Presses and Metal Type Put Students in Touch With Printed Word

By Lawrence Biemiller

Chestertown, Md. -- Five presses that progress forgot print poems and broadsides and business cards in a high, sunny room at Washington College. The room is cluttered with old cases of metal type -- Garamonds and Goudys and Palatinos -- as well as with stacks of paper and galleys waiting to be printed and the once-familiar tools of the printer's trade. Pica rulers hang from nails. Drawers full of ornaments and antique borders wait, open, for young compositors hand-setting everything from sestinas to warehouse order forms. The thick scent of ink mingles with the aroma of coffee and the warmth of an afternoon breeze that drifts in from the back garden through an open door.

Michael Kaylor, the college's master printer, is showing Jennifer Lubkin and Jason Oosterwyk how to clean ink off the rollers of a gray Van der Cook Universal press the size of a kitchen counter. "You start with the dirty rags and work towards the clean," says Mr. Kaylor, squeezing solvent onto the rollers from a plastic bottle. "Did we choose another color yet?" Ms. Lubkin, a first-year student, has just completed one run of an announcement for the Society of Junior Fellows, rolling paper across the type one sheet at a time. A second run, with a different color ink, will add borders and an ornament.

The ornament gives her trouble, however -- it's old and the top doesn't print clearly. "I think it's been smashed," says Mr. Kaylor, leaning to inspect it. The damage, which is probably older than Ms. Lubkin and Mr. Oosterwyk put together, is not serious. It will lend the finished broadside character that is missing from relentlessly perfect type generated by computers. Mr. Kaylor cuts a piece of paper to fit underneath the ornament, raising it by the thickness of one sheet. "This is called an underlay," he says. Ms. Lubkin opens the Van der Cook's paper clamps with a foot pedal and fits another sheet onto the drum before turning the handle that rolls the drum over the type. This time the ornament prints perfectly.

Mr. Kaylor is a jovial, bearded man who looks the part of a master printer but is far less dour than many printers writers meet. He speaks of letterpress printing with conviction and warmth, describing as only a devotee could"the sparkle that comes from the reflection of light in the depth of the impression." In the basement, he has something like 1,000 cases of old type. The faces range from the common to the rare, such as a font of six-inch Victorian poster type carved out of wood. The five presses include a handsome black Heidelberg platen press that can print up to 3,000 sheets an hour. Mr. Kaylor cannot resist turning it on to demonstrate the hissing paper-feed mechanism, the rhythmic inking and pressing cycles whose music sounds as sweet as Mozart's to the ears of any writer.

Mr. Kaylor's operation here, called the Literary House Press, is one of an ever-dwindling number of letterpress shops left in the United States. It occupies a 10-year-old addition down a short flight of stairs from the O'Neill Literary House, a place of wide porches and overstuffed sofas that is home to the college's largest student organization, the Writers Union. The house and the press are part of an extensive writing program at the college that includes a visiting-writer series and the Sophie Kerr Prize, which is worth thousands and is given each year at commencement to the senior"who has demonstrated the greatest literary potential." The prize and the writing program are paid for by a bequest from Sophie Kerr, an Eastern Shore romance writer whose stories sold well in the '30s and '40s.

The press gives young writers a sense of the printed word's history, Mr. Kaylor says -- it"puts them in touch with the roots of the thing." He and the college have an agreement that lets him operate the press as both an educational facility and a traditional job shop. The college pays him a stipend to offer workshops and occasional courses in papermaking, bookmaking, and the like. But he also takes on all kinds of printing jobs, from college broadsheets to envelopes for a local bookstore. He has a work-study employee -- Mr. Oosterwyk -- as well as volunteers who have grown to love printing through his workshops. "If we have paying jobs on, I pay them," he says. "If not, they get dinner at a Chinese restaurant."

Mr. Kaylor says the press is not much of a moneymaker, but it is popular. Students confirm this. "You walk in on a Saturday afternoon when you're sure the print shop will be empty, and there's always people here," says Amy Peterson, a senior. In addition to working on whatever jobs are waiting in the shop, students are free to undertake their own projects. Ms. Peterson set a poem by Seamus Heaney and illustrated it with a linoleum-block carving she did herself. Cortney Clulow, another regular volunteer, printed 12 poems by a friend and assembled them into a book, 20 copies of which she gave to the friend as a birthday present. Others set their own verses. "I worked with a poet this summer," Mr. Kaylor says. "He actually rewrote several of his lines while he was setting them. To spend a summer with a poet who cares enough about his own work to do it this way -- that's what it's about."

"So many students come -- this is like therapy for them," he says. "We have a beautiful room, tea, good music, and a high level of conversation." The level of conversation is partly Mr. Kaylor's doing -- he seems as fond of the spoken word as of the printed page. This is how he describes the Literary House cat, Edith Wharton: "Edith is feline non grata. She used to come into the press room and walk across the rollers and then walk across newly printed pages. Then she would drink from the toilet and leave paw prints all over it. One morning Edith single-handedly -- if that can be said of a cat -- knocked a case of 10-point type to the floor. It took the better part of two weeks to clean it up."

Mr. Kaylor grew up in Beverly, Mass., and has been setting type since he was 12. He attended a vocational high school, intending to become a machinist, but he was always "tremendously interested in books." He went to Eastern Nazarene College and eventually came to own an offset-printing shop here. In the meantime, he had begun collecting old presses and type. When the college set up its press room, he was called in to give printing lessons. Invited to stay on, he sold the offset shop. Now he also teaches graphic arts and medieval history at the Gunston Day School, in Centreville, Md., and in his spare time he helps high-school teachers organize literary magazines. He keeps a commonplace book -- a sort of Victorian journal -- and says he is"living in the 19th century." But he has also purchased equipment that allows him to set type on his Macintosh and produce photo-polymer plates that can be printed on a letterpress; this permits the Literary House Press to take on projects too large to set by hand.

Even so, work in the press room is unlike anything students do elsewhere. Ms. Clulow remembers the first time she set a poem, finding the letters one by one in the case and arranging them in the galley until they spelled out words and lines and stanzas -- all of them upside down and backwards. It took her six hours. "The letters aren't in the case in alphabetical order or anything," she says. "And you have to check your b's and d's." Returning type to the cases is, if anything, worse. "Putting away type is how you build character," says Jennifer Ward, a junior, sounding suspiciously like Mr. Kaylor.

Mr. Kaylor himself says letterpress printing"is a craft that's been elevated to an art because it's so labor-intensive," and it's precisely that labor that he enjoys. "I love all the little paraphernalia," he says. "I love the ritual. I love that it's not instant." He especially loves the results -- handsome cards, beautifully printed poems. "You can stand at the top of those stairs and think, 'Anything is possible here.'"

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 4, 1996.