Making a new Bible the old way

On many days, Andrew Hoyem wears a rather conservative bow tie to work at the Arion Press on Bryant Street in San Francisco. As a sartorial garnish, it hardly reflects a man on a daring two-year publishing journey.

"We are in Psalms and Proverbs now," he says, working at a table and hoisting a heavy steel frame containing lead type. He is preparing pages 543 and 558 of an extraordinary limited edition of a Bible named the Arion Bible. It may well be the last Bible in the United States to be printed by letterpress using lead type and put together by hand.

Near Mr. Hoyem is a venerable ink and oil stained two-color press about the size of a pickup truck waiting to clatter into life for another printing run. The pages will be printed as a four-page signature from a 20-page section. All-around worker and pressman Gerry Reddan, who cleans the press every night, is standing by.

The Arion Bible, a folio designed by Hoyem after much consultation with scholars, is intended to be utilitarian, a church lectern Bible printed in the language of the New Revised Standard Version. All 1,300 pages will be hand-bound. It will join the historical publishing line of fine letterpress Bibles stretching back 500 years to the Gutenberg Bible, the first complete book in movable type ever printed.

Hoyem likes the idea of joining the ranks of fine Bibles and sees the Arion Bible as a millennium marker, "a statement of typographic excellence at the end of the 20th century."

Using classic 16-point Romulous typeface and exquisite all-cotton fiber paper from the Inveresk Mill in England, the pages of the Arion Bible will measure 18 by 13 inches. For a leather-bound edition in a leather box, collectors and churches will pay $8,500 with an additional $2,500 for illuminated initials at the beginning of each chapter. The clothbound edition is $7,750, and an unbound version in a cloth box is $7,250. Four hundred Bibles will be printed.

Wearing a denim apron splotched with ink, Hoyem is performing the critical "lockup," a step that surrounds the lead type of a page within a steel frame by using wooden pieces locked into position with tightened wedges.

"I have done lockups thousands of times," he says, pounding the type with a mallet to make sure it is flat within the frame. "I have done this literally hundreds of times on our Bible, but I still have to watch carefully what I am doing to correct anything before it goes to press."

From melting the lead, to proofreading, to physically lifting 40-pound frames of type, the consensus of Hoyem, as publisher of the Arion Press, and his small crew of eight craftspeople, is that a hand-wrought Bible is intrinsically valuable. Dozens of steps could easily be eliminated by today's computerized printing technology, but the publishing result would be far different, they say, a loss of quality and meaning. "The difference is that we are embedding the type into the paper," Hoyem says, holding a freshly printed page and showing the difference, "but the other kind, from a laser printer, is floating on the surface. What you are seeing here is rather like a stone inscription, a cut into stone with a three-dimensional effect. All along the way, we make it a little better because we are right here, working on it with our hands."

Still, he sees a reawakening in the esthetics of typography today by some younger printers who are paying attention to the history of printing. "I was much more critical of what was going on in typographical design 10 years ago than I am today," he says. "But it's true that not many people are left who are devoted to this line of classic work."

He did make concessions to the digital age on the Bible project. In selecting the New Revised Standard Version, and to ensure as much accuracy as possible, he started with a computer program of the Bible licensed by the National Council of Churches. By reformatting it, he rigged a way to change the old, conventional method of casting monotype hot lead -somewhat like a player piano roll - to respond to digital signals that shape the lead. Then a laser printer provided the proofs. From then on, from printing to binding, everything is done the old-fashioned way.

Hoyem's decision to tackle such a worthy project as printing a Bible was a business decision as well as his biggest project ever after some 40 years in fine publishing. "It's a risky venture and an expensive undertaking," he says. "We will be working on it for two years by the time the binding is done. We had to present a business plan to our board of directors. The shareholders, beside myself, had to go to the bank and guarantee the loan." Orders for the Bible have been steady. "We are close to the point where it looks like all of this has made sense," Hoyem says.

The Oxford University Press in l935 did the last major letterpress publishing of a Bible. Designed by Bruce Rodgers, a legendary American printer, the Oxford Bible was published in different sizes, with one single large format presented to the Library of Congress. More recently, renowned illustrator Barry Moser illustrated a two-volume Pennyroyal Caxton Bible printed by letterpress. The primary edition, measuring 16 by 11.5 inches, costs $10,000, and the deluxe edition, with handmade paper, sells for $30,000.

Working on the Arion project brings notable insights and reactions from veteran printers. For Peggy Gotthold, who does the hand coloring of the initials of each chapter and will bind each book, the challenge is to stay focused.

"Trying to make each one more perfect than the last is the challenge," she says. "It's not more satisfying because it is the Bible. There is just more of it. Actually, it reminds me of building a cathedral because it's hard physical work, such as moving the heavy galleys and all the other lifting."

Standing near the press as it rhythmically prints pages, pressman Mr. Reddan says, "You have to love doing this. It's such a long project that it taxes strength and focus. But I begged to get into printing. I started by washing windows in another shop and then came to San Francisco as an apprentice. I know this machine so well, I can hear when something is wrong because my ear leads the way."

Prominent American type designer, Sumner Stone, designed the initial letters at the beginning of each chapter. And calligrapher Thomas Ingmire created the illuminations, or color combinations, that can be used to enhance the initial letters.

Arion Press, under Hoyem's direction and design, has published a lineup of fine books over the years that are sought by collectors. A 1979 handset edition of "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville was cited by Biblio magazine as "one of the two or three greatest American fine press books." Other Arion books include a l988 edition of "Ulysses," by James Joyce, and a l986 edition of "Birds of the Pacific Slope," by Andrew Jackson Grayson.

Seated at a table in the Arion Press library, Hoyem says before the Bible project ends he will have read the entire Bible aloud. "As part of proofreading, I sit and read aloud the pages to another person who is holding a Bible," says Hoyem. "We have to pay extremely close attention because I call out the indentations and all the punctuations. At least six pairs of eyes will proof all the pages, and all of us have caught things others have missed."

Not a practicing Christian but raised as a Lutheran, Hoyem says he has grown to admire the New Revised Standard Version. "There are sections that I find more moving than others, and doing the proofreading has been fulfilling. "

He thumbs through a small Bible and reads in a delighted voice from Proverbs 30. "Three things are stately in their stride," he reads, sliding easily with the words, "four are stately in their gait; the lion, which is mightiest among wild animals and does not turn back before any, the strutting roosters, the he goat, and a camel striding before his people."

Grinning and adjusting his bow tie, he says, "It isn't quite like that in the King James Version."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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