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The Story of a Book - My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, by R Murray Schafer

At the Porcupine’s Quill, Tim and Elke Inkster make books. The couple co-founded their publishing house in 1974 in Erin Village, Wellington County, Ontario, and they have been making books by hand there ever since. Today the Porcupine’s Quill produces approximately 10 titles a year and is known for the award-winning quality of its books. This is the story of one such book.

 

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Before a book can be printed, you need to be sure that everything inside the book is correct. A manuscript will go through several steps before it is finally approved for printing. The pages are typeset by Elke Inkster and then sent to a copyeditor for corrections and the author for approval. For My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, the Porcupine’s Quill made this special mock-up for the author, R Murray Schafer, so that he could see how the text and photos would work together on the page. Here the pages look as much as possible like the finished product, even reflecting the accurate trim size and setting of the text.

 

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Once the proofs have been approved, the galleys get made into film. Books are printed on large pieces of paper called signatures. A signature will have 8 pages on its front and 8 pages on its back, 16 pages in total. Though the pages seem out of order on the signature, when the signature is folded correctly the pages fall into place. A finished book is made up of several folded signatures, bound together. Here is a piece of film created for one signature. You can see a photo of Murray Schafer in the bottom right corner.

 

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Here is a close up of the title page on film. The yellow paper over top of the film is called a mask. The film is used to chemically treat metal plates, which are then fitted into the printing press on a cylinder. The way the plates are treated, certain parts attract ink (an oil-based substance) while others attract water. As the plates spin in the press, they pick up water and ink. The chemical treatment ensures the ink stays where the printer wants it, and stays away from the places the printer doesn’t want it. The masks are put on the film to ensure there are printing marks on all the signatures. These allow the printer to check the density of the ink on the press, as well as be sure the pages are printing evenly. They also tell the printer which signature is which. You can see some marks along the right hand side of the film here.

 

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The film is moved to the basement as the plates are made. Here you can see where the mask has been stripped, or cut away, from the text on the pages.

 

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All the books produced by the Porcupine’s Quill are printed on the Heidelberg KORD, a printing press bought by Tim and Elke Inkster in the early years of their operation.

 

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Inside the printing press, you can see how the ink is transferred from the plate to the paper. On the far left, there is the plate cylinder. As this cylinder spins, it picks up ink and water. The ink from the plate cylinder is then offset onto the rubber blanket – the pink cylinder in the middle. The rubber blanket then offsets the ink again onto the paper, which spins by on the farthest right clyinder. If there are large ink areas on the page, say an image, the paper is then gently coated in dust on the other side of the press to prevent the inked pages from sticking together. After the signatures are retrieved from the printing press, they are folded.

 

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Tim Inkster prints all the books at the Porcupine’s Quill. Here you can see his notes next to the folded signatures of My Life on Earth and Elsewhere.

 

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All the books at The Porcupine’s Quill have endpapers, and they all must be applied by hand. Endpapers are the lovely coloured papers that “bookend” a book between its covers. Each book has two endpapers, one on the front signature and one on the back. Glue is applied to the signatures with this machine on the right. Glue is placed in the bottom of the machine where a large cylinder can pick it up. The small cylinders on top draw the signatures across the large cylinder, applying a thin layer of glue right at the edge of the folded page.

 

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The signatures are then placed in the plastic holder to the left of the machine. When you have completed six signatures, you take the coloured endpapers and press them with your finger across the glued edge of the pages. Then you start on the next six signatures. The glued signatures rest off to the side as their glue dries to prevent them from sticking together. Before Tim and Elke bought this machine, they used to apply glue to the signatures by hand.

 

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After the endpapers have been glued to the first and last signatures of the book, the signatures are laid out to be bound. My Life on Earth and Elsewhere is a big book; it has 18 signatures in total. Each pile here consists of one signature. All of the first signatures are in one pile, all of the second in another, and so on. You must take one folded signature from each pile to make up a book.

 

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The Porcupine’s Quill uses Symth sewn bindings, bindings that are strong enough to withstand being thrown across the room. Several times. Once the signatures are gathered into books, they are taken to the 1905 Model Smyth National sewing machine where they are sewn together. Between each book you must sew a blank stitch, to mark the end of one book and the start of another, but if you sew two blank stitches, all the books you have sewn will unravel.

 

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Signatures of My Life on Earth and Elsewhere going into the sewing machine.

 

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The sewn books come out of the back of the sewing machine. Here you can see the lines of stitches running through the spines of the signatures. You can also see the black printer’s marks that travel down their spines. These allow the bookmaker to quickly look down the spine of the book and check that the signatures have been sewn in the correct order.

 

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When the sewn signatures are removed from the sewing machine, they need to be separated. Here you can see where the blank stitch separates one book from another. The blank stitches are cut and the threads are pulled tight to prevent the books from unravelling.

 

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The blank stitches are cut using a standard seam ripper. Here you can see the small space between each book.

 

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Next the stitches are pulled tight. Bindery assistant Jessalyn Forsythe wears a rubber thimble to protect her fingers. With a print run of 960 books, with 3 stitches to tighten each, there are a lot of threads to pull taut.

 

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The sewn signatures are then put on the shelf to await their covers. These are called the guts of the book, as the sewn signatures comprise all the bits in the middle. My Life on Earth and Elsewhere sits to the right, while a small volume of poetry PQL was producing simultaneously sits to the left. Schafer’s book is 18 signatures while the volume of poetry is only 4. You can see the difference in size easily.

 

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Many of PQL’s covers are printed on the Heidelberg KORD as well. The cover for My Life on Earth and Elsewhere is done in full colour, so it needed to be printed in stages. Here you can see the first stage, where the cover has been printed using only black ink. Next, the cover will go through the press again, this time with yellow ink. Finally, red ink will be added, and the cover will be finished. The machine needs to be thoroughly cleaned after each printing, or the colour will smudge and the effect will be ruined.

 

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Next the books must be squeezed tightly to remove all the excess air and make sure they will fit snugly into their covers.

 

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The books receive their covers at this machine here.

 

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The cover, pictured here on the right, is placed securely in the machine. The cylinder sits in a chamber filled with very hot glue.

 

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The book is placed on the left of the machine. When the machine is turned on, the book is pulled quickly across the spinning cylinder. The cover is brought up to meet the book, and the book is pressed into the cover, sealed by the hot glue.

 

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After the covers have been glued in place, the ragged edges of the book are trimmed off and the books are stuffed with PQL bookmarks. The books are then ready to be packed and shipped to retailers.

 

 

 

Keep an eye out for My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, due October of this year! Look for R Murray Schafer and the Porcupine’s Quill at the launch at Koerner Hall with the Esprit Orchestra on Sunday, October 14, at 8pm.