13 January, 2006

Dabbing, abklatschen, clichage...

The history of the making of printable duplicates of wood-blocks, a process that has gone under these names and some others, has been an ongoing interest of mine. There is a literature of the subject, but it is harder to find than you might think. Joseph Moxon, whose manual of printing and typefounding of 1683 is very comprehensive, must have known that cast copies were made in order to replicate headpieces and ornamented initial letters, but he does not mention them, perhaps because woodcuts had gone out of fashion. The earliest manuals appear in 18th-century Germany. The most important of these is a little book that was printed, published and probably written by Johann Michael Funcke, Kurtze Anleitung von Form- und Stahlschneiden (Erfurt, 1740). It is an account of several trades related to printing, such as wood-engraving (of which it is the first published manual), punchcutting (the first account in German) and the various ways of making copies of wood-blocks in typemetal.

It is known that sand casting was used by the workmen of Christophe Plantin in Antwerp for making big types from wooden pattern letters. Plaster was used for finer work, and there are instructions in a German text of the late 17th century for using a mould of papier mâché to make stereotype plates of whole pages, something that was not commonly done until the 19th century.

Funcke was the first to describe the method that was later called abklatschen in German. The wood block was held above a shallow pool of typemetal until it had almost solidified, then pressed suddenly into it, creating a sharp impression in a thin typemetal plate. This plate served as a matrix. It was cleaned up and the process was repeated, creating a relief plate which was a duplicate of the original block. It was clearly a tricky process which could easily go wrong, but from the 1780s its products entered the printing trade quite widely. English typefounders began to sell duplicates of woodcuts as 'cast ornaments' and in the trade the process was known as 'dabbing' and the product was a 'dab' (a term that is almost extinct, but see the Oxford English Dictionary). In France they were known as polytypes or clichés, a word that entered both French and English as a metaphor for an expression repeated unthinkingly.

I put most of what I know about this process into a reprint of Funcke's little book, which was published in 1998 in the series of facsimiles of printing manuals edited by Martin Boghardt, Frans Janssen and Walter Wilkes and printed by Walter Wilkes at the Technische Universität, Darmstadt. For those who are interested, the simplest way of getting hold of this and other titles in the series is to order them from the book dealer S. P. Tuohy, who has a small stock (45 Warwick Street, Oxford OX4 1SZ, UK, tel +44 1865 723 566).

To anyone interested in historical studies relating to books this process raises some interesting questions. Bibliographers would like to believe that woodcut ornaments and initials are unique, and that they can reveal the identity of the printer in whose work they appear. But since they could be duplicated, this is not a safe assumption. One wonders how widespread the practice was. If the same ornament or initial is found at the same date in the work of printers far distant from each other, this suggests strongly that one or other of them is a cast duplicate, or that both are. There are examples of the use of identical initials in widely-separated printing offices in Italian printing of the 1480s.

Can one tell by looking at its impression whether a block is a duplicate? Poor quality is not a reliable guide, since many wood blocks were used until they became badly worn. The best cast duplicates are as sharp as the original block. But a wood block is normally cut away steeply so that its edges do not pick up ink.

The 'dab' is a thin plate which must be mounted with nails on a block of wood to bring it up to the level of the type, and the trimmed edges of the plate can pick up ink and leave a tell-tale impression. Sometimes the nail heads also print. Several examples of what appear to be tell-tale edges of dabs have been found in English and French printing of the early 18th century. But the process clearly had a far longer history. The example above is from a French book of 1558, the Histoire entière des poissons of Guillaume Rondelet, printed at Lyon by Macé Bonhomme. I owe news of it and the image I show here to Ms Vanessa Selbach, to whom I am most grateful.

I had suspected that there must be other accounts of the early use of this technique in Germany, but was not able to find them until I was in contact with Dr Wolfgang Schellmann, who was preparing an article on a remarkable collection of blocks made as Bible illustrations which survive at Lüneburg, and who lists several additional references in his text: ‘Ein Fall von Klischeeverwendung vom 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert im Bibeldruck’, Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens, Band 65 (2010), pp. 157–171.
Edited 26 February 2011