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Hungry Bibliophiles: An Experiment in Utilitarian Bookmaking

Winter 2015
Winter 2015
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Russell Maret is a private press printer and type designer working in New York City. His books are in collections throughout the world, including the Library of Congress, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Research Institute, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2011 I ordered 3,000 sheets of custom-watermarked handmade paper from Velké Losiny for my book, Specimens of Diverse Characters. Prior to dealing with the mill it had never been realistic for me to order so much handmade paper and, when it arrived at my shop, I was ecstatic. Three thousand sheets of handmade paper! I had never seen anything so beautiful. The misshapen stack of paper towered in my mind like a glorious mountain, illumined with a supernatural glow. It was a moment primed with an irrepressible sense of arrival—So long, mouldmade paper!—and, in my excitement, I set about prepping and sorting the paper for printing. As I began proofing on my beautiful new paper, though, the thrill I felt was quickly infused with anxiety. The type, rules, and tonal areas I was printing looked much heavier than they were meant to look.

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There is always a bit of color gain when printing on handmade as opposed to mouldmade paper, but this was different. Large solid areas were printing fine, but sharp lines were thick, halftones and parallel lines were closing in too much. Every thing was two stops too dark. I tried loading my ink with magnesium carbonate to mitigate the slurring, which helped a little, but I was still not getting the print quality I was after. It was as if the paper was not absorbing the ink. I tried dampening the sheets, which also helped, but the printing in Specimens involved such tight registration that I knew I would need to print dry if I had any hope of printing in register. Ok, no problem, I'll just soak each sheet and loft dry it prior to printing. Problem solved. Every new project has some hiccups. I adjusted my schedule, and printing was soon under way. Then one day, while re-dampening an etching to flatten the print, I noticed that the surface of the Velké Losiny became much more receptive to fine lines after a second soaking…. The comedy that ensued over the following months can only be considered a comedy from the distance of four years, but it eventually involved 500 hours of work, soaking and drying each sheet not once, but twice to remove enough gelatin sizing from the surface so that the paper would print the way I wanted it to print. None of this, of course, was Velké Losiny's fault. Prior to Specimens I had been a pampered consumer of handmade paper. In fact, the only handmade paper I had printed on previously was either made for me by people who knew how I would use it— Dieu Donné Papermill or Twinrocker Handmade Paper—or by makers of fine English book papers such as J. Barcham Green. I did not know that I should discuss the sizing with Velké Losiny before ordering their paper because, quite simply, I had never had to discuss it before. But even if I had known to bring it up, I doubt I would have known what to say. I was, after all, able to get the printing results I wanted from the paper. The unreasonable amount of extra labor involved was effective, if impractical; and the primary aesthetic drawback to my method—the softening of the paper through the removal of sizing—would not have been helped by using less sizing in the first place. There was little to do but finish the book and move on. While visiting Iowa City the following year, I discussed these issues with Tim Barrett, beginning a conversation that is still going on today. The central issue we have been discussing is this: sizing has a negative impact on print quality but a beneficial impact on the endurance and aesthetics of handmade paper. Tim's research into pre-Industrial European papermaking processes has suggested that some, and perhaps many, post-fifteenth-century books were printed on waterleaf (unsized) paper to which the books' printers, or someone else, added sizing after printing.1 For those of us who use expensive handmade paper to make even more expensive books, the thought of dipping our printed sheets into a vat of liquid gelatin is fraught with morbid possibilities. Despite this, after our initial conversation I sent Tim some printed sheets from Specimens so that he could re-size them. The results were intriguing but not entirely persuasive. Although the increased durability that sizing can lend to paper is appealing, the books that I make are used in ways that are not comparable with those in which a sixteenth-century book would have been used. A contemporary press book that is printed on soft, unsized cotton paper, housed in a box, and stored inside a temperature-controlled library will bear its age well. If the same paper had been used to print pocketbooks for traveling Humanists, the books would not have withstood the demands of their owners. The repeated physical use to which many early printed books were subjected lent them a patina similar to that of well-used tools, full of shine and scuff. In addition to the frequency of opening or the method of storing their books, early modern bibliophiles differentiated themselves in one important way from their twenty-firstcentury avatars: they wrote in their books. They wrote in the margins, between the lines, in the voids of woodcuts, on fly leaves and paste downs. They parsed, debated, excised, and amended their texts in ways that are unthinkable to contemporary private-press printers, but that were certainly expected by the printers of the day. If the paper in their books had not been sized, the ink of their pens would have bled into the paper fibers rather than holding a crisp line. The expectation of marginalia was another determining factor in the sizing of book paper after printing. Just as it is today, use was the arbiter of process. One might reasonably ask then: If my books do not require the durable benefits of gelatin sizing, why would I deal with sizing at all, particularly with the risky proposition of adding sizing to printed sheets? But ultimately my interests in paper sizing are not utilitarian, they are aesthetic. My favorite sheets of handmade paper are crisp, like freshly ironed linen, and turning them in a book is a complex sensory experience. The papers quiver with a gentle rattle as they are turned, making it hard to resist drumming one's fingertips against them. When bent they make a snapping sound, when shuffled they whisper like rustling leaves. These qualities are the accidental aesthetic benefits of gelatin sizing, and they are the qualities that I most want to have in the papers that I use for my books.2 With many of these issues in mind, Tim Barrett and his students at the University of Iowa Center for the Book have been trying to recreate the working conditions of a pre- Industrial papermill, employing a threeperson team to make 100–200 sheets of handmade paper per hour.3 The paper they are making is not meant to be perfect or precious but well-made and serviceable, to invite contact and annotation. With this paper, Tim and his colleagues are attempting an intriguing sleight of hand, engaging an historical process in the hope that it will arbitrate contemporary use. The problem, of course, is that once a craftsperson puts something out into the world, he or she cannot control how that object is used. It is all well and good to want people to use paper in a certain way, it is another matter to get them to actually do it. Handmade paper, however quickly made, instills a certain amount of fear in bibliophiles, and the speed with which it is made does not alter a paper's perceived preciousness. In thinking about how to get people to use Tim's paper more aggressively, it occurred to me that I would have to make a book whose content would tilt the scales; a book whose text would encourage people to remove it from the shelf and bring it into the messy world of their daily lives. No book satisfies this requirement better than a cookbook. In the hope of finding people who would be willing to put a fine book through the paces, I invited a group of printers, binders, papermakers, and librarians to submit one or two recipes each for a small cookbook called Hungry Bibliophiles. In turn, each participant agreed to cook as many of the recipes as they can within the space of a year, to cook them with the book open on their countertop, and to take notes in ink on the pages. The book would be printed on waterleaf paper that would be gelatin sized after printing, and bound in a historically inspired paper binding designed by Maria Fredericks. Every aspect of Hungry Bibliophiles was conceived in the spirit of Tim's work in the papermill, primarily his experiments with speed. Tim, Maria, and I each respond viscerally to the imperfections that are the byproducts of pre-Industrial book production— those of practiced hands working quickly. Following Tim's lead, I designed a revival of a seventeenth-century Dutch typeface for the text in two days. I allowed myself one drawing and one revision per letterform, aligned the letters by eye, and set each on a fixed width, in the hope of tapping in to the spirited irregularity of my model typeface. (Caveat: I designed it on the computer and printed from photopolymer plates.) I then printed the book in twelve days, shipped any finished sheets to Tim for sizing at the end of each week, and drove the final batch out to Iowa City so that I could participate in the sizing and transport the sized sheets back to New York for binding. The paper that we used is the University of Iowa Center for the Book's BHC 20-80 Chancery paper, which is made from 20 percent textile-quality hemp and 80 percent textile-quality cotton. The unbleached fiber was cooked in lime and washed during beating. Once the pulp was prepared, the complex process of sheet forming and sizing were as follows: 1) The paper was made in batches of 300 sheets. 2) The sheets were parted from the felts and pack-pressed the damp sheets (no felts) in a screw press until the stack started weeping. 3) The paper was separated sheet by sheet. 4) And hung the sheets to dry in groups of 4 loose sheets. 5) The sheets were printed and returned to Iowa. 6) They were dredged, 10 at a time, through a 3.5% solution of photo-grade gelatin. This was done in batches of roughly 150 sheets at a time. 7) The gelatin-soaked sheets were stacked and kept under a warmgelatin- infused felt to keep the gelatin from drying. 8) The sheets were then pressed in a screw press to remove excess liquid. The crinkly, sized sheets after drying. Photo: Russell Maret. 9) While the gelatin was still wet, the sheets were individually separated and gently fluttered in the air to set the gelatin. This prevented the sheets from sticking together. 10) The sheets were hung to dry. 11) The dry sheets were humidified in an enclosed area to soften the paper. 12) The softened sheets were then smoothed by hand and stacked inside a plastic bag. 13) Afterwards they were kept under pressure in a screw press for 30 to 60 minutes. 14) The sheets were removed from the bag, jogged, and returned to the bag. 15) And the bagged sheets were kept in the screw press overnight. 16) The next day, the sheets were removed from the press and hung them to dry. 17) After which they were taken down, jogged, and dry pressed. 18) The sheets were then ready for binding. In keeping with the speed experiment, Maria Fredericks set a goal of binding all seventy-five books in the edition in two days. To accomplish this we assembled a crew of eight variously experienced binders and set aside a weekend for our experiment. (The crew consisted of Maria Fredericks, Anne Hillam, Vasaré Rastonis, Yukari Hayashida, Annie Schlechter, Nancy Loeber, Gaylord Schanilec, and me.) Maria designed a long-stitch paper binding structure made entirely from UICB papers, and led the production; Annie made sandwiches to fuel the workers; and by Sunday afternoon the eight of us had bound seventy-nine copies of the book. The books have now been distributed to the participants and the cooking and annotating have begun. Throughout the year I will be posting illustrated updates on my blog to track how the books hold up under use. The participants will then return their books to me for exhibit. Annie Schlechter will photograph the most interesting example of each spread, and we will publish a print-on-demand facsimile of the book featuring used pages. As an artist, I have always been skeptical of utility being applied as a quantifiable gauge of authenticity. In fact, in the studio I try to reject utility and practicality as motivational sources. But as a lover of books, as someone who greedily smells, handles, and turns the pages of old volumes, I am confounded by the overly precious handling of contemporary books. Part of the problem, of course, is that many fine-press and artist books are made with materials that inspire a justifiable fear of handling. Making and handling a Book- As-Art involves an entirely different set of priorities then making and handling a Book-As-Textual-Document. The books that I make will never be used in the way that pre-Industrial books were used. That is part of the point. Nevertheless, there are many areas in which my aesthetic desires can be realized through pre-Industrial techniques that were borne of utilitarian necessities. Perhaps sizing after printing is one of these techniques. After participating in the sizing process, though, it seems unlikely that post-printing sizing will become a standard operating procedure in my work. Russell Maret, Yukari Hayashida, Vasare Rastonis, and Nancy Loeber, working on various aspects of the binding. Photo: Annie Schlechter. But through experiments like Hungry Bibliophiles, it might be possible to develop working methods that are a little more durable by default, ones in which utility can enhance rather than diminish the sensory experience of books. Parts of this article first appeared in different posts on my studio blog None of this article would have been possible without the technical data, experience, and generosity of Tim Barrett. ___________ notes 1. Comenious, in his Orbis sensualium pictus of 1658, says that it is the book's binder who sized the sheets in "Gum-water." 2. Many of the aesthetic qualities of gelatin sizing are attainable through the use of different fibers and beating times. Although I have experimented with some of these alternatives, I have neither the expertise nor the space in this article to deal with them satisfactorily. 3. You can see Tim and his colleagues in action making this paper by visiting (accessed September 1, 2015). A comparative look at the same process being done in 1976 at the Hayle Mill can be seen at (accessed September 1, 2015). S Is for Sizing: UICB Chancery Paper Sized & Unsized, A Comparison text by russell maret Above are two samples of UICB Chancery paper made of 50-percent hemp and 50-percent cotton. Both samples were printed letterpress on waterleaf paper. The one on the left was sized in a 3.5% solution of liquid gelatin after printing, as described in the preceding article; the one on the right was left unsized. The tactile differences between the two samples are readily evident. The sized paper is also dramatically stronger than the unsized. Fold endurance tests conducted by Tim Barrett at the University of Iowa Oakdale Papermaking Facility found that the sized sheets endured an average of 1,528 folds before breaking, as opposed to the unsized which averaged only 351 folds. The only drawback to the sizing-after-printing procedure that I have determined is that it tends to eliminate the impression of the letterpress entirely. It does seem possible, though, that by altering the sizing procedure the impression could be maintained.