Setting Type: How the Austin Book Arts Center Preserves, and Promotes, Age-Old Practices


In a sprawling retail complex in North Central Austin, behind the BookWoman shop and adjacent to Half-Price Books, there’s another book-centric establishment. Only the Austin Book Arts Center doesn’t sell books, it preserves and promotes the art of making them. 

The 1,500-square-foot storefront is home to a collection of antiquated bookmaking and letterpress technologies you won’t find anywhere else in Austin. Mid-century cylinder proofing presses, variously patinated book presses, rolls of fabric for book covers and a cast iron board shear from the 1880s fill the boxy studio space. 

Austin Book Arts Center
The Austin Book Arts Center is filled with vintage printing equipment. Photo by Cody Bjornson

The term “book arts” refers broadly to the practices of book binding, paper making and hand printing and also incorporates skills like calligraphy and paper marbling.

“[Printing] is an art form where you use all your senses,” says Amanda Stevenson, the center’s executive director. “The smell of the ink, the sound of the ink, the feel, the touch, is all very intoxicating.” 

The Austin Book Art Center, cofounded in 2015 by Stevenson and Mary Baughman, first opened within the Flatbed Press arts complex in East Austin. When Flatbed moved to a new location in 2019, Stevenson and Baughman decided to open their own space. 

Much like in a museum, visitors to the Austin Book Arts Center (ABAC) will be surrounded by mysterious, historical objects such as hard metal presses with seemingly complex mechanisms that are no longer being manufactured and small type cast in metal, stored in containers called “California job cases.” Machines like a hot press — which prints metal foil letters onto the spines of books — sits next to a cabinet with a lockable drawer where real gold would have been kept. 

A press called the Jobber stands prominently displayed in one of the shop’s large windows (Natural light is best for printing). Its previous home was a garage in South Austin. Predating presses with motors, the Jobber is manually operated by the printer via a foot pedal which controls the speed of the ink roller as the printer loads each copy by hand. The machine’s many moving metal parts join in rhythmic harmony as Stevenson demos the process. Winding metal gears and clapping pedals seem to clink with contentment. 

The ABAC is a representation of the strong book arts community that’s long existed in Austin. Stevenson’s career has been dedicated to book arts, having served as the curator of Houston’s Printing Museum, and as a staff at New York’s Books Arts Center. Baughman was as a book conservator at the Harry Ransom Center for 30 years, and a founder of the Austin Book Workers group. For several decades she organized a local book arts fair.

 “I feel much more comfortable fixing old books than I do designing something artistic,” Baughman laughs.

The Austin Book Arts Center was modeled after the only other book art centers in the United States in New York City, (the first, est. 1974), San Francisco and Minneapolis. 

Stevenson says the support of the national printing community has been a valuable asset during the pandemic when they’ve had to close doors for workshops and in-person classes and opt for online options.

“We’ve now built this student body that continues to grow of people all over the country,” says Stevenson. “I think it’s been a really good thing for our community as a whole.” 

Those familiar with Austin and its cultural institutions may know of one of the earliest texts printed on a letterpress machine, the Gutenberg Bible, c. 1454-56, at the Harry Ransom Center, one of only 20 intact surviving copies.

The practice remains rooted in history. A charming yet pesky carryover from centuries ago is the letterform to feet figure, .918, or type-high, which refers to the standard length of the type. An extremely precise venture, printing requires measuring to one hundredth of an inch at times, calculating and accounting for the thickness of their paper. 

“This is an amazing technology, and tedious,” says Chuck Peters, one of the center’s volunteers. 

Austin Book Arts Center
Chuck Peters loads type into a composing stick. Photo by Cody Bjornson

The center owns several cylinder proofing presses, which were largely made for commercial purposes until the late 20th century when they became defunct. Now they have been co-opted by the book arts community. (The New York Times stopped printing on cylinder proof presses in 1978.) Peters says the credit goes to book artists for reviving these machines and discovering new ways to use them. 

“This is the way things were printed since Gutenberg, since the 1400s, up until 1980. This is the way people printed with little letters, setting things (by hand),” Peters says. “(When), it fell out of favor and it was the book artists that, figured out, ‘oh, you can do some really cool stuff’.” 

Since the popularization of polymer plates that began in the ‘90s, hand setting type — the act of arranging metal letters into the bed of the printing press — has become significantly less popular. Printers now opt for the ease of combining image and text with polymer plates. Photopolymer plates are also cheaper than metal type and aren’t damaged as easily. Polymer plates start off as a digital file, which is then sent to a polymer plate maker. One popular outfit is Boxcar Press in New York. 

Another historically significant event for the book arts community came in the 80s with the closing of the American Type Foundry, a monolith of type manufacturing. Stevenson says there’s a gap in knowledge of how to maintain type casting equipment and the younger generation is not picking up the skill from older practitioners.

“You can probably count on your hands the number of people who still know how to cast type,” says Stevenson.

Stevenson says photographers, writers and poets are among those that become interested in book arts, as well as graphic designers looking to get back to the roots of their craft.

“We have a pretty broad student body,” he says. “I’ve taught quite a few letterpress classes, and we have a lot of graphic designers that want to get their hands inky, and connect with type and the terminology that came out of printing with type has translated to the digital world.”

Artists tend to want to instantly break the rules of letterpress, Stevenson points out, and some of the best students of the craft are more practiced rule followers. Peters, for example, is a retired botanist. 

“I’ve had a lot of scientists in classes, and they do such amazing work. There are rules in letterpress and I think, with scientists, they understand rules and are able to work within those constraints,” says Stevenson.

People who use the center often take on short book projects. The medium lends itself well to poetry chat books and the like. The center will also occasionally attract people on a quest to handprint a special document, like their wedding invitations. Stevenson says it can be hard for novices to grasp just now much work and time goes into becoming a decent printer. 

“We’re all brought up now in this sort of fast digital world of ‘oh, I can master Photoshop in a weekend.’ But you’re not going to take a weekend workshop and be a good printer,” says Stevenson.

ABAC began hosting online courses in July. Classes include DIY Publishing, Build A Custom Portfolio, Tunnel Book, Pop Up Book Houses for Children, Inkjet Printer Image Transfer, and Japanese Bookbinding. It’s also shipping out book making kits for kids and adults. For its members and regulars, the center has been selling book making materials and hosting in individual appointments for studio time.

Stevenson said they took some time to setting up a good “Zoom studio,” carefully considering the quality of the camera, sound and lighting. She even spoke to a lighting expert.

“I’m glad we took the time,” she says. “These workshops are recorded and out into the world. And it represents us.” 

And now that the online courses attract students nationwide, ABAC plans to continue to the virtual instruction post pandemic. 

However, courses in letterpress technique have been on hold indefinitely. Letterpress requires hands on practice with the machine and more specialized one-on-one instruction. It’s been one of the foremost challenges of the pandemic, Stevenson says, since it has made the act of historical preservation through sharing, something essential to their mission, nearly impossible.

Now the concern is whether new students will emerge whenever in-person classes can resume, and if the ABAC can continue to grow the community it had been building before COVID-19 shutdowns.

ABAC recently orchestrated a successful funding campaign, raising over $15,000. Baughman says they are concerned about private grants becoming more scarce in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in arts funding from the city that originates from the HOT (hotel occupancy tax) Tax. 

“We’ve gotten City of Austin grants that helped us with our move and our rent increase,” says Baughman. “We now have to think about the long view and think ‘well, probably we’re not going to be able to get quite so much money, or maybe even any’.”

With a five year lease on the current shop, Stevenson plans to capitalize on the North Lamar location and build out the center’s small gift, which offers book kits and products made by local artisans in their shop.

“With the book arts you’re really exploring the nexus of history and current technology and artistic practices,” says Stevenson. “I think it’s important for organizations like this to exist and give this technology a home and breathe new life into it.”

We want people to come in and take classes and get hooked right away. You don’t have to be an experienced artist,” says Stevenson. “We really have an open and supportive environment for people to come, learn and use this equipment that is scarce and heavy to make stuff.”

Austin Book Arts Center
Austin Book Arts Center. Photo by Cody Bjornson

Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell is an Austin-based freelance writer and journalist. She has journalism and women’s and gender studies degrees from the University of Texas and a fondness for covering local arts stories.

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