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Turnaround Time in a 17th-century Printing House?


Detail from Jost Amman’s woodcut “Buchdrucker” (The Printer) from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568. Wikimedia.

Occasionally, I field questions from site visitors about various aspects of printing history. I generally reply by email sharing what I can on the subject and then direct them to other sources. Here’s a query that our readership should be able to answer.

… how much time it would take to set a book in type and print it in seventeenth century Europe?


  1. Paul Moxon, Website Editor 9 May, 2014 at 9:36 am

    At the very least, these are two questions: composition (the setting of type) and presswork (the actual printing).

    The time it would take to set the type is dependent on a number of factors: 1) page size; 2) structure of the text: continuous prose, verse, mathematics, etc.; 3) size of types; 4) the number of pages; and 6) the number of workers employed. There are undoubtedly others.

    The time it took to print is easier to quantify. Various sources claim that two men printing on a wooden common press could produce 3,000–3,600 impressions during a 15 hour work day. From there one can multiply the page count and the edition size.

    It’s my hope that true experts may weigh in on this question. Meanwhile, our journal Printing History contains several articles you will find relevant. See the Index.

  2. There is also a difference between what could be achieved (i.e. assuming nothing else was happening in the press and the men worked flat out, or that the work was dealt with urgently) and what was achieved (i.e. with delays awaiting proof-reading, sharing assets with other titles going through the press, etc).

    For example, the University Press at Oxford turned out 500 copies, some exotically bound for presentation, of a 116pp volume of poetry in 34 working days in 1734. Even then, given the simplicity of setting poetry and of imposing and printing it by formes, the timescale was probably relaxed. There was a deadline for the work: it was a volume celebrating a royal wedding.

    Leonard Lichfield II had only one or two presses at work in Oxford in the 1690s. One 450pp work (probably in a standard edition size of 500 or 750 copies) took nine months to trundle through his works, one excuse being that it required ‘very nice Correction at the Press’.

  3. Stephen O. Saxe 14 May, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Lawrence C. Wroth has written (The Colonial Printer, 1931):

    The hourly product of a single press served by two men was, in theory, in a well-organized office, no less than a “token,” or 240 sheets, printed on one side with two pulls to the form…In a working day of ten hours a press continually served with no changing of forms could theoretically turn out ten tokens, or 2400 sheets, printed on one side. Inevitably the ordinary shop routine in a day of ten hours would reduce this output to a normal output of eight tokens.

    Thus Wroth suggests an output of about 1920 sheets, printed on one side, by two men during a normal working day. The size of the edition is of course a major factor in how long it would take to print, in addition to the other factors mentioned above by Paul Moxon.

  4. What materials were used in 17th century print shops? What did the materials smell like?

  5. Paul Moxon, Website Editor 5 October, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Materials would include a common press (wood frame, impression screw and platen), lead type, ink from lampblack, turpentine, and paper made from cotton and/or linen rags. The ink and turpentine would likely be the predominant smells. Next, might be the workmen themselves.

  6. Got it, Paul. I’ll now include “sweat” in my description!
    Thank you.

  7. What would the cost of printmaking be? Specifically ink? Would it be common for print makers to have ink on them and how much?
    Note: I am having an argument with actors who are playing print makers in the 1620’s that want to cover themselves in ink.

  8. Necole – I first replied via a new comment, apologies. I have since found some data about ink prices. The Bowyer ledgers have an entry for ‘a tub of ink’ for £1/10/0 (£1.50) in 1739 but no indication of how big a tub was. McKenzie gives detailed prices for Cambridge University Press in 1709: Dutch ink for about 12.5d a pound, English ink for 11d to 14d a pound. See his book on CUP 1696-1712, p48 in particular. These inks would have been for letterpress work.

  9. I’m now going to contradict my earlier reply about how clean one can be when printing etchings – that’s today. I’ve just been reading Gaskell’s article in the latest issue of the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, pp20-21. A 1732 book on the topic has ‘But Tales of dismal smutty Printers, | With Hands and Faces black as Tinkers’.

  10. I’m assuming by ‘printmaker’ you mean someone printing a copper engraving on a rolling press.
    I can’t help on the cost of ink (but I have a lot of data on the cost of working at the rolling press). There was no reason at all for printers to get covered in ink unless they had an ink fight. You use your hand for the final cleaning of the plate once you have taken the bulk of the ink off the plate, prior to putting it on the press. That should be it.

    Also, further to the question of smell, boiled linseed oil was the primary constituent of ink, or, if you were a cheapskate, trane-oil (rendered whale fat).

  11. Linseed oil was not a component of either iron-gall ink or carbon-based ink, the inks used in that era.

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