Posted tagged ‘tools’

The Third & Elm Press

November 4, 2012

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Business and good fortune had us visiting Newport, Rhode Island a couple of weeks prior to Hurricane Sandy. The weather was extraordinarily beautiful and temperate, literally a calm before a storm. When I travel with Holly, I try not to schedule too much press activity, which can easily usurp a timetable. But destiny took a hand. While visiting a photography gallery called Blink, we learned that the owner’s mother ran a letterpress in the heart of Newport. On our last day there, Holly and I made sure to visit The Third and Elm Press, named (as you probably surmised) for the corner on which Ilse Burchert Nesbitt’s shop is located.

The home of the Third and Elm Press, located at Third and Elm in Newport, Rhode Island.

Ilse came to America from Germany in 1960, and set up the press with her husband, a calligrapher and book designer, in 1965. There are details and sample of her work on her website at She is now 80 years old and not showing much sign of slowing down.

Isle has a very nicely organized studio. It is not large, but it holds an early 19th century “acorn” iron press, a good sized floor standing platin press, a cutter and several banks of type. While she has printed several books over the years, her primary focus these days is in making wood cut prints. In the long-established German tradition, she cuts her blocks using knives, as opposed to gouges and gravers.

A relief wood cut carved with knives on the plank.

The style of knives that Ilse uses for cutting her blocks.

Close-up of the plaque on the ‘acorn’ iron press.

A close-up of Ilse’s work-horse platin press, with a rainbow hue of inks on the underside of the inking disk.

I admired Ilse’s cutting desk, which folds down elegantly when not in use. Most print studios need space-saving solutions like this. (Mine certainly does!)

All the type drawers have beautiful calligraphy labels. Since I live with a calligrapher of some note, I have put Holly on notice that I would like this treatment for my type cabinets as well.

I make a habit of carrying samples of my books and prints with me where ever I go, so I was able to show them to Ilse and recieve a critique. She was refreshingly frank, or perhaps I should say refreshingly Teutonic. She thought my lines might “open up” and become more naturalistic if I abandoned gouges and gravers and adopted the knife as my principal tool, something I will certainly try when I turn my hand to cutting on the plank. She felt that my lines were too clean, that they followed each other too closely, that I needed to “loosen up.” All good advise, and in a sense, that’s the direction my linos had been going prior to my jump into wood engraving.

We spent a very enjoyable afternoon visiting with Ilse, hearing her thoughts on the ‘business’ and dropped some money in her gallery upstairs on a book and two prints. Most of all, it was simply inspiring to meet a fellow printer and print-maker who is steadily pursuing her passion and not letting anything, least of all aging, get in the way.

Where I Work

June 1, 2012

(Click to enlarge.)

For the most part, the above photograph shows you my little kingdom. (This shot was taken in the midst of printing a keepsake for Canadian Notes & Queries). In the foreground right is a galley tray cabinet, holding fifty trays. These trays are used to move type and material from the compositing area to the press, and let’s admit it, for storing type waiting to be dissed back into the cabinets. There’s the press on the right, with a repurposed kitchen cupboard in the background holding the press “furniture” – or the metal bits that secure type and blocks on the press bed. On the left, is a long banker’s table that came from the office where I used to edit the Upper Canadian. Normally it is covered with detritus that has no home anywhere else. Under the long table I’ve built hasty cabinets to hold type and smaller sheets of paper, and printers waste. Out of sight are a couple of type cabinets to the left, and behind to the left is a big old Westman Baker paper cutter. The space beyond the edge of the press is the creative domain of the lovely and talented Holly Dean, to whom I am eternally devoted…. particularly for surrendering half of her studio to all my heavy metal and bookish dreams. And for other reasons.

And that’s it. I’m not complaining – I’m spoiled for space more than many letterpress printers, who are literally climbing over their equipment to get about their studios. But still, I am thinking…thinking…. More storage would make it much easier to keep the press tidier. A full floor to ceiling cabinet at the back to store more ink and other tools and equipment. Build a galley across the back of the long table to get all the typesetting material in one area. Decide about the odds&sods type now stored under the long desk and use the space for storage. Or build proper type storage there, and begin selectively acquire type that I will use. The back corner behind the bust — those are a couple of booth walls. Move those to the shed outside and build a tall cabinet for holding rolls of book cloth and paper.

We’re not really that far off from having a well-organized space. More on this as the summer progresses….

Tools of the Engraving Trade

March 5, 2012

About five years ago, I went out on assignment to cover the Tools of the Trade show, near Toronto. About 30 or 40 dealers had tables covered, selling everything from your grandfather’s screwdrivers right up to plough planes worth thousands. I’d covered the show before, but that year I went with a mission of my own, to find wood engraving tools. I didn’t have much hope, but asked each dealer until I found one who handed me a plastic bag filled with the familiar “chopped” mushroom handle. It was literally a mixed bag, to say the least. The tools were very old. The handles showed either considerable airburn from the passage of time, or a lot of handling – probably both. I bought them.

Spitsticker showing the "shaved mushroom" handle.

Once home, I realized I had spitstickers and tint tools, perhaps a lining tool or two, but no burins. Clearly some had been better cared for than others: the angle of the points on some were absurd, and others had bowed faces, meaning they would need to be ground to the proper angle again. I ordered two burins from McClain’s, along with a Crocker sharpening jig, because I had no idea how to sharpen the tools, and they must be very sharp to work properly.

So here is my wood engraving kit so far:

Engraving tools.

At the top left, coarse and fine grain ceramic blocks for sharpening the blades. I use the Crocker sharpener prior to beginning work on another block to get the shape back on the top of the blades. While working on the block, I return fairly frequently to the stones to give the blades a touch-up. The Crocker jig works, but it’s not terribly well manufactured, so I’m keeping my eye open for something similar that has been better milled, perhaps in brass. I’m still having some trouble sharpening, and that’s causing some problems in my engravings.

Through the middle are the tools themselves. From left to right; a flat graver (with a full mushroom handle), a rather hefty scorper (or round graver), two spitstickers, a square head and a diamond head burins (from McClain’s), three tint tools (the second and third have points in need of reshaping), and finally two very odd looking tools that might be for stippling. At the bottom are some carving chisels that were in the bag, and one mushroom headed flat graver that needs some work,

The books say that gravers must be cut to fit the hand, and based on the early work I have done with these tools, this is most assuredly true. I’ll have to contact McClain’s or Lyons to see if they can cut the tools to my hand size.

Scorper or round graver


Square burin and diamond burin


Tint tool

Tint tools with badly shaped points.

Stippling tools (I think....)


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