umbel and the notation MN which means it is an electrotype that was created for the 1890 International Dictionary.

underlay1underlay2In addition to creating text for the engravings, each engraving must be checked to see that it is “type high.” This magnificent dial indicator is on loan from Fred Widmer who put it together using an old base from the Waltham Watch Factory and a new dial piece. If an engraving is not within a couple thousandths of .918″ high, it will either not get enough ink and enough pressure, or it will get too much ink and too much pressure when printing. Most of the engravings are low.You can see this engraving needed about 3 thousanths of an inch of underlay to reach “type high.” Notice I use old “Work in Progress!” for my 3 thousandth underlay needs. If an engraving is high, it might be because it had too much underlay put on in the 19th Century. This old underlay must be carefully removed w/ a wheat-paste poultice. Often you will find manuscript written by a draughtsman or the engraver indicating what the engraving is.Here is an example of what you might find: It reads “Hyperbola. Crabb. Page 246.” Crabb is the source from which the engraving was copied! I made scans of almost every engraving I cleaned and am planning to include a bibliography of the sources from which the engravings for the dictionary were taken in my book.

CrabbSince we are talking about the engravings — Here is my set-up for making my own engravings. You can see the various burins and a block of wood in a Korean letter vice. My opti-visor magnifying lenses are invaluable. Luke Hepler, a friend who did micro-injections of cells for electron-microscopy once explained to me that the human hand is able to adjust its movements to whatever the eye can see.This is just a test block in the vice.

EngravinganimageHere is an engraving of “Die Stock” and you can see that the drawing was reproduced photographically from some catalog as evidenced by the words “Die Stock” in the upper left.The engraver would then engrave the block leaving the black lines to print. These wood engravings created for the International Dictionary did not always have all the material cleared away on the engraving as it was not worth the time of the engraver to do that. (And it may have even helped with the electrotyping process?) This engraving would have a wax mold taken of it, copper would be electroplated to that mold and then the image would be backed with lead and mounted on a piece of wood to make a type-high block. I believe the way they dealt with the border areas was to fill only the image itself with lead, and the border areas would be nailed down to the base — thus becoming lower than the printing surface. (Please contact me if I give any poor information!)

die stock -2Here is my type and page setting area. On the table by the lamp is a page form being set.












Here you can see the first page of the “U’s” is being set. I created this page setting form using metal furniture and locking it up in a galley. I have four such forms. These images will have leading carefully set in between to fill up all the voids so that the engravings will not move during printing. For setting engravings, one doesn’t need excessive pressure, but it needs to be consistent from page to page. I usually rough set the two pages facing each other first so I know what each page spread will look like, then I, or an intern, finishes setting the page.

Once all 16 pages are set for a section, 8 of them are set into the press for a print run. I then spend a day proofing, and fixing underlay and then working on “makeready.” Makeready is adding or removing paper to the drum of the press to adjust the pressure in printing. Many of the mounted engravings have a certain amount of spring to them – it might be in part the wood they are mounted on, and also the looseness of their mounting. These images will get enough ink from proper underlay, but because of that spring, they will not receive enough pressure and so will not print well. To gauge pressure, one looks at the underside of a printed sheet at a low angle with a good light source behind. If one sees no impression at all, adding make-ready is imperative. Many times I have been seduced by a great first few impressions and not added adequate make-ready — partly in deference to the age of the engravings — only to discover twenty impressions later that the image isn’t really printing that well b/c it’s just not pressing the ink into the page. Yeah, you can’t always gauge on first impressions!

proofsHere are proofs I keep hanging over my interleaved stack of the run I’m currently printing. These help remind me of what a good and bad impression looks like over time. The ink I use dries much lighter than it originally appears — the ink seeps into the paper and so I must print slightly darker than I want the final pages to appear.



Here is an engraving sitting next to the print of the same engraving. The engraving was first used in the 1864 Dictionary, and the white you see in the wood engraving is French Chalk sprinkled on to help show what the engraving will look like.

filecabAfter I finish printing both sides of a run, the sheets get wrapped up and stored in my Webster’s Project file cabinet.You can see the piles of sections ong the bottom and top shelves of the cabinet. The other shelves have old proofs, makeready, and special proofing paper to use when the book is reproduced as a trade edition.