Low tech is beautiful, students using antique presses discover

November 28, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

CHESTERTOWN -- When aspiring writers like Washington College student Perry Schatz get their hands on poetry, they're likely to come away with ink on their fingers.

Although students at the small liberal arts college in Kent County have access to personal computers and the latest in word-processing programs, it's the school's distinctly low-tech pressroom that attracts those keen on writing and publishing.

Beneath the skylights of an 18-by-30-foot room on one end of the O'Neill Literary House, students wearing dark blue aprons arrange rows of metal type, scoop gobs of rich-colored ink from cans and peer closely at sheets of freshly imprinted paper.

As a stereo fills the room with contemporary music, the chunk-chunk and clickity-click of heavy machines set a metallic cadence that was all but silenced decades ago when most of the printing industry abandoned the sluggish proof and platen presses for more economical methods.

Aside from use by private or hobby printers, most presses like the half-dozen in the literary house here are found in back rooms of commercial businesses or in museums.

At Washington College, though, hardly a day goes by that the presses are not running.

"It's a museum only in that the stuff we're using is antiques," says T. Michael Kaylor, the 43-year-old self-taught printer who instructs students in the methods of locking type in "chases" or metal frames, inking rollers and hand-feeding paper to the presses.

By today's standards, the machines, several of which date to the turn of the century, are slow and inefficient. But they are dependable and relatively simple to operate, features that Mr. Kaylor said make them suitable for the school's low-volume press runs of posters, broadsides, bookmarks and, on occasion, complete books.

As the students learn about printing, said Mr. Kaylor, they develop a new appreciation for words. Students do not receive academic credit for their work in the shop, but some who want to write find that the experience helps as they experiment with poetry and prose.

"They learn the love of the words, the way to make the words and books as physical objects, as containers for thought," he said. Each year the best of the students' creative writing attempts are set in type and printed in the shop. For most, it is their publishing debut.

'Offended by photocopies'

Ms. Schatz, a 19-year-old freshman from Princeton, N.J., who is studying literature and creative writing, said she began taking more notice of type faces and paper stocks soon after she started working in the shop.

"I like the cream-colored paper, the nice scratchy typefaces," she said.

"You get so used to the computer and books. With this, if I let myself think about how much work went into making just the type, I'm blown away."

Jen Ward, 17, a freshman from Crofton, agreed: "After you've spent some time here, you almost become offended by photocopies."

Eva Kaplan-Leiserson, 17, a freshman from Baltimore, said part of the allure of the press shop is its comfortable environment. It smells of inks and machine oil and Mr. Kaylor's pipe tobacco. "Edith Wharton" -- a black-and-white cat named after the American writer -- wanders the shop in search of crickets.

"This place is generally so homey, so different from anything else on the campus," said Ms. Kaplan-Leiserson.

Robert Day, an English professor and director of the college's literary house, said the press shop provides insight into the world of literature often ignored by higher education.

Intertwined history

"The history of printing and the history of English literature are intertwined, and this is a laboratory for that," said Mr. Day, who, almost 10 years ago with teacher Kathy Wagner, conceived of the plan to open a pressroom for students. "I do want them to have as many perspectives on literary history as we can find for them."

The college acquired its first press -- a Chandler and Price made in 1913 -- eight years ago. The first item printed for distribution was a recipe for baked tomatoes that were served years ago when the literary house was a tea room.

Posters printed

Since then, calling cards, holiday cards and limited editions of student writings have been printed, as well as posters announcing campus lectures.

The number of students involved in the print shop varies each year, said Mr. Kaylor. Sometimes it's only six; at other times it is several dozen. For unknown reasons, most of the student printers are women.

"I guess they like to get dirty, and they like to use machines," Mr. Kaylor said. "Some of them tell me their fathers never let them touch a wrench."

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