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29 May 2018

Becoming a dab hand – printing past and present

Written by Alexandra Hill
The caseroom at Robert Smail’s Printing Works
The caseroom at Robert Smail’s Printing Works
The historical printing presses at Robert Smail’s Printing Works not only provide a great insight into Scotland’s industrial past but also continue to play a role in the country’s present.

From 1866 to 1986, Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Innerleithen was a bustling centre of industry, at the heart of a busy Borders town surrounded by textile mills. A chance visit in the 1980s from members of the British Ephemera Society led to the National Trust for Scotland buying the printing works and committing to ‘keeping it working’. Today, Smail’s provides an intriguing insight into Scotland’s industrial heritage as well as being the oldest working commercial letterpress printers in the UK.

The Victorian office at Smail's Printing Works
The Victorian office
Office shelves filled with objects at Smail's Printing Works
The office shelves filled with objects

Smail’s started as a mixed business – the shelves of the Victorian office were filled not only with printing essentials but also display cabinets with fishing hooks, chocolate and cigars. After 1881 the printing works really took off, printing thousands of items each week. By 1912 it employed four compositors to set the type, three printers to operate the presses, three apprentices and five shop workers. Smail’s was geared towards jobbing print –ephemeral everyday items such as tickets, advertisements, business cards and the local newspaper, St Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser. Our detailed knowledge of the day-to-day business comes from the impressive archive of guardbooks, which hold a copy of every item printed at the workshop between 1876 and 1956 as well as a note of the print runs.

Printing was an important industry in Scotland and many popular phrases originated from this work – it’s an important part of our linguistic as well as industrial heritage. For example, ‘becoming a dab hand’ refers to the skill of using a dab (a ball-shaped object) to place the ink on the type.

Bottom of the dab inking the forme at Smail's Printing Works
The bottom of the dab inking the forme

Today, print jobs at Smail’s are carried out by Tony, who has over 40 years’ experience. Tony takes commissions for business cards, posters, stationery and ticket books as well as printing the postcards in the gift shop.

The most impressive machine used by the printer is the Wharfedale Reliance, a large stop-cylinder press. Built by Fieldhouse, Elliot & Co in Otley, Yorkshire, the Reliance was bought by Smail’s in 1876 for £135 5s. The forme (the block that holds the arranged type in place) moves backwards and forwards on a flat bed and the print impression is made by a rotating cylinder on which the paper is gripped. This machine would have been worked by two people and allowed for greater precision than other presses of the era. Cataloguing this machine was challenging – the team needed to take great care when marking the working machinery, while the photographer had to light and photograph the press in situ without the aid of a backdrop.

The majestic Wharfedale Reliance at Smail's Printing Works
The majestic Wharfedale Reliance

We were excited to discover that it’s not only property staff who get put to work here. On the guided tour of the caseroom visitors can set the type for a personalised bookmark. This room contains over 400 cases of type, each and every one of which needs to be catalogued by Project Reveal. With so many exciting objects to reveal at Smail’s in the coming months, Team East felt it was important to start with a print job of our own:

Project Reveal in print at Smail's Printing Works
Project Reveal in print

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 18 months from July 2017 until December 2018.

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