Making Idi...ums No.1

We've not really done this before, we're not even sure it's going to be of much interest (not that that's ever stopped us!), but having documented the making ofIdi...ums No.1 fairly thoroughly as we were going, we thought we'd do a little blog piece (quite long, actually) on how we designed and produced it (it's ok, it's mainly pictures!). We should probably start by saying this isn't an attempt at a tutorial or even a recommendation of how things should be done, it's simply a documentary of the way we work; a process we've been feeling our way through for the last few years. And, of course, one that's a world away from the process of designing on computer. Anyway, here goes...

The making of...

Like everything we do, it started with an idea. For a while we've been wanting to explore commonly confused idioms; these great little phrases that, when you really stop and think about it, make almost no sense at all. It's because of this literal ambiguity that they so often get misinterpreted. The challenge we set ourselves was to capture and illustrate both the right meaning with wrong spelling of some of these phrases, in a series of small typographic broadsides.

First idiom up: Toe the line. Often mistakenly spelled 'tow the line', this little phrase has nothing to do with towing anything, instead it refers to actual toes on actual lines: either runners at the start of a race or 18th century Navy seamen lining up along planks of the deck, or so it's thought.

As with everything, we started in sketchbooks to work out the idea: in this case the the correct spelling literally toeing the line (of type) of the incorrect one. Unlike working on computer, where changing your mind halfway through is simple, the scamps have to be pretty finalised before we start.

From sketches to physical type, the next step is actually building the composition on the stone. At this stage we might try several founts and generally play with the alignment and arrangement. We also start to visually letterspace the larger type – wood type, by its very nature, needs quite careful spacing because of the physical limitations of the body sizes (the block itself) and occasionally because poor manufacturing just meant bad spacing.

Quick proofs are then made on a galley press using carbon paper, this allows us to easily (and cleanly) start to see what the choice of type looks like and how the design is shaping. Cutting these up and moving them round, just to make sure its working.

Once we're sure on the design, the actual typesetting can start – this is a slow old process, so you don't want to be making too many changes later on. Old metal type is also a mucky business.

Once all the components are set, they are locked up in the complete forme, before another proof is taken of the whole design.

The final proof, all good to go, it's then a case of breaking the forme down into the individual parts for different colours.

First up, the metal type (8pt Monotype Grotesque 216), is transferred to the Vandercook and locked up on the bed. Ink is mixed (Warm Grey 5...ish!) and put on the press.

The first actual, inked, proof on newsprint reveals any typos (several!) and any damaged characters (loads! The pitfalls of old secondhand type!).

Corrections made and characters painstakingly swapped out, proofs are taken on the actual stock to check inking, impression and alignment – the image above shows a hint of 'ghosting' (the thin white line on the top curve of the f) caused by our malfunctioning – now corrected – inking rollers.

Printing the first colour: 140 copies, each one fed and pulled by hand, then loosely stacked to dry.

While the first colour dries, the press is cleaned down, the second colour (Warm Grey 11) is mixed and the next forme is locked up on the bed.

Again, proofs are taken to check alignment and spacing. Tight!

Second colour finished (another 140 times through the press), it's time to clean down again, mix the third colour (Fluro orange) and set the next forme on the bed – this time a fiddly 45º angle. Letterpress, generally speaking, likes right angles!

Another round of proofing and adjustments. (Despite having made the forme in its entirety first and then carefully removed and added the separate parts back as we went, there's always some shifting of alignment that needs to be corrected on press).

Third colour, and another 140 times through the press.

The forth and final pass is the deboss of our logo, the only plates we print from, taking the total number of impressions for the edition to 560 (not including proofs and spoiled sheets).

Finally, 140 copies, trimmed to size, done. And there you have it, it's not quick, but it is a lovely way of working. If anybody is still reading!