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Behind the Scenes

Close-up view of an excerpt from Jane Smiley's 'Limitless,' printed by Wolverine PressFritz Swanson teaches in the English Department at the University of Michigan. In January, with the support of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and with space donated by the University Library and the U-M Press, he began operating a letterpress shop to teach students the process of composing and printing short works, dubbing it ‘Wolverine Press.’ Having now completed a semester’s worth of projects, we’ve asked Swanson to reflect on the experience of running the shop and his plans for the future. All photos courtesy of Fritz Swanson.

Where did the impetus for Wolverine Press come from?

I went into Megan Levad’s office last spring (2013). She is the Assistant Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. I said, “Does the creative writing program want a letterpress shop?” She replied immediately and without hesitation, “Yes.”

I’ve been printing privately since 2005, I’m a member of the Michigan Letterpress Guild, and I’ve written about the modern letterpress resurgence for places like THE BELIEVER and PRINT MAGAZINE (where I am a contributing editor). It was clear to Megan and to me that given Ms. Zell’s generous support of writing at Michigan, and because of my history with printing, we had a unique opportunity to build a new cultural institution here at Michigan.

Our goals are simple: we want to reintroduce writers and readers to the pleasures of letters honestly printed by hand onto quality paper. We think a broader conversation, an unending conversation, about literature, publishing, history, art and beauty can be sparked by simple and clear craft practices.

Tell us about the letterpress shop itself. Where did the equipment come from? What’s unique about the kind of press you and the ‘devils,’ (as printer’s apprentices are commonly called) are working with?

We have letters, and we have a press. You put ink on the letters, and you press those letters onto paper. In a print shop, there are two areas. The Composing Area is where the letters are kept. The Press Area is where the paper is prepared, and the press is operated.

The Composing Area

Composition is the act of physically assembling metal type and other material into what is called a forme. The forme is the raised printing surface that is used in the press for printing. Our composing area is mostly made up of about 200 drawers of metal and wood printing type. The drawers, called cases, are arranged in cabinets. We bought this collection of printing type from the estate of John Moran of Muskegon, Michigan. John was an engineer at the paper mill in Muskegon, and as a hobby, he ran a small letterpress print shop out of his basement. He was a longtime member of the Michigan Letterpress Guild, and in the spring of 2013, after he had passed away, his family invited the Guild to purchase what they wanted from his shop. John was a precise man, and his shop was immaculate. The type has been well-cared for and well-organized. Because I am a member of the Guild, I had a shot along with everyone else, to purchase what I wanted. The family sold the equipment at a very reasonable rate per case of type, because they wanted to make sure the collection was enjoyed by John’s friends, and they wanted to see it put to use in Michigan if at all possible.

After every member of the guild bought what they wanted (I, for example, bought a cabinet full of my favorite typeface, Century Schoolbook) there was still a lot left over. It was important to me that the remainder of the collection be preserved, and used. That’s why I decided that Michigan should be the home of the Moran Type Collection.

The core of his collection was a cohesive set of early twentieth century gothic (san serif) faces. We have a full cabinet of News Gothic Condensed, a full cabinet of Futura, and a full cabinet of 20th Century. We also have a very sizable case full of News Gothic in 9pt (a sufficient quantity to set maybe 2,000 words, which is quite a lot). The gothic faces were left over after the sale because they are thought of as workhorse faces. Your average hobbyist printer enjoys printing with fancy faces, faces that are characteristic of a special period. As a consequence, the plainer gothic faces are often overlooked because they are so utilitarian. But I have always loved the sturdiness of utilitarian faces. Also, they aren’t widely used in modern letterpress printing for text composition, so that is an aesthetic opportunity for the press.

In addition to the gothics, we got a mixed cabinet of Bodoni Bold and Ultra Bodoni (including a 72pt Bodoni Bold [72 points make an inch!]), a partial collection of Garamond Italic, and a whole bunch of single cases of many different faces. We have some Goudy, Kennerly, Pencraft, Piranesi, Century, Old English, Kaufman, and many others. It’s a wonderful collection of twentieth-century faces, most of them cast by the American Type Founders. There are also a few partial wood type fonts.

What I have really come to appreciate about the collection is how orderly it all is. For example, it is standard practice to lay a strip of lead between each line of type when setting a forme. This ‘leading’ needs to be a uniform length in order to lock the forme up for printing. This is one of the many little precise steps that can devil you in a print shop. For even a short length of text, say 500 words, you will need 60+ strips of lead, and they all have to be exactly the same length. In the case of one project, we needed 64 leads, 2pts high, 21 picas long (1 pica is 12 points). Anyway, in most amateur shops (including my personal shop at my house), leads are laid out unsorted on a galley, and you need to sort the leads, or cut what you want to size. But John had all his leads sorted, and all of them in a graduated rack. It was complex to move the collection across the state intact, but it was really worth it. It saved hours of work on all the projects we did this semester, just to have all the leading sorted and squared away.

In addition to the type, John had also preserved a beautiful Victorian paper cutter. It’s iron, steel and brass, weighs close to 800 lbs, and can cut sheets up to 22 inches wide. It makes the shop exceptionally versatile, and he kept the cutter in from-the-factory condition.

The Press Area

The Press area is the space where the paper is prepared, printed, and laid out to dry. At this stage, we have one press. Our Chandler and Price 10×15 Old Style Press came to us from the estate of Thomas Trumble of Parma, Michigan. (You can read my salute to him.) That press was originally owned by the Parma News Publishing Company (later called Lee Printing), and came to Tom when he bought the letterpress part of that operation in the mid-1980s. Tom had been the pressman at the Parma News in the 1950s, then went on to do many other things, returning to printing in his retirement. His wife Susie often ran this press, while Tom ran a Heidelberg black ball with an automatic paper feeder.

The Trumble Press has been a working Michigan jobbing press for more than a century. It was likely purchased by the Parma News around the time of the First World War. It’s what is known as a Gordon Style Jobbing Press. The type is locked up into a metal frame called a chase, the chase is placed upright into the bed of the press, and the platen where the paper is laid is in front of the bed. The platen and the bed come together like a mouth closing, and the forme is there pushed against the paper, which makes the impression.

It’s a wonderful clacking flywheel machine driven by a 3/4 horsepower electric motor. It was designed to print short “jobs” like cards, invitations, personal stationery and the like. Some people have called it a ladies press, because it printed the sort of society ephemera that a Victorian lady in a small town might need, like calling cards. It was never really designed to print books, and cajoling it to do precise work takes time and patience. [Click here to see a short video of the press in operation.]

I grew up in Parma, and the Parma News was my first employer when I was a boy. Tom Trumble was a very good friend of my father’s, and I have fond memories of him, and of printing. My own life as a printer has been, like Tom’s, irregular, perhaps even circular. It certainly hasn’t been an orderly progression toward any clear goal.

But standing at Tom’s old press for hours feels right, and as much like coming home as anything outside of my family that I can imagine.

What do students learn about writing, the creative process, and publishing by working in a shop?

The primary physical activity in the shop is setting type by hand, letter by letter. You need to read the text, and you need to be able to hold a collection of words in your head as you pull the letters and set them in the galley (or in a type stick, depending on how you want to do it). In addition to the letters, and the punctuation, you need to pay attention to the spaces. Each space has to be set by hand, just like the words. When setting prose, your goal is a uniform rectangle of text, what is called a ‘justified’ text, where the right line edge is as straight and even as the left. These days, when we type out texts, we leave the right hand edge of the text uneven. This is called “ragged right,” but that gets ugly and cumbersome with hand set type, so a justified edge is required. But of course, lines never perfectly work out, word by word, to create a justified edge. And so you have to carefully adjust the spacing between words in such a way that achieves this edge without distracting the eye. It’s pretty technical. We work with five standard types of spaces, and two different types of thin slips of copper or brass to achieve uniform justification.

As students learn, they can stare at a word for many minutes. All the letters of course are upside down and backward, the ps and qs and ds and bs a jumble in the mind.

You may wonder what impact this has on writing.

Have you ever seen a word—a word you use a lot—and suddenly find yourself struck by how strange the word is? Like, for a moment, you can’t believe the word is real?

There are these brief moments, flickering, when your whole language brain goes offline and you look at the word ‘discontent’ and you feel totally alienated from the sounds and the shapes. I find the experience is something like the opposite of deja vu. I love it. How precious a thing is it to experience language as though it were new?

Annie Dillard, in her essay “Seeing”, tried very hard near the end to “unpeach the peach.” She wanted to get beyond verbalization and to a purer and more complete perception. Setting type can do that if you let it.

I and my students have stared for a very long time at the word ‘swallow’ and wondered, in all seriousness, if the /S/ was upside down. For many minutes we were possessed of an almost religious conviction that the S has a top and a bottom, and sometimes even now I can catch an S out of the corner of my eye and I think it is doing a handstand to mock me.Paisley Rekdal, 'Swallow,' printed by Wolverine Press

On a more quotidian note, you need to be a patient proofreader when you work in a press shop. (My experience setting a Charles Baxter poem extends this idea a bit.)

What does the future of Wolverine Press look like?

Jane Smiley excerpt printed by Wolverine PressThis is the easy question. We own a printing press. We want to print all the things.

We’re going to be producing 2-4 prints for the Zell Visiting Writers series, and we’re going to be developing projects for students. But in addition to that, I want to start collecting University of Michigan, and regional letterpress artifacts. We have just started to collect printing blocks from the 1960s, including a nice large image of Burton Tower, and another nice large image of President Harlan Hatcher (U-M’s 8th President). I’d like to print editions of these items, and offer them for sale to the general public. I hope that as alums and other people in the U-M community get to know us, that we will turn up more and more printing material that will come back into the shop for us to use.

With a printing operation, there is never enough. We will always want more type, more presses, more space, more students. And more projects.

I’d like to eventually print original fiction, poetry and art, if we can make that all work within our schedule.

The only way to preserve this stuff is to use it. The only way to understand this stuff is to use it.

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