Inside of the Jonathan Edwards College Press, woodblocks are laid in piles that spill onto the counter and against the wall. They are woodblocks carved by students from ages past, accumulated there for future viewing and use. The images range from the JE-themed — spiders and busts of the college’s namesake — to coats of arms, cartoons, damsels in distress, mill wheels and monks at their books of hours.
Scattered across the counter on which the woodblocks sit are blueprints for an architecture project that Pablo Ponce de Leon ’16 is working on; he stops to erase a stray mark or straighten a line when he has a moment, taking a break from his main job: monitoring the press. As student manager, Ponce de Leon spends at least six working hours in the facility per week, and often many more completing various projects, for his own pleasure or on assignment from JE.
He gives a sneak peek of his most recent job: coasters advertising JE’s formal Spider Ball dance. They are tickets-turned-keepsakes, crafted with an attention to detail and refined over the course of a long, many-step process.
Ponce de Leon shows me the design, a bust portrait of Jonathan Edwards framed by the time and location of Spider Ball. “This is always hard,” he explains, “because people are always saying, ‘Well, what’s it going to look like?’ And you can never give them a proof.”
To make the coasters, he picks out his preferred type — sans serif and unlabeled. He sets the type along with the woodblock image of Jonathan Edwards in a metal frame called a “chase,” surrounding the design with wooden blocks called “furniture” as well as “coins,” rectangular pieces of metal tightened to hold everything stiff. As a check, Ponce de Leon lifts the chase and shakes it to make sure nothing falls out. Nothing does.
Then, he dabs some ink onto the circular plate of the press he’s about to use and starts pedaling the foot-operated treadle. This causes a wheel with curved spokes to spin, powering rollers that pass over the plate and eventually become soaked in ink. Once the rollers are inked, Ponce de Leon is ready to slot in the chase. He starts treadling; the rollers ink the design in the chase. At the propitious moment, he pulls back a lever, which lifts the chase until the ink-moistened design presses down, just kisses the coaster and leaves an impression.
He surveys the coaster and makes adjustments. First, he has to remove the “make-ready” — pieces of paper ordinarily used to mount the printable surface. The coasters are already thick pieces of stationery, so if they’re mounted too high, the set type and woodblock will crunch against them and they’ll crack.
Next comes the ink. The coasters are to be printed in two colors — “metallic, because I always like to use metallic” and “this green verging on black, more representative of JE’s colors.” This means that Ponce de Leon will actually have to perform the process in two rounds, once with the dark ink, once with the metallic, letting the coasters dry in between.
It’s a painstaking and prolonged sequence, but Ponce de Leon derives pleasure from this gradual refinement. The process is filled with false starts, creative solutions and minor adjustments. It keeps him on his toes.
Because every session involves setup and cleanup as well as the print job itself, letterpress printing requires big blocks of time. It doesn’t lend itself to shortcuts. “There are tricks you pick up,” Ponce de Leon says, “but there’s no secret you unlock to printing. The secret is: you try a lot; you don’t give up; you seek perfection; and eventually, if you persevere, you will get a good print.”
* * *
Over 40 years ago, graphic designer Lance Hidy ’68 learned the same hard-earned lessons as Ponce de Leon in the JE press. Things were a little different back then. Sometimes Hidy would stay in the press until three in the morning, only stopping when people in the dorms above complained about the noisy vibrations from below. Other than that, he says, “There were no rules at all. Not a single one.”
This lack of regulation brought with it not only freedom but also abuses. According to Hidy, many students used to print commercially without permission from the residential colleges, out-competing licensed businesses in New Haven that had to comply with tax and sales law. “Many of them were illegally printing postcards and posters for the Yale Political Union and other student organizations, and they charged fees that were cheaper [than those of commercial printers],” says Hidy. “Some of them were pretty savvy businessmen, making thousands of dollars per semester illegally from the printing presses.”
The rules of the game have changed. Letterpress printing is no longer commercially viable or lucrative the way it once was — now the hobby is more aesthetic, dependent on love of the craft. Compliance with regulations is a must today. Students are no longer allowed to stay in the presses past midnight. They must wear long pants and close-toed shoes, and may only print when someone else is present. After the tragic death of Michele Dufault ’11, who perished while working in a Sterling Laboratory metal shop several years ago, the University has tightened safety regulations for press facilities. This has meant the covering-up of exposed gears, increased supervision and stricter hours.
Nate Gibbons, Master Printer of Branford, believes these measures are necessary and often beneficial. “Our relationship with the Safety Office is terrific,” he says. “I’ve implemented just about everything they’ve suggested.” Newer environmental measures have similarly signaled a change from the wild and wooly days of letterpress printing in the ’60s and ’70s. “We don’t sweep stuff up anymore because it gets lead dust in the air; now we use a vacuum,” says Gibbons. “The inks and solvents we use now are much more environmentally friendly; they’re not green, but they’re better than what they were.”
Within this safer, more bureaucratized atmosphere, the tradition of letterpress printing endures. It has drawn a small but devoted cohort of practitioners like Ponce de Leon, many of them trained by residential college fellows in on-site workshops. Now, workshops are offered in the press rooms of Branford, JE and Davenport-Pierson.
When letterpress printing at Yale was in its heyday, 11 residential colleges had fully operational letterpresses. Now, only the three mentioned are still active. But even though the number of letterpresses on campus has dwindled in objective terms, the facilities have benefitted from consolidation. For instance, the Gaudi press that Ponce de Leon often prints on now once belonged to Trumbull College. After Trumbull shuttered its print shop, JE acquired the high-quality and historic press.
Richard Rose, a JE fellow who regularly teaches students how to use the press, believes this trend towards consolidation actually foretells renewed vigor. “I think there’s a kind of distillation,” he says. “Rather than one college having a press that rarely gets used, by having a few college presses, things have become more focused.”
Moreover, Rose thinks the presses are experiencing an upswing in popularity. “The fervor for hand-printing at Yale,” he says, “goes in cycles. There are periods where it’s very, very popular, and there are periods when it’s less so. I must say, in the past five or seven years it’s been very popular and attractive to students from many different disciplines.”
For a while it seemed as if hand-printing at Yale, which thrived in the late ’60s and in the ’70s, had had its day. After the influx of digital media in the ’80s and ’90s, as well as competition cheap large-scale printers like Tyco, in-house printing in the colleges was crowded out.
Now, however, the meticulous craft has experienced a resurgence, thanks to causes both general and specific to Yale. According to Rose, Yale’s bibliophilia, relish for tradition and storied history of craftsmanship have made it a haven for the book arts. “There’s a love of the book here,” he says, “and that’s something that exists across departments.” Such devotion to the physical text resonates with a larger phenomenon of cultural nostalgia. Ponce de Leon attributes the fact that press culture “is picking up” to a general hearkening back to the authentic, the handmade and the irreplicable in an era saturated with digital media.
Within residential colleges as well, measures have been taken to keep the flame alive. Around 15 years ago, Yale enlisted the help of Gibbons to resurrect letterpresses that had fallen into disuse. Although restart attempts in Berkeley and Silliman failed, Branford has kept its renewed press alive. Now, Gibbons regularly offers workshops on letterpress printing to Branford students. It’s a victory, albeit a small one.
* * *
Hunter Ford ’15 pursued a similar goal of revivification in the book arts — but for him, it was bookbinding that was calling out for attention. Two years ago, Davenport College’s bookbindery was closed and Silliman was in the process of shuttering its own bookbindery. At the prompting of the Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld, Ford took the initiative to reopen the Davenport bookbindery, later turning his sights to Silliman.
At first, Ford had trouble maintaining student interest. He taught a small class of six to eight whose numbers declined as the year progressed. It wasn’t a promising start.
Now his Guild of Bookmakers workshops regularly draw between 10 and 40 students. Students have bound things from Moleskine-style journals to a copy of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” bound in stingray leather. To date, the Guild of Bookmakers has offered 40 workshops; in the second semester of last year alone, students bound over 20,000 pages. The bookbindery is often not sufficient to accommodate all the students who attend the Guild’s sessions. The once-neglected bookbindery is now thrumming with activity, and Ford often stays there late into the night supervising students who want to finish their projects in one go.
Part of the appeal of bookbinding, Ford explains, is this very ability to do things in one fell swoop. Students can spend one six-hour block binding their book during one of the Guild’s seminars, and never bind another book during their time at Yale. The workshops, Ford explains, are tailored to a stop-and-go approach. “The Yale Guild of Bookmakers does not have a set curriculum,” he says. “You come to any one of our workshops, and you can do whatever it is you like to do. You can pick up where you left off, start something new, and you don’t have to work on one type of book.”
Bookbinding differs in this from letterpress printing, which often requires multiple visits, consistent workshop attendance and a greater level of commitment. The materials for bookbinding aren’t as messy — glue, razor blades and leather instead of ink, rags and solvents — and the structure of workshops is more flexible.
At bottom, however, both bookbinding and letterpress printing share this: They demand that students slow down and work with their hands. In an atmosphere as frenetic as Yale’s, this is at once a draw and a deterrent. Rose thinks this change in pace isn’t “a hindrance, but it often takes some adjustment on a student’s part to understand that the clock slows down” in the press. “But that’s important,” he adds. “This dance between hand and eye and brain is often very slow, and there’s great value in that.”
Like Ford in the bookbinding community, letterpress enthusiasts express a desire to share what some consider an obsolete craft with students who may never have the chance to practice it otherwise. Gibbons says, “I am happy to share my knowledge with 18–24 kids a year, even if they don’t print another thing in their life. They’ve learned something unusual, and they have tangible evidence and something they can show their parents, their friends.” One of the great parts about Yale, he says, is its deep stores of arcana, its venerated traditions of craftsmanship that have largely vanished from the wider culture. But tradition alone is not enough: it is the adaptability of the book arts, their continued appeal for students like Ponce de Leon and Ford, and Yale’s mindful support that will ensure a home for letterpress printing and bookbinding on campus.