10 March 2009


Gaspereau Press publisher Gary Dunfield on some of his favourite things

I love machines. I love equipment. I love tools. I love them in all shapes and sizes. I love old ones, I love new ones, from the 80-year-old monotype caster we bought for $15.00 on eBay to the iPod Nano I just got my wife. I love electronics, mechanical devices, computers and even simple tools that allow you to do a job, or to do a job better.

Last week I made 163 sheets of paper using a system – or a machine, if you like – that I assembled and built. It is a very simple system. I also made a couple of photopolymer plates. I exposed the plates using a light source that I built from an old fluorescent fixture, and then washed them out in an old film developer tray with a brush. Today I will case bind some books. The tools I will use for this are quite simple … some of them I built or modified myself.

While I may sometimes sound like one, I am hardly a Luddite. In addition to all the other things I did today, I also made some changes to a piece of software I am writing (an accounting package), put a toner cartridge in our copier and solved a problem on our offset press – with two small pieces of tape. We have a shop full of equipment, including some wonderful pieces of machinery. The Heidelberg KORD presses we run are magnificent. The copier is an adequate piece of equipment. The computers I use are interesting, but getting to be a bit old.

Let me tell you about the monotype. This is a particularly remarkable machine. It casts pieces of lead type for printing. The type it casts runs from cross section of a match stick and a little less than an inch long to maybe a 1/4 inch square and the same length. This machine was very important in the book trade as it meant you could cast text for the book quickly, accurately, fully justified and efficiently. There are actually two devices – a keyboard that produces a punched ribbon – a four-inch-wide paper tape containing instructions about what character, how wide and in what order to cast the type. The second machine reads the ribbon and produces the type – at a rate of something like 80 to 100 individual pieces of type a minute. What amazes me about this system is that it is driven by an air compressor, a motor and a heater. There are no electronics, nothing digital, no relays, and no switches. This machine was built so that that it could run from a gas heater and a belt drive and some compressed air. The belt drive could be driven by a water wheel if you wished – as could the compressor. All timing and control of what happened when was determined by cams and wheels. We don't build machines this way anymore. It is cheaper and simpler to build them with electronics.

So, why the obsession with machines and equipment and tools? Printers and therefore publishers (at least those who do their own printing) are dependent on tools and machines. Our shop is full of equipment; presses, imagesetters, film developers, plate burners, plate developers, folders, cutters, casters, sewers, perfect binders, foil stampers, tools to fix the machines, equipment to test the machines, tools to build the tools! We modify equipment (we have the only Sulby Mark II Perfect Binder I know of with a special modification to produce loose-back perfect-bound books). We build equipment. We cannibalize equipment.

The problem with machines is that there is no end to them. I make photopolymer plates with equipment that cost me about $100. The timer is an old darkroom timer that was bought at a yard sale (it had been used to time hockey games in Hillsborough, NB) – $5.00. Now if you ask the guys who sell you photopolymer plates how to make them, they will tell you that you have to buy a photopolymer plate processor. They start at $5,000. If I made 20 plates a day I would get one, because standing that long over a sink, washing out plates, would drive me batty. But we make four or five a month on average, so it’s a good tradeoff.

What is the point of all this equipment? Making things. In our case, making books. Designing, printing and binding books. Given the number of operations that have to be performed in order to turn paper into a book, you need a lot of equipment. The temptation is to have to have the most recent, the best, the biggest and the most expensive tool to do each job. This is not always possible, of course, so it then becomes a question of trade offs. What will do the job, at the right cost, the right size and with right level of labour involved. And so we have a mix of old, new, simple, complex, homemade and store-bought. And I get to keep it all running.


sojourn bench/bruce johnson said...

Amazing! Thanks for the peek Gary.

49er Books said...

There's a reason the FIREFOX series remains in print in the States...kindred spirits abound! :-)

JHenry said...

Great Article. I share your enthusiasm for old equipment and have also devised some additions to equipment to make things a bit more productive. I'm currently re-fitting an old Krause blocking press for electrical heating, replacing the old gas forks with electrical cartridge heaters.

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press
Mason City, IA