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Typesetting's romance

Clarence Wolfshohl has a love affair with handmade books
Sunday, January 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:16 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

While visiting the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, Clarence Wolfshohl didn’t mind that he couldn’t try the printing presses set out for the public because so many children were occupying them. Wolfshohl already knew the joy of creating a page of typed words by hand.

For 31 years now, Wolfshohl has used letterpress printing, a process similar to Johannes Gutenberg’s mid-15th century invention, to publish books mainly of poetry from authors around the country.

The process, which Wolfshohl follows with hand-stitching and binding, is quite intricate and allows him to publish about 200 to 300 copies of each of two titles per year.

That process is conserving an art form fading in the shadow of offset printing and computers, he said.

“There are very few of us,” Wolfshohl said. “It is very rare. There are a very few that I know of scattered around the country. I know a blacksmith who considers himself an artist where before, many years ago, he was a necessity. What used to be necessary has become an art form.”

Wolfshohl, whose favorite poets are Robert Frost and William Wordsworth, started his one-man publishing company, Timberline Press, in Mason, Texas. He moved to Fulton, about 20 miles southeast of Columbia, in 1981. There, he had to build a second garage for the car after transforming the original garage into his work area.

Now, that first garage, with its tiled floors and bookshelves, is neatly kept with two printing presses and multiple shelves, called cases, of type, or the pieces used to print individual letters of the alphabet.

Wolfshohl, who leaves notes for his wife, Patricia, around the printing room signed, “Your Secret Admirer,” started hand-making books so he could publish his own pieces for a small price.

His general love for literature, however, stems from his father. While Wolfshohl was growing up, his father told him stories of trying to be a pro-baseball player during the Great Depression.

“I just love stories,” Wolfshohl said, “and that is what got me into literature. When it came time to decide what to do for a living, I wanted to read and write. I wasn’t good enough to make a living, but I could teach it.”

Wolfshohl, who has taught English literature all over the country for 25 years, retired from William Woods University in 2005 and now teaches there part time. A benefit of retiring is the extra time he can devote to working on publishing books, he said.

“Initially, it was my interest in literature,” Wolfshohl said, “and finding a way to publish books at the lowest price I could.”

Wolfshohl gathered equipment in Texas from shops and publishers who were turning to offset printing and, by himself, learned the art of the handmade book. Soon, he was accepting poetry from authors to turn into books.

“I became more and more concerned with the printing,” he said. “I am still very much concerned with the quality of the poetry, but I am also very concerned with the book itself. What type of paper quality, what is the best type to use — it has to reflect the spirit of the poetry itself.”

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Movable type once enabled the first mass production of books. These days, it’s more of an art form. (Photos by Steve Bartel/Missourian)

Timberline Press, which got its name from Wolfshohl’s experiences living in the mountains of New Mexico, has published 63 books, six of them of Wolfshohl’s poems. A computer has been added to the process to scan finished pages and e-mail them to the author for approval. Otherwise, in this printing room, Wolfshohl does with his own two hands what many do with a computer to make a book.

Wolfshohl’s presses are smaller than Gutenberg’s first presses but similar in what they do. The space bar on a keyboard in this case is a piece of metal — less than an inch long and as thin as a piece of computer paper — that is stuck between words. For Wolfshohl, every key on a computer that signifies a letter from the alphabet is a small, metal block with a letter that sticks out; the size of these pieces, called cast metal type, makes it easy for them to slip through your fingers. Instead of scrolling through a menu to change the font on a computer, there are different cases, or shelves, that hold different fonts. A shift key obviously does not exist; there is another case for capital letters.

As Wolfshohl picked letters out of a case, he explained that the terms “upper-case” and “lower-case,” signifying whether the letter was capitalized or not, were coined because printers kept the bigger letters in a case placed above the smaller letters.

Organizing these letters to create words and the words to create lines is Wolfshohl’s favorite part of the process, he said.

“I like the typesetting process the most,” Wolfshohl said, “because I got into this because I taught literature, and I write poetry. With the typesetting process, it slows down my reading. Slowing the process down helps me to see new things in the poetry. I am a teacher of English so I am always looking for meaning.”

His attraction to the poetry is a reason to accept a manuscript from an author, Wolfshohl said. Those wanting to be published send Wolfshohl a manuscript and, if he accepts it, Wolfshohl will discuss ideas for the design with the poet; this includes the cover, paper type, font and any illustrations.

“I have to get the tone and spirit of the work,” he said. “This leads me to the design. If the poet has an idea on what the design should be, we will compromise.”

Most of these books take around six months to complete, Wolfshohl said. “It takes a lot of patience and attention to detail,” he said.

This attention to detail and the unique quality of the finished product is worth the wait for a published book, said Bob Dyer, whose book, “The Oracle of the Turtle,” is being published by Wolfshohl. First published in 1978, it is being reprinted by Wolfshohl with new illustrations.

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Clarence Wolfshohl’s company, Timberline Press, has published 63 books — six of them of Wolfshohl’s poetry.

“Here is a guy who takes a lot of care to do one letter at a time,” Dyer said. “It is a fairly tedious process. It is very unlike the modern processes done today. It is more of an art form. ... You don’t rush people like that. You let them work at their pace.”

Wolfshohl is also working on Walter Bargen’s trilogy, “The Body of Water.” Bargen has been published by four publishers, but Timberline Press is the only letterpress publisher.

“The architecture of the book is a work of art,” Bargen said. “It is, in a way, a throwback. It is carrying on a tradition that goes back to Gutenberg. ... You get a sense that someone has spent time and crafted the book. Not just the writing but the book is something to be admired.”

Bargen and Wolfshohl have also decided to publish Bargen’s book, “West of West,” before the end of 2007, Bargen said.

For now, Wolfshohl is not accepting any more manuscripts because he has work set out for him until the end of 2008. As a writer, he knows he would not like to wait an extended period of time for publication, he said, so he does not want to put authors in this position.

Once the book is published, some copies stay with Wolfshohl while others go to the authors and hand-picked bookstores. Prices range from $10 to $20, so the poetry is affordable.

“Poets don’t have enough of an audience anyway, so we don’t want to price the audience out of existence,” Wolfshohl said. “I am willing to give my time for that.”

Although he works in a fading form of art, Wolfshohl said he will continue to publish books one letter at a time.

“It would be much faster to compose everything on a computer,” Wolfshohl said, “but this just adds a different dimension. It is an artistic expression. I think it is very valuable that we keep these ways around so people are aware of a little bit of history. If people can be aware of that, we can see how far we have come along.”


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