Working with movable type is time consuming, prone to error and frustration (see part I below). It took approximately ten hours per week over the course of four months to produce Edition 1. To make sure Architrave has a more sustainable production timeline, I now use photopolymer plates from Boxcar Press. I create the design for each page digitally, then send my files to Boxcar. They use those files to create custom printer’s plates that function in the press just like moveable type. I get the same crisp, eye-catching product in a fraction of the time.
Of course there are trade-offs. Running out of a letter is no longer an available source of creativity, but my palette of available typefaces is now nearly endless. The unique imperfections inherent to old lead type no longer appear, but it’s easier to create effects, like setting type on a diagonal (see Erica Minton’s “Doll” in Edition 3). I’m glad I got to design within the constraints of lead type first; it forced me to think more creatively about my designs and that carries over into my electronic work.
To make Edition 1, I used the lead type available at All Along Press. Each piece is a single letter, punctuation mark or space. These are assembled by hand using a composing stick, with more metal (called slugs and leads) to create the white space between lines of type. It’s possible to make mistakes that digital type doesn’t allow, like upside down or sideways letters, and nicked pieces that leave incomplete impressions. Setting the type is a meditation. The pursuit of an error free page – proofing again and again – is maddening.
Cases of lead type are finite: it’s possible to run out of a letter or letters. Sometimes special characters are missing altogether. This happens more frequently today; typefoundries were once more common, and acquiring additional or replacement type much easier. During production of Edition 1, letter shortages were a constant problem. You’ll see many poems where an alternate typeface is used only for certain letters, or whole words or phrases are set in a different style than the rest of the body. It’s never haphazard, though. In Eric Primm’s poem “Painting,” words associated with the woman being painted use an alternative typeface for the lowercase ‘e’. The letter looks dropped and a little askance, like her gaze, which avoids the painter. For “Listen” by Julie Moore the letter ‘h’ was in too short supply. The answer was to use the roman version of the same typeface in a loose pattern to create a poem within the poem.
Once the type is set it’s locked into the bed or chase of the press. Antique letterpresses use pressure to make an inked imprint into the page. The result is crisp typography that’s a pleasure to read and to touch.