Producing a book, the analog way

Here's a nostalgic look at what a pain in the ass it was to produce a book in the era before digital typesetting, lo those many years ago.

Making books is fun! (to watch) (Thanks, Techbuzz, via Submitterator!)


  1. Watching this makes me nervous. There are SO many opportunities to screw up in this process, and SO many machines that could malfunction.

  2. This started out really very much within my realm of knowledge of printing history, but after the linotype machine I learned all sorts of new stuff! I kind of want that guillotine.

  3. Might be a pain the the ass, but I see dozens of decent paying jobs and a nice amount of phsyical labor for a task nowadays that involves sitting on one’s ass and staring at a screen.

    I appreciate modern tech and conveniences, but still miss laying out pastupes by hand.

  4. It’s fascinating to me how labor-intensive the process is, in spite of the mechanization. I lost count of the number of people required, but it’s clear why you’d want to have some assurance of a pretty good return before you commit all that labor to the project, and why big runs are better than small ones.

    Mostly the people are “interfaces”, moving partially-complete book components from one machine to another — I wonder if that’s because different bits were mechanized at different times, or if it’s just that I don’t really appreciate the complexity of analog automation.

    Also, “girls”?

    1. Yeah, I winced every time I heard ‘girls’ too…

      Me, I was thinking a few thoughts:

      1) I’ve had experience with those paper cutting machines. They’re scary.

      2) A few very talented machinists built all that equipment. I’ve known a few who have built offset printing presses by themselves. There are a lot of very smart people out there.

      3) The filmmakers of the era didn’t feel the need to have boomy music playing all time. The audience could handle a little silence every once in a while. Compare almost any current space movie with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

      4) I just missed that the linotype era by a few years. It would have been very neat to see them in operation.

      5) While they’re still being printed, you really should go visit a large newspaper printing plant in operation. It’s interesting to see how various problems have been solved. For example, splicing a new roll of paper onto the existing run without stopping the press.

      I tried to find videos of newspaper printing, but none of the ones I found did a good job of explaining the various step.

      The video above did a pretty good job. Thanks, Cory.

      1. I’ve studied book-binding and had experience with the “guillotine” cutters as well. The one’s I worked on were manual, bu still horrifyingly sharp. My first teacher mad a point of this by running a strap of tough old leather along the blade for just an instant. The result was as clean a slice as I’d ever seen.

        “Just be mindful, your hide is nowhere near as tough as leather!”

        Lesson learned.

  5. Gamma- handling lead is not particularly harmful, unless it has oxidized and developed a white crust. Its this ‘sugar of lead’ that makes housepaint so tasty to children- and its far more permeable to the body than regular lead. Printers were never known for having healthy life styles to begin with- they’d clean ink of presses with kerosene while smoking and drink their lunches. Its a trade that’s attracted smart but grumpy antisocial people.

    There is a LOT of automation in the process of book making in this video! Imagine what a pain in the ass making a book would have been in 1800!

    Here is a similar educational video to the one posted, its silent and there is a long boring bit about the history of books at the beginning, but then you get to join a sailor-suited young boy on a tour of the textbook company that used to be in the Athenaeum building (now home to Le Cordon Bleu and various other buisinesses) in Cambridge MA.

    1. Lady Katey: “Its a trade that’s attracted smart but grumpy antisocial people.”

      Check out the glance from the woman at 8:17. “If looks could kill…”

    2. “Printers were never known for having healthy life styles to begin with- they’d clean ink of presses with kerosene while smoking and drink their lunches. Its a trade that’s attracted smart but grumpy antisocial people.”

      This seems such an odd generalisation… My grandad was a printer, as was his father before him, and he doesn’t really match up to this description. Sure, he smoked, as did many if not most at the time – still does, in fact, now he’s in his 90s (his lung function still comes out perfect, which stuns every doctor that does the test). He’s never been a big drinker, nor were his co-workers. He is intelligent, but not grumpy and certainly not antisocial. The picture he paints of his printing world is a very social one and he made friends that lasted decades with the people he worked with.

      The lead was not what bothered my grandad; the stink he still scrunches his face up at remembering is the inks. They were absolutely vile, he says, and would stick up your nose and hang in the back of your throat even after you left work. Even though he was made redundant as new printing techniques came in, he’s not nostalgic for ye olde days of printing – he’s happy that no one *has* to work in the grime and stink of old printing, nowadays. Also, he thinks modern printers don’t have so much pride in, say, printing out the individual sheets of a vast billboard poster… and that they have no idea as to what a good font is (he can identify almost every font that was invented before he retired, heh). He was also a little mystified to find the machines he worked with in a museum I once visited with him – strange experience to find your own life reduced to history… like in this article, I guess.

  6. I’m impressed by the elaborate mechanics of the press. All that precisely timed motion control, and all without computer chips or code. I suppose modern manufacturing equipment is equally awesome, but I don’t see much of it so I don’t know.

  7. Skip ahead to 9:10 for the tour part… They show a room full of guys hand setting type, and a very manual proof press, and the electroplating technology has hardly changed between this 1925 video and the 1940s one above!

  8. There was an intermediate step between cold type and digital type. That was the era of photo-set type. It ran, roughly, from the late 60’s into the 80’s.

  9. Also very noticeable to a modern audience- the preponderance of unguarded sharp edges, mechanical linkages, and bone-crushing pressures.

    Also, I wonder how old the system that they were using was? In 1947, this may still have looked a bit out of dateETAOIN SHRDLU

  10. My first thought was “does a hot type press still exist?” If so, I want it! Or rather, I want to see it and I hope someone will buy it and run it as a hobby when it was/is taken out of use.

    My next thought was “20-30 working people, all those jobs lost to one huge machine.” No wonder there’s no more work to be had.

    Lastly “girls?”

    1. The hot lead type machines do still exist, they are called linotypes. The International Printing Museum in Los Angeles has a Printer’s Fair every year, and during the fair for the low low price of a dollar you can get whatever words you want set in lead by a linotype. They even print it for you as a souvenir, with a picture of a Vandercook Press! It’s a really fun event, and the proceeds go to keeping the museum in operation.

  11. I love making books about analogs. I hope they make an analog book about the Motorola Carve. It’s awesome!

  12. Hey, Anon- yes, there is still ‘hot metal’ out there! There are three Linotypes coming up for auction in Boston later this month (the City of Boston used to do their own printing but shut down operations a decade or two ago, and now are auctioning off the equipment.) I also volunteer at the Museum of Printing in North Andover MA, where we periodically have ‘hot metal days’ the next of which I will be participating in, running the Ludlow machine.

    The Monotype machine (which the museum has a few, but none that run) is supposed to be better suited for fine work, as the letterspacing can be adjusted by hand (on the Linotype, equal space is inserted between each letter to fill out the line). There are a few people who will teach Monotype operation to you- it is one of my goals for the next 5 years of my life (along with getting a MFA in Book Conservation) to learn how to run one.

  13. Good God, now I want to put one of those Motorola phones through one of those guillotine slicers. That would be awesome.

    I wonder how much of this process could be duplicated for a personal press. Handling hot lead has its own requirements and probably can not be miniaturized enough.

  14. I’m saving the final formatting touches for my PhD thesis tomorrow. It always takes longer than I think. It could even take a whole day to get it looking good. But after that I print it off and get it bound (2 hours turnaround). Having watched this video I don’t think the formatting process will annoy me as much as it would have :)

  15. to lady katey:

    “It’s a trade that’s attracted smart but grumpy antisocial people.”

    met a few printers, eh?

    to paulr:

    “…splicing a new roll of paper onto the existing run without stopping the press.”

    when i would take friends or relatives to tour the paper, i’d always take ’em to the reel room to watch the “paste on the fly” process.

    to lady katey (again):

    “…running the Ludlow machine.”

    i spent years casting headlines; from 24 point to 96 point (though it may have been 72 point: it’s been a while). not to mention a couple of times when i was using the short stick and through inattention, pulled the trigger after removing the stick, causing a machinist much work cleaning up the squirt.

    1. Not too different, really. Nor so technically advanced. I ‘run’ a computer-driven guillotine 5 days a week at my supa hipsta job as a letterpress printer… and we have a very nifty folding machine that works just like the one in the video (but it only can do one or two folds in a sheet). I perfect-bound my BFA Senior Seminar final project, tho by hand with a book press and a paintbrush and a jar of lovely minty PVA.

  16. Handling solid lead in small doses is not too bad for you, provided that nothing that’s been anywhere near the lead goes into your mouth.

    But lead vapors are very bad for you and used to be the majority of occupational lead exposures. We’ve cut down on airborne lead fumes so much that other routes are actually starting to overtake it.

    So the guys messing around with the cooled type probably wouldn’t have bad exposures, provided they’re careful and wore gloves and washed their hands.

    I’d be most worried about the guy on the linotype machine. From what I can tell the metal mixture isn’t quite hot enough to produce large amounts of lead fumes, but I’d still like to see some good ventilation. I’ve also seen warnings to be very careful when cleaning the machines.

  17. This story coincides with the announcement just made by Justin Bieber’s publicist. It seems Herr Bieber is investing in a company that will take the words found on the internet in popular stories and place them on paper, which will then be bound in order to make them transportable wherever wifi or internet is not available. They can even be taken on planes!

  18. At least it doesn’t ‘fall off a truck’ as easily as things readable on Kindle do… Really, most of my Kindle-user friends pay nothing for anything they use.

  19. There’s something about factory machines that’s so mesmerizing. They look like Rube Goldberg contraptions, but you know that they’ve been engineered and tweaked to function with very little downtime.

    These machines, in total, produce a book every two seconds. Try that at home!

  20. Thanks for the Video! This industrialized mechanization really appeals to me as an art form. Flesh and Metal melding into one giant machine aimed at producing something tangible… it’s delicious. Of course, there are a lot of negatives to the system, but from a distance, it’s very easy to romanticize and that’s what I’m gonna do.

  21. The use of the Linotype machine for book typesetting seems to have been an American preference; in Britain most book setting was done with the Monotype machine. Whereas a Linotype is hard to change from one font to another, because the whole matrix store had to be changed, a Monotype matrix was a compact block with 17 x 17 (289) character locations, and these could be customised readily. Thus the Monotype gave the book typesetter a wider range of fonts, the ability to mix roman and italic easily on the page, and the ability to typeset in more languages.

    I enjoyed this video, particularly the section on the making of copper stereotypes.

    Some of those commenting here assume that the digital age has replaced the printing press. Not so! Most books and magazines are printed by offset lithography. So things are digital up to the point where the litho plate is imaged — but intricate, complicated and huge machinery takes over from that point onwards!

    And those guillotines: I know one printer who has three fingers exactly the same length…

  22. I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching hand book binding. Making a book one at a time is labour intensive, watching them being made by the thousand (or more?) is rather impressive.

  23. This is high tech compared to the press in my basement, and my sharp needles for sewing. Interesting that they called the signatures “folders”. Also interesting gender-based divisions of labor, and wonderful machines.

  24. One guy kicked off all this activity?! (the author).
    Imagine all the work here, not just producing the book; but maintaining that equipment, sharpening the blades, brazing broken parts, selling oils, rubber bits, etc. etc. A whole army of sales people and support staffs.
    What is taking it’s place in America? Solid blue collar jobs are necessary, we don’t seem to realize it yet. Obviously we can’t go back, but have we figured out how to go forward? Artisanal pickles?

    1. One explanation I’ve heard is that MBA programs are all about finance, management, marketing and barely a peep about production. So all the production gets outsourced to China, because lowering costs looks so good on the spreadsheet.

  25. And now a film about how a web page is produced…

    No. It just isn’t the same, and maybe never will be. There is a magic in paper, print and books. It has never worn off for me, even though I spent sixteen years working for a publisher.

    Long Live Books!

  26. it shows you how mechanical how we all can be. digital technology actually makes us more human, giving us less drudgery.

  27. Imagine if someone dropped a line of type…

    Still, this is amazing and I never knew they had a 1950’s version of “How it’s Made”

  28. “what a pain in the ass it was to produce a book in the era before digital typesetting”

    I doubt that it was that, if the bookmaker found satisfaction in creating a beautiful and durable object.

    Was it a pain in the ass to create a beautiful piece of furniture in the era before Ikea? Or to build a house out of rock, shaping and laying each piece one-at-a-time?

    Our disposable art … for example our disposable music … has lost physicality, and now has a lifetime shorter than a caveman’s. Misjudging the past with modern eyes is a trap.

  29. I learned old typo 3 month in printing school. I did exactly this. It was boring. I was happy to switch to X-Press & Photoshop. Now i wish i could learned and pratice it more.

  30. as a graphic design teacher I showed this to a colleague who showed it to students who were complaining how hard the work was.

    I like to point out that I remember when cut n paste involved actual cutting and pasting.

    I’m 42 but they look at me like I am off the ark.

  31. @45- “‘what a pain in the ass it was to produce a book in the era before digital typesetting’
    I doubt that it was that, if the bookmaker found satisfaction in creating a beautiful and durable object.”

    I disagree. & I’ve worked in a bindery, back in the late 70’s early 80’s. I occasionally make furniture for clients, by hand, in my shop. Bookmaking may have been a craft when they were hand bound but a couple weeks in a factory doing the work will strip one of any romanticism.
    The work shown is dirty, hot, LOUD, and heavy. I don’t know the weight of a case of books, but I know what it feels like, having loaded & moved skids of them for several years. There was a supervisor who had to clean out the same machine on 2 separate occasions when an operator got distracted & the safety systems didn’t save him. The guys who worked the paper cutters had to make the sheets up nearly to book size in great big shears with 2 widely spaced buttons so you had to have both hand away from the blade. several of them were missing fingers, I bid for a job opening as a cutter & my father nearly cried when I told him.
    All this danger well after OSHA’s creation. Now the work is done in other countries with little or no health & safety laws.
    There is nothing romantic about working in a factory after you’ve actually worked in one.
    And the way the machines were kept running was by having a machine shop staffed by union machinists onsite.
    And as far as the whole deal with the “girls”, I worked the floor supplying the ladies with paper, covers, whatever, & got the finished product over to a packer & got treated pretty shabbily for being a man. Those ladies would make my life hell. But I think that comes with that kind of job.

  32. I learned the profession of a manual type setter from 1990 to 1993 back in East Germany, where I grew up. The wall was just teared down and I knew I was learning an almost dead profession already. But I was made this choice and through the chaos of the reunification of the two Germanies I was glad to have an apprenticeship and a therefore a profession at all. I learned manual type setting, hot type setting and lynotype photo setting. The manual type setting thing was the worst part. I mean it was really labourous, it took like four hours just to set up half a page of text. And after it was printed you had to put back all those tiny little letters into the right box of the letter case. I hated it. But it gave me at least a deep understanding of micro typography and somehow I managed later to achieve the profession of a graphic designer.

    Now. The lead dust problem: I dont know if it was worth it, but we were forced to drink at every break half a quart of milk. They said to us that this would terminate the poisening effects of the lead. Like I said, I don’t know if this worked, but so far I have no complications with my health.

    In the end I am glad that I didn’t have to work as manual or hot type setter and became a graphic designer. It worked well for me for twelve years. I dropped the continuous work as a graphic designer when I couldn’t stand the stupenduous communications with customers anymore and when the market for freelancing graphic designers broke down in Germany (and I guess in the rest of the world too) to a degree where the earnings wouldn’t amount to much more than the wages of a fast-food-chain employeé. Because of the old Desktop Revolution Motto: What You See Is What You get.
    Unfortunatly most of the recipients did just not see what they were getting. Instead they counter-evolved design to a degree of Microsoft Word Template Standards by the power of their meek money.

    But as I had to turn away from one dead profession in my early days I was able to do it again. Meanwhile I live in the US and I make my living with cartoons and as a musician. But somewhere in the back of my brain there’s lurking the notion that I might have turned to just another set of almost dead professions…

    1. As mentioned, I worked for a printing company for 16 years. OK, it was more art than books, but there were still some big machines (some small ones too: we had a letterpress dept where stuff got hand set) and nobody died. Not even the loss of an occasional leg.

  33. devil’s advocate on the use of the word “girls” – most of the girls look like they might be of the marrying age, and in this era it wasn’t uncommon to become a stay at home housewife after marriage.

    This is a lot more labor intensive of a process than I thought it would be. I deal with CMYK which uses big drum printers – it looks like they’re literally “pressing” each flat sheet here. i was impressed to see how far we’ve come from huge factories down to simple print on demand machines smaller than the size of a vending machine.

    I’d link to my blog post about the print on demand machines (they’re super neat and pretty rare still despite their low cost) but it appears that’s frowned upon here – so here’s a direct link to the youtube video instead:

  34. “observe the strength of a Frye-Atwood geography” is a phrase I will endeavour to shoehorn into any and every conversation I will have in the future from now on.

  35. In regard to everyone’s comment on hot metal type, you might be interested to see the trailer for an upcoming documentary on Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machines. I think it has been linked before on BB, but in case you missed it:


  36. Given problems like economic crises, peak oil, and climate change, this type of technology will probably return, and temporarily.

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