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A rare breed of craftsman printers

Our Yorkshire printers Smith Settle have been with us from the very first issue of Slightly Foxed. Founded in 1981, they are among the now rare breed of craftsmen printers and bookbinders, producing beautiful cloth-bound hand-sewn books. It’s to them that we owe the consistently high standard of printing and elegant appearance of the Slightly Foxed quarterly and all of our books as well as slipcases, catalogues and stationery.

Seeing these processes in person is fascinating, and members of the SF team try to make the journey from London to Yorkshire as frequently as our busy publishing schedule allows. Earlier this year Anna had the pleasure of accompanying the Editors on a visit to the factory to look at binding samples for a potential new series of books. We hope you’ll enjoy reading Anna’s take on her inaugural visit to a traditional printers.

It was like walking into different world, one of whirring machinery, pots of ink and the hustle and bustle of human activity. We were greeted by Don and Tracey, the owners of Smith Settle, and taken to meet the small but expert line-up of printers, decked out in aprons, on the factory floor. The team offer complete litho printing and binding facilities all under one roof, and this is clear from the sheer amount of activity and machinery on show. A vast number of processes go in to physically creating the quarterly and our books, and Smith Settle are masters of all. From colour-scanning and plate-making, printing and folding, nipping and trimming, through to the binding (wire-stitched, perfect-bound, machine thread-sewn, hand-sewn, cloth to boards, the possibilities are endless) and finishing with blind-blocking, gold-blocking and hand-numbering, there’s a person – often working in harmony with a formidable machine – to take care of each process.

A highlight of the visit was learning about lithography. In traditional ‘litho’ (or ‘offset’) printing the difference between the print and the page is made on a flat surface by the separation of oil and water. The inked image is offset from a prepared plate on to a rolling rubber cylinder, and from there to the paper. Ian, the printer at work on this process, rather alarmingly demonstrated this separation of oil and water by slapping a palette knife loaded with ink onto his tongue. The moisture repelled the oily ink: the knife was still fully-coated and his mouth remained untainted. And if the threat of ink stains is not enough, when I was having a thorough nose around a plate-making machine, Don ominously warned me I might go blind. He wasn’t kidding – the ultraviolet light beneath the cover once made him lose his sight for a few days following overexposure!

Piles of discarded paper tests (as illustrated above), boxes upon boxes of books and journals, tubs and cans of ink and glue, half-constructed slipcases, spools of thread for sewing machines, and many printing presses of various sizes fill the factory. And out of all this clamour and enterprise come our beautifully bound publications. Towards the end of the tour, dozens of finished copies of our latest Carey Novel were laid out on a table ready for Tracey to add the final meticulous touch: individually hand-numbering each limited edition from 1 to 2,000 before they were packed in to binders’ parcels ready for their trip down to Hoxton Square.

Having witnessed the editorial process in the Hoxton office, it was fascinating to follow the printing process all the way through to the finished product and to see the care and craft that the team at Smith Settle put into making all things Slightly Foxed for us.

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