Atlas of Earyl Printing


These videos demonstrate the process of creating a book in the hand-press era, using materials and equipment from the 17th century. The general steps and procedures are very likely not much changed from the latter half of the incunabula era, from about 1475-1500, after the initial experiments in printing and typography had matured into something resembling this process.

All videos were filmed at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, and are included here with their permission.

1. Engraving the Punch

Typography begins to take shape when a letter is carved onto a metal rod to create a punch.

2. Creating the Matrix

The punch is hammered into a piece of softer metal, which leaves an impression of the shape of the letter. This second piece is called the matrix.

3. Casting a Piece of Type

The matrix is placed at the bottom of an interlocking set of metal shapes called a hand mould. This creates an empty chamber with the impression of the letter at the bottom. Melted metal is poured into the cavity, which hardens quickly to produce a single piece of type with the letter in raised relief at the top. To create of font of type, these steps were repeated thousands of times.

4. Composing Lines of Text

The cast individual pieces of type are then arranged into words and sentences. The type is placed sequentially into a composing stick, which holds a lines at a time as it is being created (composed). The line is then transferred to a wooden tray. The letters and words are arranged backwards in order to print on paper correctly.

5. Tying the Page Cord

Once a page of type was set, the compositor tightly wrapped the combined lines in order to keep them set while they are transferred to another surface for storage until printing began.

6. Imposition

The page of type is placed on the imposing stone inside of a metal frame called the chase. The type is then "locked up" as metal and wood spacers, called furniture, are arranged around it in order to ensure the type is tightly and evenly compressed to withstand the pressure of printing. This creates the forme.

7. Printing

When the forme is ready for printing, ink is spread on two ink balls with leather surfaces. They are rocked across the type, spreading the ink evenly. A sheet of dampened paper is placed onto the tympan, then held in place by the frisket, which is brought down on top of the paper. The paper, tympan, and frisket, now combined, are lowered onto the forme. The forme is then cranked under the platen of the press. With a pull of the handle, the platen is brought down on the forme and the page is printed. It is revealed by reversing the process and opening the tympan and frisket.