—Nov. 11, 2013—
“Thee Hellbox Press”:
A hellbox is a box that sits in the corner of the shop into which goes all broken and worn out type. I started with a hellbox of type so it seemed appropriate to call the press The Hellbox Press. Shortly after I had finished printing our first book my mentor Bill Poole, with tongue in cheek, suggested that I call the press Thee Hellbox Press so it didn’t get mixed up with all the rest.
Letterpress & Method
One might well ask, why spend all that time setting type; proofing and then printing pages, using metal and wood type on a vintage printing press, and getting your hands dirty to boot, just for a few copies of some book. Why do all that work when you can key it into a word processor and then have the pages photo copied? In reality both methods have limits and advantages. Let’s look at the photo copying first pro & cons—advantages: fast and low cost. Disadvantages: Limited to a narrow range of size choices & lousy paper choices so books all have a similar cookie cutter style and the art of the work can be limited.
Setting type, is to me, an enjoyable activity as I get the time to consider every word & phrase, root & meaning. The activity of setting type becomes somewhat like meditation and you normally don’t consider these things when reading in the conventional manner.
Some of the advantages of letterpress are: the impression of the type is tactile on the page and the type will sparkle in the slanting morning light. The range of artwork is quite large and includes lino-blocks, soft-blocks, wood-cuts, wood engravings as well as polymer plates. Art work can be overprinted or run off the page. The page size is somewhat limited to the press but with certain techniques the page size can be doubled. Letterpress lends itself to a wide range of papers; handmade, or mold-made that have a deckle edge that can be preserved in the final book. And yes it is proper to say deckle edge rather than deckled edge as the latter indicates that the deckle was added when in fact it is a natural occurrence secondary to the fiber seeping under the deckle frame. Most letterpress printers will always employ acid free paper and acid free adhesives used in the binding to insure longevity of the final book. I tell people that my books will last 500 years or I’ll give them their money back.
Most designers agree that the block of type should be located on the page so that the gutter is narrow and the upper margin will be a little wider with the lateral margin being wider yet and the bottom margin being the widest. Some designers like to draw a diagonal line from the top center of the gutter to the lower outside corner of the page. The block of type is then designed to fit with its upper gutter corner and lower lateral corner bisecting the diagonal line. Such placements are both aesthetically pleasing and serve the reader well. The reader usually holds the book with thumbs in the lower and lateral margins and with wide margins in these areas their thumbs don’t impinge on the type.
Economic considerations are secondary; my objective is always to produce a book that is a work art in itself. Designing a book is like writing music for a symphony, one needs to have all the elements—type face, paper, size, text & binding, a front section of violins—all work together as creative team. It’s an open-ended problem (a problem that has more than one answer, none of which are essentially right or wrong, better or worse). In a problem of this class, one has the opportunity to think outside the Hell box and be creative—an opportunity to be direct or obscure.
It is not uncommon for me to use what I call objective abstract art in an effort to highlight some aspect of the text. I always work in collaboration with the author and the artist (if I choose to use an outside artist). I have had the opportunity to work with some very creative and intelligent people and the whole process becomes one of great joy. We have a tradition of putting the press to bed that includes the obligatory dram of single malt scotch and dinner at Chez Piggy. And the book launches change depending on the location of the author and other factors.
 Here Hugh recounts this anecdote: “When I worked as an Orthotic Consultant one of my jobs was to see convicts at one of the local Kingston Penitentiaries. I knew that the ‘cons’ would try to use me and by about the third month a young fellow came to my clinic and said, “Ya know Doc, I can only wear cowboy boots.” Clearly, this fellow needed to apply to a higher power more than needed to apply to me for footwear. However, the next month I was used by management. They sent in a fellow who outweighed me by 150 lbs. and my job [they dictated] was to convince this fellow that he really didn’t have a problem. I did the job, but when I arrived back home I said to my wife, “Verla, I have just made a new Barclay’s Law and that is I won’t do a God Damn. thing that doesn’t give me joy & that prison job doesn’t give me joy so I’m quitting.” Verla said, “That’s good, I don’t like you out there anyway.” I have kept that law ever since and I’ve been working with intelligent people making books that are meaningful. The art form gives me joy. How many people have such opportunities—cowboy boots! I tell people, with a wink, that this activity keeps me off the street and makes Kingston a safer place.