Printer Reboots, Glad He Is Cranking Out Ink on Paper

The first thing about Robert Warner’s print shop is it is urine-free.

You probably could not have said that about Benjamin Franklin’s shop back in the day — and not because Franklin, who was ahead of his time in so many ways, was giving random drug tests to the men who set the type or inked the press with him.

Eighteenth-century printers, it turns out, used urine on the leather tools that spread the ink on their hand-operated presses. Soaking them in urine kept the leather supple after the printers had washed off the ink. Mr. Warner has a pair that look like maracas, but with an almost flat top.

“I don’t use them,” said Mr. Warner, explaining that the leather was phased out after rubber came along in the 19th century. “I could, I suppose.”

He uses a brayer — a rubber roller — to distribute the ink, and he is inking the press again after a hiatus. He is the director of Bowne & Co. Stationers, a print shop at the South Street Museum in Lower Manhattan.

The shop reopened on Friday, the first visible sign of a change in the museum’s management. The Museum of the City of New York took control of the seaport museum a few weeks ago, aided by a $2 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

The museum had been closed since February, when it furloughed 32 employees, about half the staff. The printing shop had been closed since then, too. Except for Mr. Warner’s print shop at 211 Water St., the seaport museum remains closed. (The plan is for the entire museum to open by the end of the year.)

While the South Street Museum opened in 1967, the print shop there dates to 1975, which was the 200th anniversary of a dry goods store also called Bowne & Co. that later focused on printing, especially financial documents like prospectuses and merger proxies for, among others, Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that collapsed in 2008.

Mr. Warner’s print shop recreates an era where pretty much everything was done by hand. There is the hand-set type. There are the hand-operated presses.

The hands are Mr. Warner’s. And Mr. Warner, 55, sounded as if he had been told once too often that a printer was a machine connected to one of those newfangled computers.

“The printer used to be the person who ran the presses,” he said.

The museum says the original shop’s inventory was itemized in a city directory in 1829 as gilt-edge letter paper, straw paper, tissue paper, copying paper, drawing paper, blank books, bill books, cargo books, bankbooks and seamen’s journals.

Before the hiatus, Mr. Warner had printed Emily Dickinson poems and keepsakes with the title page of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Mr. Warner took his place behind a 19th-century press, within reach of two type cases, one above the other. The one on top contained capital letters arranged alphabetically from A to Z. The uppercased letters, he said. The one below had the uncapitalized type, the lowercased letters.

And they were all backwards. “The p and q look much the same, hence the term ‘Mind your p’s and q’s,’ ” Mr. Warner said. “But one day someone from Ireland came in and said it’s pints and quarts, a drinking term, not a printing term.”

Mr. Warner arrived at the print shop in 1995 as a volunteer prepared to learn from the master printer who ran the operation at the time. “I became an apprentice at 39,” he said. Like his father and grandfather, he had been an optician.

On the press, he said, the quoins were in place. They are wedge-shaped blocks that hold the type in its form, known as a chase. He rolled the well-inked brayer across a woodcut of a galloping horse and type that read “Bowne & Co. is back in motion!”

“I wanted something that showed we were going again,” he said.

He turned a crank and a sheet of paper slid into place. Then he pulled a lever, and the paper was pressed tight against the type.

“This is the way Benjamin Franklin would have done it,” he said.

He paused, sighed and added, “So many words, so much type to distribute.”

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