Back in May at the letterpress workshop at The Arm, personable printer Daniel Morris pointed me toward Don Black Linecasting in Toronto as a good source in Canada for letterpress equipment in supplies and I resolved to make my way there as soon as I could.
That ended up being yesterday: on a quick breeze through southern Ontario to visit family I swung through Scarborough on my way to the airport and ended up spending two hours in the place yesterday.
If you’re a letterpress aficionado, a visit to Don Black Linecasting is like a visit to heaven: a huge warehouse full of presses, drawers of type, binding machines, and all the supplies you might ever need. Here’s just one of the many rooms in the place that’s packed to the gills:
Upon arriving I got a quick tour of the place from Don’s son (and co-worker) Craig: he showed me their selection of platen presses for sale (some great looking machines, all priced way, way out of my range) and then let me wander around by myself until Don was due to arrive back from lunch.
Twenty minutes later Don was back and we spent an hour or so talking letterpress, printing, newspapers, and all manner of things. The Canadian letterpress community is tiny, and Don knew almost all the names I mentioned and I knew a good part of those he mentioned. As I’ve found with almost everyone else in the letterpress world, mentioning Gerald Giampa (formerly of Mount Stewart, PEI) requires a good 30 minutes of conversation all on its own, and Don was no exception.
Then I laid out my needs: enough of a serif typeface to allow me to do some serious typesetting (I’m tired of not having any number 9s in Times Roman Bold), a composing stick, enough leading to keep me going (mine is old and bent out of shape), and some wooden furniture to bolster the collection that came with my Adana Eight Five.
Before we got going, though, Don showed me the working Intertype linecasting machine they’ve got in the office. It’s an amazing device: fabulously complicated but, compared to hand-setting, a huge time-saver (imagine setting the Globe and Mail letter by letter!).
Don set my name, and Oliver’s name, in lead. I learned firsthand the “hot” part of “hot metal type” when he handed me my name fresh out of the machine and almost melted my hands through.
Demonstration and chat completed, we set out to shop. Don set me loose in the area of the warehouse where all the wooden furniture is gathered and I grabbed enough in different sizes to make sure I never run out:
Next he pulled out the drawers containing dingbats, ornaments and various and sundry type elements so that I could pick out a selection:
(So now I’m equipped to start offering letterpress workshops to 4H in the fall.)
He found a composing stick for me, and a tool for cutting leading:
And then we started the hunt for type. They’ve got a computer system that catalogues everything they have – you can search it on the web – and Don would go back into the office and look up some likely suspects and then we’d track them down in the warehouse to see if they fit the bill.
I ended up with a case full of 30 pounds of 12 pt. Bodoni – “to set any amount of text you really need 30 pounds,” Don and Craig agreed – that they’ll pack up and ship to me:
Beyond its natural attractiveness, one of the things that so draws me to letterpress is the small size of the letterpress community: I’d much rather have an avocation where there’s but a single well-equipped nexus in the country staffed by knowledgeable experts than I would an everyday hobby where you can pop around the corner for whatever you need.
That either makes me an elitist or a loner or some sort of analog nerd. Either way, it’s a wonderful avocation to have, and having people like Don Black to keep the world alive and active is a great gift.