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February 20, 2013

Crispin and Jan Elsted produce books of extraordinary beauty using techniques and traditions that date from the days of Johannes Gutenberg.


Some years ago I learned how to make a book the way Johannes Gutenberg did in the fifteenth century, at a letterpress printing workshop taught by Jan and Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press, at their home and press room in Mission, BC, about thirty-five miles east of Vancouver along the Fraser River. Before then, my knowledge of typography had come entirely from desktop publishing, through computer programs such as PageMaker, which offered a meagre selection of digital fonts. My relationship with publishers and books was that of a consumer: books were objects produced by others. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might publish one myself.

The workshop began on a Sunday morning. In the kitchen, Crispin led us through a history of typography—examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics; Roman inscriptions carved in stone; calligraphic scripts on vellum. We passed around a framed page from Polychronicon, a history of the world written in the early fourteenth century by Ranulf Higden, an English Benedictine monk, and printed in 1484 by William Caxton, the first English printer of books. The Elsteds had purchased the page from an auction in London some years before, and Crispin explained to us that it was an example of incunabula, a Latin word for “cradle” and “incubation,” which refers to books printed in Europe before 1501. We leafed through stacks of modern fine press books, volumes that Crispin had chosen from the extensive collection in their library. Turning the heavy rag-paper pages, I ran my fingertips lightly over the paper’s surface and felt the slight indentation left by the type.

A little later we crowded into the press room—a barn-like outbuilding a short distance from the Elsteds’ house—to observe a demonstration of typesetting by hand. From a tray of metal type, Crispin selected cast-metal characters, or “sorts,” and built up lines of text—upside down and reversed—in a hand-held metal composing stick. The tray, or case, of type is divided into compartments, one for each letter. Capital letters are in the top half of the case, small letters in the bottom (hence “upper” and “lower case”); frequently used characters such as e and a are assigned larger compartments than those less frequently used. Miscellaneous symbols are assigned spaces on the perimeter of the tray: ligatures, punctuation marks and metal spacers of varying widths—from “thins” to “ems”—which are used to adjust the spaces between words. On the composing stick, each line of type is separated from the one below by a thin strip of metal (traditionally made of lead, hence “leading”). Once Crispin finished setting lines of type in one stick, he did the same with several more. Then he laid the composed lines of type into a wooden frame and clamped them down to form a page—called a forme—to be proofed and printed.

Throughout the next day, Jan and Crispin helped participants design their projects, select papers and choose fonts. My project was to print a pair of my own poems in chapbook format. I’d designed a tall, narrow page; I’d picked a typeface, Goudy Old Style, and paper, Cortlea Ivory. I planned to stamp an ornament into black cover stock, stitch the booklet with linen thread and wrap it in a jacket of moss green Canson Ivy paper.

Jan, who does all of the press work for the company, demonstrated the printing process on the 1850 Albion hand press, one of the oldest presses in the Elsteds’ collection. The Albion is about seven feet tall and made of cast iron. It has two vertical columns connected by a crosspiece that supports a heavy press head above the press bed, essentially a waist-high metal shelf on rails. You turn a crank to roll the press bed out from under the press head, and then hinge aside a two-layer “sandwich”—the tympan (a padded piece of cloth that will hold a sheet of paper), and frisket (a metal frame that will secure the paper and mask off sections of the page)—so that the forme can be locked into place on the press bed.

Jan scooped a dab of thick, oily black ink onto a metal spatula and plopped it onto a glass slab on a work table. She rolled a rubber brayer over the ink until it reached the proper “tackiness” (as gauged by feel and by ear) and then carefully ran the inked brayer over the forme prepared by Crispin, coating the letters with ink.

Then Jan positioned a sheet of paper on the tympan, hinged the frisket back into place, and then lowered the frisket and tympan onto the forme she had just covered with ink. She cranked the press bed back under the press head, and then pulled a metal lever to apply pressure—press head against tympan against paper against inked type. And then the same steps in reverse: release, roll out, unhinge, remove the printed sheet of paper and inspect it for imperfections. Finally, she set the page aside to dry.

Most of our time at the Elsteds’ workshop was spent assembling lines of type, composing pages, rolling ink and operating the press. I spent several late nights bent over the presses, and at the end of five days I held a completed chapbook in my hands.


The Elsteds have been operating Barbarian Press for more than thirty-five years. In that time they have done commercial work, such as stationery and cards, and fine press work, including broadsheets, pamphlets and forty books. They’ve published classic authors—William Shakespeare, Edm­und Spenser, John Keats—and contemporary ones, such as Theresa Kishkan and Tim Bowling. They have created, and live, what might be called a handmade life, carrying on traditions and practices that have remained unchanged in their essentials since the fifteenth century, when Gutenberg modified a grape press in Mainz, Germany, and used it to print a bible. They are now among the most senior and respected members of a very small group of people worldwide (the Fine Press Book Association’s website lists just 118 member presses), people who have their own professional organizations, use their own arcane jargon and attend their own annual gatherings and book fairs. The Elsteds have also raised two children.

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February 20, 2013

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