The sensory pleasures of printing and pressing

Sound.  Touch. Smell. Taste.

Why do people love print? Real print, I mean, letterpress print.

I was pondering that question last Saturday as I milled around with youngsters, oldsters and in-betweenies enjoying some welcome spring sunshine – and the latest open day at Rufford Printing Company in Mawdesley, Lancashire.

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A newsletter in the making

My thoughts returned to the question as I lay awake in the early hours of Sunday morning, conscious too early for my liking.

The liquid trill of the blackbird had already surrendered to the wood pigeons’ cooing. The pallor of dawn framed the still-dark curtains.

I wasn’t anxious, ill, or alarmed, just thinking, when a memory struck out for the surface in my restless, churning brain.

A sound.


The metal band that held the hairs of my wooden paintbrush in place, tapping the rim of a jam-jar of water, cloudy with muted colour.

I was sitting at a table covered in newspaper. Wiping water off the brush on the edge of the jar. Feeling the smooth hairs combine as I sucked it to a point.

Smelling my Reeves paints, two rows of discs in a tin box, the lid a palette for mixing.

In front of me was a Winsor & Newton painting book, filled with outlines of people in period costumes. Precision colouring-in, for a little girl.

And I wondered as I remembered, are these the reasons I feel so drawn to printing?

Perhaps not the taste (though as a child I tore tiny bits from my books and ate them, an early appetite for words manifesting itself – dare I say it – literally), but its sound, smell and feel?

The rhythmic chatter and thump of the presses.

The clattering keys of the Intertype line-caster.

The tinkling cascade of matrices, rushing to find hot metal.

Whirring belts, whooshing paper. Clunks, clacks, clicks.

Our friend, Helen, repeating, “I love the smell of the ink!”

Which is what, this morning, evoked the smell of my Reeves paints and the taste of the brush in my mouth. The downy texture of sugar paper. The sight of bright powdery poster-paints for mixing in pots at school.

The application of colour by brush. Lines drawn, or outlines filled-in. Pencils, crayons, charcoal, pens. Creating images, or words, on paper. Making communicable what was only in my head to other people’s heads – without the spoken word.

What a wonderful thing it is, printing.

Language, thoughts, imaginings, images – none of these could be portably communicated in any far-reaching way before the invention of the printing press.

Yes, there were scribes in ancient Egypt. Rock art is found around the world. Ancient humans painted pebbles and carved figurines.

But even as medieval monks fashioned quills and made ink to write, as they illuminated, sewed and bound their work into books, words did not spread far and wide. No, they became exclusive.

It was a slow process. Painstaking. Expensive. Those who could read were few and far between. Those who could – or were allowed to – read Latin, even fewer and farther between.

Then came type, set in lines by hand. Later, came type set in lines by machines. A step change from minutes per line by hand, to lines per minute by machine.

And a press with added electricity, even a small one, could soon print 5000 pages an hour.

Then came the big presses, the monsters of Fleet Street and regional presses. Newspapers churned out in thousands, millions. Opinions, news, advertisements, propaganda – printed, packed, delivered.

And now. Print of the pressing kind becomes an art form. A heritage skill.

The medium changes.

Is the medium (still) the message? I never really understood Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement, I’ll be honest. But where Twitter is the medium, I for one am finding the message stressful.

And so, back to printing.

Its allure is growing. Not just for me, but for many. And not only oldies, harking back to days they felt they understood, but the very young – like Helen’s granddaughter Margot – and every age in between.

And so.

There I sat on Sunday morning. A box of hand-printed keepsakes beside me on my desk.

The words of Barack Obama, pressed onto paper. Communicating with anyone who can read, or be read to, his sage advice to his daughters:

Be kind

Be useful

on brightly coloured paper.

In black ink.

To be touched, felt, seen – yes, even smelt. But probably not tasted.  No, not even by me.


Right, now for the hard work of telling you about the processes I’ve been watching, done here by images and captions – enjoy!

First, the man behind it all.

Brian Smith’s introduction to print was therapeutic, after he was paralysed at the age of 16 in an accident. His first machine was a hand press on his mother’s dining table, now he runs Rufford Printing Company, where modern commercial print rubs shoulders with his print-passion –  letterpress.

The Intertype line casting machine in front of him here, made in Slough in 1976, was the last of its kind ever produced. It sets lines of type using hot metal. It was in use with the Guardian newspaper in London until May 1987. It’s not the greatest image of the machine itself but the only one I had of Brian with it –  you can see it properly in the videos below.IMG_5913


It’s not a qwerty keyboard, the keys on the left, operated with the left hand, are the most commonly used. There’s no shift key, there are 90 keys and uppercase letters have their own. The first two columns ‘spell’ ‘etaoin shrdlu’ which sometimes found its way into print if a proofreader missed it, because if the operator made a mistake he (usually he) would run his fingers down these rows filling the line with the nonsense words in what is known as a ‘run down’. It was often quicker to cast a bad slug – line of type – than to hand-correct the line in the assembler. The slug with the run down is removed once it has been cast, or by the proofreader. The keys are connected by vertical push-rods to escapements which, when a key is pressed, release matrices from the magazine. Those are slugs up there on the right.matrices keyboard and slugger

The magazine of the matrices that are used to cast the letters top left looking like a New York skyline thanks to the lighting, the inside of the bit where it cascades down when keys are pressed top right – I thought it rather beautiful, the mould disc where the hot metal meets the matrices to create a slug – a line of type, finally the full keyboard (if you want more detail of the process just search online).

In the videos below, David Evans is setting  part of my ‘A Little Match Girl’ story, a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s original. You can see the brass matrices – which mould the letters in hot metal – as they cascade down when David presses the keys. They are then returned, after the casting is complete, at the very top and you can see them tinkling back in. The system was designed by a watchmaker and is, as you would expect, very precise.



matrices and slug

The brass matrices – the v-indented things in the tray at the top, are the moulds for the hot metal that will form the slugs. Two sets of matrices spelling my name are held by David but the slug on the beermat was not produced from them – clue: it’s all in upper case! 

intertype etc

The nerdy stuff 😉

My Little Match Girl story is being set in the Egmont font and will be printed on a Heidelberg Press (see below for video). This is an early sample using the first paragraph.

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The Match Girl will be proofed on this Vandercook proofing press, operated by hand with that rotary handle on the left – not looking its best thanks to my clutter – sorry, but it’s realistic!


An early draft of the Rufford newsletter on the Vandercook


Arab Treadle Press from 1890


In the video below a Heidelberg T Platen 10×15, built in 1951 and still going strong, is operating slowly enough to follow the process – but it can print 5000 per hour.





Foil printing uses a magnesium plate as seen here and above


Haven’t tried this yet – the lime and chilli version went down well at my regular freelancers’ co-working day

There you are. Print ancient beside the modern.

And nice people: Brian and Joan Smith, David Evans from Todmorden who’s setting my story, Dave Hilton on the hot foiler, Ken Burnley from the Juniper Press at Liverpool’s Bluecoat centre who toiled over the Vandercook, Tom Dunn who came all the way from Exeter to relive times past on the Intertype – and Ross Krige, arguably the Printer’s Devil.*  😉

*(see my post on Incline Press for the explanation)

I recommend it for a grand day out. Look out for the next open day here:

drawers and things

odds and ends Collage black background

19 thoughts on “The sensory pleasures of printing and pressing

  1. I would have so enjoyed that visit. I remember the days when those machines were in work…and the gentlemen rejoicing in the names of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and the like who kept the presses running – or not, as the fancy took them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. [Helen,, could you play the first video? I’ve re-trimmed it and replaced it now and it seems to work this time…]
      I wish you could have been there! Tom who used to operate an Intertype came all the way from Exeter but Costa Rica…
      Brian had a load of trouble getting set up – because he was not union people refused to deal with him and he had to order type, paper, ink – everything – either through people who turned a blind eye or through surrogates – a reminder of how things went too far.


  2. Mary, Thanks so much for this post. I enjoyed all the details, and the sounds of the old presses. Today in our quiet digital surroundings we are missing out on the sensory satisfaction of work. Too bad. The body and mind crave repetitive rhythms and sensory stimulation.

    The story of “Longitude” came to mind as I read your post. It took a clockmaker to solve the problem of navigation across the sea.

    Do you have an idea of when your “Little Match Girl” will be ready for the public? I can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops, sorry Thel – missed you out on the reply circuit! Thanks and glad you enjoyed it. She’s nearly there – all typeset, pages made up, polymers of the embellishments done. Now I just have to design/add payment system to my old Cosi & Veyn website – maybe a few people will buy it – and even my old Wake of Vultures book too (have a few paperbacks left) – you never know! I’m going on typesetting workshop third week of May… caught a bug! Lou x


  3. Sorry to have taken so long to read this. Very interesting, as all your Maid in Britain posts always are. The effect of printing on world history is seismic. No printing, no Reformation. Computers, especially social media, have a similar effect, on how political groups can communicate, with whom and how quickly.

    Like your thoughts on drawing as well. In the last few days, I have drawn some line pictures of some of the plot lines in my novel. (I drew them while I was invigilating, as you’re not allowed to write or read whilst invigilating.). The pictures will appear on my monthly post for Association of Christian Writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosemary – don’t apologise – glad to hear from you any time! Sorry I haven’t been by yours lately – my world’s gone a bit bananas! What an interesting idea, to draw your plot. I can’t imagine doing that, but now you’ve said it – a challenge! Glad you liked the post – I would do more of these except it seems people don’t like being asked if I can visit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry your world has gone bananas. Mine continues to be hectic, with too little time for writing and finishing editing The Novel. A writer friend has said she will look at it and I’m seeing her again at the end of June, so I’m hoping to complete all edits by then. (Oh-oh????!!!!)
        Btw, regarding your question, no, we didn’t get the opportunity to print anything off the equipment in Romania. Basically, it was too old and a museum piece.
        Sorry to hear people can’t make the time for you to visit, especially when you can give them a good write up.

        Liked by 1 person

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