Posted : 2011-04-07 16:00
Updated : 2011-04-07 16:00

[Weekender] The memory of movable type stays alive

Park Kun-han shows metal type at the Movable Type Workshop in Paju Book City, Gyeonggi Province, Monday. / Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul

By Kwon Mee-yoo

PAJU, Gyeonggi Province — It is like stepping back in time — the Movable Type Workshop in Paju Book City, Gyeonggi Province, resembles a small museum of type-printing but all the machines are still in use.

“This is the only place in Korea for printing with movable type,” Park Kun-han, 70, poet and executive editor of the workshop, told The Korea Times.

He first came up with the idea to restore the movable type printing system in 2002 and teamed up with friends, including Park Han-su, president of Ten Moon Publishing and Chung Byoung-kyoo, president of Chung Design, which founded the workshop in November 2007.

“It is true that movable type printing is low in profitability compared to modern offset printing. Offset printing can print some 20,000 copies a minute, while movable type can do only 1,000 copies in the same time,” he said.

“However, I thought we should maintain the metal movable type system since Korea is the country that first invented woodblock printing and metal movable type,” he said.

Process of printing

Movable type printing consists of five stages — type-casting, type-picking, type-setting, printing and binding. It needs at least five workers, one for each phase.

There are four automatic type-casters in the workshop. When offset printing was introduced to Korea in the 1980s, movable type disappeared almost immediately and the machines became junk.

“There were some 1,500 type-casting machines in Korea, but only four of them here are currently in use,” Park said. “Most of them were sold as scrap metal and we had to travel across the country to find them. We even went to Jeju Island. It was also difficult to find technical experts as they had retired.”

The type-caster melts lead and produces the movable type. The type wears down after printing some 1,000 copies.

“That’s why we need a type-caster to make new ones constantly,” Park said. “The machine can produce up to 100 type per minute for small ones and around 30 for larger ones.”

Jeong Heung-taek, 72, the workshop’s type-caster worked for a major newspaper until the late 1970s.

“There were about 20 of these machines at newspaper companies then,” Jeong said. He can also repair the machines when they break down. “Good eyes are important in type-casting as you have to be precise. Miniscule errors on a movable type result in big differences in print.”

There are lines of shelves with movable type in the workshop — Korean, English, Chinese characters, both used and new. They are arranged by language, size and frequency of use.

“The type-pickers can find what they need as they chat. They know where the right type is just like people memorize the QWERTY system and hit the keyboard without looking,” Park explained.

The chosen type is then placed by type-setters and moved to the printer.

The workshop was binding a selection of poems by Lee Ga-lim titled “Now, Always Now” when The Korea Times visited Monday. Since the entire process was done by hand, the binder mounted the title with gold and glued a picture on the blue cover.

It takes around 20 days to pick, a fortnight to set, 10 days to print and 30 days to bind, Park said.

Charms of old way

The workshop is currently in the middle of a project of printing 100 collections of Korean poets. The project started in 2008 and has published 22 so far, with only 1,000 copies for each book. The next poet on the list is Seo Jeong-ju.

“These are collectibles. Printed on Korean traditional paper ‘hanji,’ these books will last a long time,” Park said. Each book includes handwritten verses by the author or their family.

The names of the type-caster, picker, setter, printer and even the paper maker are on the back of the book, acknowledging all their efforts. The books of poetry are priced at 50,000 won and available at Kyobo Bookstore. Though expensive, there are people seeking them.

Unlike mass-produced books filling up endless shelves at large bookstores, Park considers the books made by the Movable Type Workshop as handmade artworks.

“When you touch the surface of the letterpress, you can feel the prominence and depression of the paper as the printer presses down movable type onto the page,” Park said.

He compared the type-printing to coloring fingernails with garden balsam, while the offset printing is nail polish. “It certainly takes labor, but it’s worth it,” he said.

Though the workshop is now dedicated to the 100 poem collections, Park wants to print children’s books later.

“I want to make children’s storybooks without illustrations to invigorate their imagination. I hope good authors join the project and write unique stories for our children,” he said.

He was worried that the technique might vanish when the current pressmen all retire.

“The youngest of our printers is in his late 60s and there is no successor. You might only see the equipment in museums in 10 years time,” Park said. “Once the technique is gone, it will be difficult to restore.”

He said there are values we have to defend. “And there should be ‘crazy’ people doing that,” he added.

The workshop is located in Paju Book City, north of Seoul. Call (031) 955-0085 for more information.
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