The Atlas of Early Printing

Fifteenth Century Printing

Illustration of printing press

While few records remain pertaining to the daily operations of the early printing workshops of 1450-1500, it is possible to reconstruct a general picture. Early printing was a complex process involving many different kinds of materials and skills. In order to print written material on paper, a printer needed to create or obtain type, compose the text by arranging the type into lines of words, placing the arranged type onto a wooden press, and using this intricate mechanism to apply pressure on the inked type to impress it into dampened paper. Print shops housed one or many presses, depending on the size of the operation, with each press requiring two pressmen for optimal production. The variety of tasks called for many workers, including typefounders, typesetters or compositors, ink makers, and printers. It is estimated that the work day consisted of 12-14 hours of grueling physical labor under poor conditions in comparison to current standards. Estimations about printing output vary, but it is thought that 300 sheets or 600 folio pages could be printed in a shop each day. In addition to books, print shops printed ephemera, including broadsides and indulgences.

Click here to view an animation depicting the operation of a wooden hand press. This will launch an interactive Flash animation of a 3D computer graphics printing press.


Designing and casting metal type was often carried out at the print shop during the early years following the invention of printing. The punch-cutter first carved a letter in reverse and relief on top of a steel bar. The resulting punch was then struck into a soft metal such as copper, creating a sunken, right-reading impression, called the matrix. The matrix was fitted onto a casting instrument and used to cast individual letters. Molten metal, likely an alloy of lead, tin, antimony, copper, and iron, was poured into the matrix, casting a reverse-reading letter in relief, situated at the end of the thin piece of metal. Multiple copies of these letters were cast to assure that a full folio of text could be composed and printed at once. As the art of printing spread, not all printers could afford cutting their own punches, requiring the purchase of matrices from larger printing houses before casting their type.

Composing the Type

Before the type was printed, it was assembled into pages, or composed, by compositors who sat near tilted wooden cases divided into compartments for each letter. It is generally assumed that four compositors worked on the Gutenberg Bible, and their duties included setting type, proofing pages, and returning or distributing type back into the cases after printing.

Following a manuscript text, the compositor placed individual letters onto a small wooden holder called a composing stick, forming words and sentences. Spaces between words and sentences were made of metal pieces, called spaces and leads, which were shorter than the letters and therefore did not print. Once the composing stick was full, the contents were transferred to a small tray or galley which held the type in waiting. A proof was taken by inking the type, setting a piece of paper on top of it, and applying pressure with a brush. The resulting proof was checked for errors, and after all corrections were made, the text was locked into a frame called the chase.

The Printing Press

Prior to Gutenberg, blocks of image and text were printed by rubbing against paper placed on a carved, inked woodblock. Early printers instead utilized the wooden screw press, variations of which were used for printing into the nineteenth century. Although no images of Gutenberg’s original press remain, it may have been modeled after any of the various presses used for wine, textiles, papermaking, and bookbinding. The wooden press consisted of two upright slabs joined by horizontal slabs. One of the horizontal slabs, the platen, was situated underneath a large wooden screw to which lever or bar was attached. Underneath the platen was a platform, or bed, which held the type and slid back and forth on a carriage. A pull of the bar turned the screw, lowering the platen onto the type.

Hinged to the press bed was frame called a tympan which protected the damage-prone type while creating an evenness of pressure. The tympan consisted of inner and outer frames which held soft cloth covered with vellum or linen. A second hinged frame was attached to the edge of the tympan. This frame, or frisket, was a protective sheet of parchment with windows cut out, allowing the type to print while protecting the margins of the paper from excess ink.

Printing on the Press

Generally, two or more pressmen worked at one press. First they placed the block of text in its chase, or forme, onto the press bed. A pressman called the beater inked the forme with thick ink composed of varnish and lamp black, applied in circular motions using leather balls stuffed with wool or horsehair. The dampened paper was attached to points jutting out of the tympan, the frisket was folded over the paper, and the tympan then folded over the forme. The entire press bed was pushed into place under the platen, and the bar was pulled by the other printer or puller. This action lowered the platen onto the forme, creating an impression of type on paper. In some cases, one folio was printed, the forme was turned around, and the other printed, while in others, both folios were printed at once. The printers then opened the hinged tympan, removed the printed sheet, and stacked it carefully on top of the others, to await printing on the reverse side. Upon completion of printing, the paper was dried under weight then likely hung on lines for a final airing.