The Press of the Nightowl: Why It’s a Credit to Its Kind

The Press of the Nightowl, its pressmark comprises an owl and a Golding PressLast month I began a discussion of the mushrooming private press movement as expressed in the output of two presses in particular, The Adagio Press and The Press of the Nightowl. Now there are similar undertakings throughout the land, but these two were selected because their proprietors have each issued beautifully printed documentation describing their experience and their philosophy in the operation of a private press.

The second of these very personal printing offices is The Press of the Nightowl, run by Dwight Agner, who is professionally the design and production manager of a university press.

Agner has written and printed a 16-page raison d’etre for his press which he has titled The Nightowl at Ten. Here he comments upon the first decade of printing as an avocation.

The pressmark of Nightowl comprises an owl and a Golding Press, which readily depicts the scope of the operation. The Golding is an 8×12 side-lever press, traditionally one of the most widely used pieces of equipment for private presses. The way in which the Nightowl Golding is used, however, is what puts it in the forefront of table-top platens.

While admitting that the size of this unit is a limitation, the printer mentions that it is capable of printing a fairly large form “if sufficient care is taken with makeready.”

He goes on to say, “In spite of the limitation of size, the ability to pause at any point in the process without building up ink on the form, and the ability to have complete control over the inking, speed, and dwell of every impression, have convinced me of the virtue of handpress printing.”

Agner’s success with this littler Golding should really provide inspiration to the many hobby printers who have despaired of ever producing quality printing on a device often contemptuously referred to b the pros as a child’s toy.

The production which proves Agner’s point is the most ambitious undertaking, to date, of The Press of the Nightowl. This is the 87-page The Books of WAD: A Bibliography of the Books Designed by W.A. Dwiggins.

This bibliography, compiled by the printer, is the most complete ever done on that fine American designer, W.A. Dwiggins, and constituted a labor of love for the printer. It is hard to believe that such a beautiful book was printed upon such a tiny press.

The page size was 6⁷/₈x 10¾”, and the book was printed in four colors plus black. The edition consisted of 190 copies on Curtis Colophon and 16 copies on handmade Worthy Hand & Arrows paper (page size, 8 x 11⁵/₈”). IT may be noted that this entire edition sold out almost immediately upon printing. The book was also accepted as one of the Fifty Books of the Year in the 1975 Exhibition.

A Vandercook reproduction proof press has recently been added to Nightowl’s pressroom, but it is doubtful that this equipment could improve upon the quality of the Dwiggins’ bibliography produced on the little Golding with such care and skill, although it will now be possible to turn out larger books.

Discussing further his printing procedures, Agner writes of his belief that fine printing can be done with a variety of presses, “given sufficient skill and perseverance on the part of the operator.” He then goes on to say, “I know from experience that a motorized press forces the operator to adapt at least to some degree to its pace.”

In the matter of a house printing type, Agner’s experience should be helpful to other private printers. The sheer availability of so many types has been, to most private printers, a problem that is most difficult to surmount. The tendency has been, unfortunately, to acquire a heterogeneous mixture of styles which inhibit rather than advance the work of the press.

Nightowl’s proprietor is of the opinion that a type must be adaptable enough to serve a variety of purposes and yet “still possess a degree of distinctiveness.”

Some private presses have been fortunate in making a reasonable decision in the selection of a type, and have become comfortable in its use (which understandably takes a bit of time). In Agner’s case, he made a reasonable decision but circumstances worked against him.

He chose De Roos Roman, a beautiful letter designed by the fine Dutch type designer S.H. De Roos. The face was manufactured by American Type Founders Co. under license to Typefoundry Amsterdam, the originators of the design. The trouble came in 1967 when ATF, in one of its first “cutbacks” in the manufacture of single types, decided to discontinue its production. As Nightowl was not financed sufficiently to allow for the purchase of a full range of sizes at one time, this was a setback. Even the Dutch foundry withdrew the type in 1973. Agner has subsequently added the Eric Gill type, Joanna, available from English Monotype. This is the face he used for the Dwiggins’ book. The printer now heartily recommends to original purchase, if possible of an adequate range of sizes in the basic type for a private press.

As many operators of small presses know, there has been an opportunity of late to acquire single types in considerable quantity, with the demise of so man hot metal operation sin in the surge of changeovers to phototypesetting equipment. I would certainly urge caution in such purchases. There is first the chance of being carried away by a “golden opportunity.” to pack off more types than can be adequately put to use by a private press, and then there is the difficulty of replacing sorts if the type becomes unavailable from the foundry.

Along with most private press operators, Agner believe that paper is the major material of the press and that he has to compromise in its selection. Since handmade stock is so very costly, he seeks paper of reasonable permanence, opting for such readily available sheets as Warren’s Olde Style, Mohawk Superfine Text and Curtis Colophon. As in the WAD volume, he prefers a very short edition in a handmade paper and the balance in a machine-made paper.

The choice of ink among private printers appears to be the most individual preference of all. The favorite at Nightowl happens to be Van Son Quickset Black 40904, which is “stiff and strongly pigmented,” and has the added convenience of being available in cartridge form, which “minimizes mess and waste.”

If a job is a complex one, Agner makes preliminary layouts prior to setting type, but on simple projects he beings his design right at the case. He prefers tight spacing, with the 4-em space as standard, and going as narrow as 1½ points with 10 or 12-point type, but rarely beyond a 3-em space at the widest.

In expressing his philosophy Agner states that a general definition of the term “private press” eludes him. In his own case, “The Press of the Nightowl is basically a means of self-expression, which requires an audience, the result being publishing.” Therefore, in his liberal view, “a private press is defined by the direct artistic control of one person over the means of production, more than by its printed products or their disposition.”

Agner also feels that the private press as the last bastion of the freedom of the press is a myth and that it should really be thought simply as a typographically oriented enterprise. He prefers original literary material as more satisfying to produce than material already published. While he has produced reprints, he hopes in the future to restrict his press to original work.

Finally it is the printer’s considered opinion that the product of his press should be offered for sale “because the printing of books in the manner in which I want to do them requires money—more money than can justifiably be diverted from family finances—and much time.”

In these last two articles I have attempted to present the fascinating possibilities for individual satisfaction in the operation of a private press. I have selected just two presses which seem to me to represent not the average amateur press but the philosophical viewpoints of those who use printing as an outlet for their esthetic ideas and ambitions. It is my hope that some of the readers of this department may discover something from the viewpoints of Messrs. Bahr and Agner upon which to reflect, and that the experiences of Adagio and Nightowl can point the way to further enlightenment and a greater appreciation of the role of the private printer in this increasingly mechanized world of print.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the May 1977 issue of Printing Impressions.


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