Machine Love

Casting type in the Presidio

No one else in the Bay Area does what Mitchell does; indeed, there are few left in the world who know how to run a casting machine (and the Monotype Co., which made the ones at M & H, no longer produces them). Type-casting and letterpress printing -- the process of composing lead letters into words and sentences, inking them, and pressing the text into the paper -- have, for most commercial uses, been replaced by digital type and offset printing. But there is something special about the old method, still used by hundreds of fine and small presses around the country. Arion Press' books, for example, have been recognized internationally for their quality and beauty, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation even named the company an "endangered cultural treasure."

Lewis Mitchell in the M & H foundry, in front of one of his beloved typecasting machines.
Andrew Hoyem
Lewis Mitchell in the M & H foundry, in front of one of his beloved typecasting machines.

Arion's biggest book by far, both physically and metaphorically, is its recent letterpress edition of the Bible, for which Mitchell cast all the type. This version of the Good Book is 18 inches tall, 13 inches wide, about 8 inches thick, and 1,350 pages; copies cost between $7,250 and $11,000, depending on the binding and illumination. Even the staid Wall Street Journal was moved by the production values, and described reading the book as "an experience not unlike the perfect ocean voyage or a night in the mountains sleeping under the stars." The casting machine on which Mitchell made the type now lies fallow in the foundry, surrounded by metal shavings on the floor, a single capital "D" resting on its tray. "It's still ready to go," says Mitchell, running his hand lovingly over the greasy metal. "It's a beautiful machine." Amen.

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