The Cover Design of The Woodcutter and his Family

Emma Byrne takes us through the fascinating design process that created the eye-catching cover of Frank McGuinness’s upcoming novel.

This is a novel that chronicles James Joyce as he lies on his death bed. A writer’s thoughts on his life, his children’s thoughts on their famous father, and a final story to defy them all.

Given the breadth of James Joyce’s life, and more importantly his work – a bridge, as it were, from an older tradition to a newer one – I felt that a cover inspired by the old technique of letterpress had an intriguing potential.

Letterpress was the normal way of printing text in Europe, from its invention in the mid-15th century by Gutenburg, until the late-19th century.  (The Chinese had invented ceramic moveable type in the 11th century.) Much like our digital revolution and the huge opportunities brought about by social media, Gutenburg’s moveable type changed the dissemination of information forever. Texts were no longer written by specialist scribes for the select few. Words, knowledge and ideas, could be printed and seen by many. It was an invention that brought great power.

I had used a letterpress in college, and as a budding typographer was impressed by the sheer discipline, patience and respect it gave me for letterform. Today, anyone can type an essay on their phone, if they wish, but creating something in letterpress is a game of control and endurance. Fitting letters – wood or metal type – into a chase (a metal frame) is sometimes like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. So, we use furniture (metal, wood or resin spacing tools) various em-spaced leading in different lengths –to fit the letters into the chase.

Wood type is cut and this fact tied in nicely with the title of Frank McGuinness’s second novel, The Woodcutter and His Family. I mocked up a cover approach using images of wooden type that I found online. Again, thinking about how Joyce’s work continues to connect us to an older literary tradition, I mixed a serif and a sans serif typeface. For me, the serif represents a traditional letterform and the sans serif evokes a modernist typeface. I wanted the title to fill the entire cover, so it meant breaking the word ‘woodcutter’ over three lines.


I presented the cover draft and my approach was liked by The O’Brien Press team, especially the sales team. Most importantly for us, the author himself loved the resonance that the image creates. This was progress; my next thought was when the danger loomed … I wondered if I could recreate this cover approach using only letterpress!

I contacted the National Print Museum and, to our delight, the museum’s education officer, Gretta Halpin, loved the idea too. We arranged for us to visit the museum early one morning to recreate the cover with wooden letterform, and the artisan compositor Mary Plunkett was to be our printer for the day.

The first thing to do was look for type. I noticed (with great relief) that there was plenty of wooden type. The museum had several drawers or ‘cabinets’ of wooden Caslon (a serifed font) and Frutiger (a sans serif font).

The next step was to pull out the type case of our chosen letterforms and see how they might work together.

Once we had the type together in galleys we began the slow task of fitting it to the chase. The challenge here was fitting the two fonts together. This process alone took about two hours. With the type finally placed snugly in the chase, the furniture was held in place by tightening a quoin key or a locking device.

The type was now ‘set’ (hence the term ‘typesetting’) and we then prepared the paper by cutting it to size and brought it to the Vandercook press.





Before Mary inked up the press, she ran a sheet of paper through it to see how the type might sit, that is, where it would land on the page.

A few adjustments later and the press was inked and ready for the first proof!

This way we could see the position of the type, and see if anything needed nudging or moving.

After a few further adjustments, we started the run.

And so the print that appears on the book cover, under the dust jacket was born. The image on the dust jacket shows the serif and sans serif wooden type set in their chase. Something that might take 10 minutes on a computer had taken us a number of hours. These disciplined and patient hours, immersed in the letterpress process, have given me a new appreciation of letterform, and its many iterations.



With thanks to Arts Council Ireland,  Mary Plunkett and the National Print Museum.

Emma Byrne, August 2017

The Woodcutter and his Family by Frank McGuinness will be published in September 2017 and will available here and in all good bookshops!

A Taste of McGuinness

Writer and O’Brien Press Sales Administrator, Jamie O’Connell, writes about his experiences at University College Dublin under the tutelage of Frank McGuinness and how it impacted his reading of Arimathea.

In late January 2009, I sat in Room 207 of the Newman Building in University College Dublin. It’d been a particularly cold winter, but this cold Monday morning was an exciting one. It was my first class with Frank McGuinness, as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

I’d heard of Frank McGuinness many times before this first meeting. His plays, like Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Factory Girls, have left their mark both within Ireland and internationally. And when Frank did appear, his passion for writing was immediately evident. The books he enjoyed, he examined with zeal.

We studied Albert Camus’s The Fall in great detail. At the time, I remember finding the book a difficult read and the assigned reading each week was put on the long finger by me, generally until 11pm the night before class. However, in the years that have followed, as various events happened in my life, wisdom from that book, words and quotes, have spontaneously come into my thoughts, making life more understandable. It has given me ‘new eyes’ – something that Marcel Proust described as the fundamental role of fiction. I am grateful that Frank challenged my classmates and me to read it.

Last September, I returned to University College Dublin to complete an MFA in Creative Writing. Frank teaches a seminar on this course too; this time we studied the work of Jane Austen, notably Emma. Throughout our seven seminars, Frank’s love of Austen’s prose, her creation of the small town of Highbury with all its intrigues and dangers, has been an eye opener. His examination of the inner lives of Austen’s protagonists and the dangers lurking in this community, has rekindled my love of this eighteenth century novelist. Those who attended Sean Rocks’ interview with Frank at the Dublin Book Festival on 14 November heard him likewise speak passionately about Austen’s writing (the full interview is available on the RTE Player).

Over the last year, I have encountered Frank and his work through a different avenue again: The O’Brien Press’s publication of his debut novel Arimathea. Nominated for Book of the Year at the The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2013, the novel has lived up to anticipation. Reviews in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times have all been stellar.

Amongst all this, I’ve read the novel. The two semesters with Frank, studying Emma and The Fall, has given me a view of the novel different than most. In the social snobberies, the secret worlds, the intrigues of the Donegal town in Arimathea, I found myself thinking of Austen’s Highbury, with all its social complexities. Rural life is not as simple as impressions would appear. Both Austen and Frank have clear tight prose that drives the novel forward. One glides over the well-crafted sentences. There is nothing sluggish in either.

However, in Arimathea, elements of The Fall also appear. In each character’s monologue truths appear which don’t always show humanity in a favourable light. Yet, there is a departure from The Fall at this point; in the conclusion of Arimathea, humanity is offered a sort of redemption. An act of kindness occurs and the reason for the choice of ‘Arimathea’ as the title becomes evident.

The Sunday Business Post summed it up well: ‘a beautifully bleak first novel’. Humour mixes with pathos, as The Irish Examiner wrote: ‘deeply funny about the absurdities of human behaviour’. Both as a student of Frank’s and as an avid reader, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Arimathea is now available at and most good bookshops.