How to Open a Print Shop

How can a wooden printing press offer an antidote to an isolated world which has become dominated by screens and by texts composed in haste? How can a common press allow people to connect off-line, encouraging mindful and embodied practices?

The print shop of the hand press period is an early modern exemplar of critical making and co-production: hand press books were and are the products of many hands, hands which are often rendered invisible by the final product. This occlusion of the means of textual production is echoed and amplified by the troubling easiness of word processors and emails and messaging apps. This project sought to be an antidote to an isolated world which has become dominated by screens and by texts composed in haste if not always in anger. It aimed to allow people to connect off-line, encouraging mindful and embodied practices. Setting and printing type is an engaging kind of work/play, and a slow one. That very change of pace helps both to demystify and defamiliarize how we use text to communicate. Making books with moveable type and inky fingers is a way of getting in on the ground floor of our modern textual culture, and then taking the stairs instead of the lift.

What did the project involve? 

At the time of this project, the Centre for Material Texts (CMT) had recently acquired a replica 18th-century wooden printing press, a 19th-century iron Albion press and a large quantity of wood letter and metal type. The long-term goals of this project were to create a multidisciplinary and collaborative print shop which will be used by colleagues and students from across the University, and by researchers and makers from beyond the University (publishers, graphic designers, book artists, bibliophiles, librarians or simply those who are curious). In order to build some initial expertise, knowledge and awareness of the potential for our print shop, the team sought to develop a series of pilot projects and experiments. The first of these was their collaborative, co-produced project ‘How to Open a Print Shop’; this project was the first step in turning this collection of material objects into a thriving workshop, enabling people to create new knowledge through the process of making together.

The project had three central objectives:

  • To create a network of people both inside and outside of the University who are excited and inspired by our print shop.
  • To explore creative and productive ways of creating an inventory of the items we have in our print shop.
  • To explore the interface between making (designing, composing, and setting type, printing) and thinking (understanding points of continuity and difference between historical and contemporary practice, and between contemporary practices across artistic, creative, commercial, and educational contexts).

The first objective involved the development of a print shop network.  In the first instance they sought to engage with people from the following groups:

  • University colleagues from outside of the Faculty of Arts.
  • Owners of wooden common presses (inc. PressGenepy in East Anglia, Prelo Press in Denmark, Department of Typography in Reading). These were few in number and were not yet ‘networked’ in the same way as the owners and users of iron presses.
  • UK Universities with printing presses (e.g. Bath Spa, Oxford, York, Stirling), all of which have slightly different remits and emphases in terms of research, teaching, and public engagement
  • Creative Industries in Bristol: there is a thriving community of letterpress printers, graphic designers, publishers, book artists etc. in the city.

Between May and July 2021, the researchers held a series of events. One on ‘Open Print Shop – For UoB non-Arts Faculties’, one on ‘Troubleshooting Workshop – With Bristol Letterpress Professionals’, one on ‘A Show and Tell with Wooden Common Press Owners’, and one on ‘A Seminar and Discussion with University Presses’.

The next stages of the project involved inventorying the print shop and exploring critical making and material thinking. As a first step towards creating a space which is useable by anyone who has some basic training, the team needed to carry out an inventory of the items in their print shop. The project team worked together over a period of 6 weeks (May-July) to find a creative way of using the inventory task to share their collective experience of hands-on printing and historical research into print culture, and to co-create a printed product.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • The Centre for Material Texts (University of Bristol) has expertise in the history of printing with moveable type, the historical organization of print shops, and their outputs (with a particular focus on the hand-press period of 15th-19th centuries).
  • Jennifer Batt (Early Modern Studies, University of Bristol) her research interests lie in eighteenth-century literature, book history and reception history, the history and practice of printing, and digital humanities.
  • John McTague (English, University of Bristol) interests are in literature and politics in the late-Stuart and Hanoverian periods, bibliography and the history of the book. His particular interests are restoration and early eighteenth-century literature and political culture; the history of historiography, particularly forms of historical writing outside of the neo-classical mode.
  • Rhiannon Daniels (Italian, University of Bristol) her principal research interests are in medieval and Renaissance culture, reception studies, and the history of the book. She is particularly interested in the sociology of the text: finding ways of using the material form of manuscripts and printed books to (re)construct histories of reading and book production techniques.
  • Rachel Marsh (Resurgence Magazine, Semple Press) is a graphic designer and letterpress printer. She has ten years of experience printing on different presses.
  • Angie Butler (Centre for Fine Print Research, University of West England) has expertise in using the letterpress process and the book as collaborative spaces. She is interested in examining practitioners’ physical and psychological relationships with presses, materials and making within their workspaces through phenomenological and haptic enquiry.

What were the results?

Bristol Common Press was launched on the 10th of November 2021. The Centre for Material Texts hosted an event to celebrate this occasion. The print shop was been christened Bristol Common Press to celebrate the wooden common press which lies at the heart of our collections, and to reflect our core aim to make this a collaborative space which is open to all.

Bristol Common Press run a blog in which they share news on the development of the press and the community usage of the printing service.

Picture 1: Rachel Marsh and Tim Jollands. Picture 2: Peter Chassaud

There is also a Bristol Common Press Instagram that shares photos from the three historic presses and the working print shop.