Once you have a bit of type, or old printing equipment, you”ll find that it grows. You”ll leave the shop overnight and the next day two drawers of 36pt. Clarendon Bold have produced a drawer of 12pt. Century Schoolbook.
Okay, there”s a little more to it than that, but there is a “birds and bees” ethos to the way new type comes to the letterpress printers” collection. When you are passionate about a process that is hundreds of years old, and a very, very few people are as taken with the process as you are, you”ll want to care for the equipment. When it comes time, as it does for everyone, and as it will for me one day, to pass the torch on to another generation of printers, we are the kind of people who want to see the equipment go to a good home.
The trick with letterpress equipment is the getting it there.
Being that a drawer of type can hold 30-80lbs. of lead type, and a case of drawers could hold 24 drawers, that means a single case of type can weigh upwards of 800lbs.
One day in April I got an email from a fellow named Pat, who”s family had owned a printing business in Nelson, BC. for 80 years. They had weathered the storm of the transition to photo-typesetting, to digital typesetting, but they did fair well when the restaurant next door burned to the ground. All the sensitive digital equipment was lost, but the durable letterpress equipment in the basement survived perfectly. The insurance company rebuilt the building, a new tenant was found, but what to do with the gear?
Pat, like many of his generation, had grown up surrounded by lead type and Heidlberg windmill presses, but was caught up in the changes that a commercial printer needed to make from the 70″s through the 90″s to stay afloat. As a result he never learned the old trade from his father or grandfather. He had fond memories of his father setting business cards and small jobs for friends, so he wanted to see this gear go to a good home. That”s where we came in. It turns out there are not many places in Western Canada that are still using their metal type.
After a quick visit and a bit of negotiation, a very fair deal was struck and I vowed to return with a trailer and a friend to help load. I didn”t know what was in there, just that it needed to get back into use. This lot had six cases full of mystery type.
And so it was that on a rainy day in early June, my friend and colleague Keith Liggett and I set out for the West Kootenays with his Suburban and a borrowed trailer. I don”t know much about trailers, and maximum weights, and all that, but I”m pretty sure we were overweight for this particular trailer. In retrospect it was pretty ridiculous that we tried, but it seemed okay and once were going it was easier to keep going than to stop and deal with the weight. We just drove slow. Nelson to Fernie is a 5-hour drive when you”re going 70 kms/hr.
At any rate, we made it back safe and sound, and had the dubious task of unloading 100 drawers of type the next morning. Then I had the even more dubious task of somehow assimilating 6 new cases of type into an already pretty full workspace. For the time being all the extra type sat in the middle of the gallery, so it had to be dealt with.
With Katherine”s help (our illustrious intern) we got the drawers sorted (haha… printer”s joke) and arranged. We moved cases back and forth, organized them based on size and style, and miraculously got all 6 new cases into the workspace without losing any walking space or worktops. It was truly a thing to behold, if you”d seen the gallery before the assimilation.
The result of the trip was essentially a doubling of the number of metal typefaces available, with some real winners in there like Huxley Vertical, Umbra Shadow, and Bodoni Extra Black. Thanks to Keith for the company and the safe driving, and a special thanks to Pat McLaughlin of McLaughlin printing for tracking us down, and trusting us with his family”s heritage. We”ll take good care of it, I promise.