How Books Are Handmade At The Last Printing Press Of Its Kind In The US

This is the last printing press

in the US where books are
handmade from start to finish.

Every letter of an Arion Press
book is created one by one.

Together, they make up a book
that can take years to produce

and cost up to $10,000 to buy.

That’s because this San
Francisco institution

uses machines and techniques
that date back to the 1800s.

Printing presses like
Arion used to be common.

But with the advent of
faster and cheaper printing,

this traditional method is fading away.

So now we’re having to like, learn

as much as we can before it goes away.

It is a huge responsibility.

I think it kind of weighs on all of us.

But at Arion Press,

the team devotes their days

to preserving this historic trade,

even in one of the tech
capitals of the world.

We visited this 101-year-old press

to learn how and why it’s still standing.

Each book begins in the foundry,

where Brian Ferrett spends
his day at a monotype machine

from the 1890s making individual letters.

It can be very, very difficult.

There could be days
where nothing goes right.

There could be weeks
where nothing goes right.

When I have three casters running
and nothing’s going wrong,

that makes me just ridiculously happy.

He lights a fire under the machine,

melting the lead, tin,
and antimony solution

that is used to create the letters.

We have a pump here, and a nozzle,

and the pump draws up the lead

and then will shoot
the lead out the nozzle.

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From there, the lead goes into a mold.

Then a matte case with
the chosen lettering

pushes down on it.

He sends the finished type down
the hall to the print room.

By the end of the day,

particularly when we’re
printing, we’re covered with ink.

And it’s just fantastic.

It’s kind of like a good little kid again,

getting messy and getting dirty.

At this stage of the process,

the foundry has sent us galleys of type.

They usually come out
about two pages per galley.

When we get those galleys, we
take a proof print of that.

Jeff Raymond arranges the type

into a page layout letter by letter.

So on this one, this is page 53.

To keep the page together,

Jeff wraps it in string.

Then he brings it to the proofing press

to check for any mistakes.

Once the proof looks good, it
goes for the final print run

on one of the larger presses.

The final stage of the bookmaking
process is in the bindery.

This is where everything gets made

into the book from scratch.

Megan Gibes folds, sews, and glues

each piece of the book together by hand.

The final product is a work of art.

I think there’s nothing that can compare

to physically holding
a book in your hands.

Feeling the piece of paper,
running your finger over it,

and feeling how the type
is impressed into the page.

However, modern technology
has made this kind

of letterpress printing nearly obsolete.

Today, top US printers use
offset printing presses

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that can produce 120,000 pages per hour.

Before working at Arion,

Brian spent three years

at one of these commercial factories.

I had been working printing
big runs of magazines,

24-hour-a-day type of
place, 12-hour shifts.

There were so many people,

I couldn’t even count how
many people were there.

Letterpress printing just can’t compete

with that kind of efficiency.

I mean, there’s a reason
why this line of work

isn’t fiscally viable really anymore,

because it is very time-intensive.

That all adds up.

While many other

traditional presses have closed,

Arion has stayed in business

thanks to a group of loyal subscribers

like book collectors,
institutions, and libraries.

This broadside sheet of the preamble

to the Constitution is one
of the most recent projects

to come through the print room.

Making only 350 copies,

this limited edition print sells for $50.

Arion also sells cases of type to order,

gives public tours, and holds workshops.

At 45, Brian is one of a dwindling number

of people who make a
living as a type caster.

And with fewer people
practicing this historic craft,

staff feel a personal responsibility

to keep the knowledge alive.

When it comes to the casting part,

there are very few people who can do it.

There are so few
machines around anymore.

And even when you do find them,

the knowledge that’s out
there is disappearing.

To pass on the knowledge

to the next generation,

Brian takes every chance he
can get to share his skills.

He mentors apprentices

during the four-year program at Arion.

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The first few weeks I was here,

I just felt surrounded by these people

who are making this stuff,

and they knew exactly what they were doing.

It’s like, oh my God, you know.

It’s almost impossible to find a place

where you can learn these skills.

Brian also shares the craft

with his 6-year-old daughter
in his garage at home.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you.

See, Papa?

Can I do that, Papa?

Sure.

OK.

Yeah, normally you do little dots.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you.

It does feel different than newer books,

you know, a mass-produced book.

There’s a different touch to it.

That handmade touch is striking a chord

even in the tech hub of San Francisco.

You have all these tech people,

and they’ve been sitting
at their computer all day

doing non-tactile things,

and they come here, and they’re
always crazily impressed.

This gives Arion hope

that their business and
this craft will continue

to live on in an
increasingly digital world.

You can get a book from 500 years ago, and

you can still open it, and
you can still enjoy that book.

I have files on my computer
from 20 years ago that are gone

because I have no idea
how to open that anymore.

So I think it does really
last a whole lot longer

than the things that we have now.

The era that it was made in adds

to its character and its beauty.