Letterpress From Scratch

The let­ter­press print­ing pro­cess is one of the old­est ways of get­ting the prin­ted word on to a page. It relies on a phys­ic­al rep­res­ent­a­tion of each let­ter being inked and then pressed again­st the paper — and this is why it’s both inter­est­ing and expens­ive. Think­ing a little fur­ther about it for each page the print­er needs a piece of metal to rep­res­ent every single char­ac­ter; a way of apply­ing ink to each char­ac­ter and a machine to for­ce the metal and paper togeth­er. It fol­lows that chan­ging from bold to italic, for example, will need a totally new set of metal char­ac­ters rather than a few clicks of a mouse. Oth­er print­ing pro­cesses like litho­graphy or digit­al print­ing are more flex­ible, quick and less expens­ive. But while com­mer­cial let­ter­press is in decline there are many who are start­ing from scratch with this won­der­ful pro­cess.

This art­icle looks briefly at this resur­gence of interest in let­ter­press, why you might like it and some help to begin enjoy­ing this fas­cin­at­ing pas­time.

So why do people want to get into this arcane world? The biggest reas­on I can find is that it offers a hands-on imme­di­acy that oth­er meth­ods can’t offer. The whole pro­cess feeds the senses: the cold­ness and weight of metal type; the rhythm of print­ing machines cyc­ling quietly; the smell of oil and ink and the great sense of see­ing a won­der­ful prin­ted page. Our grow­ing demand for the ‘one-off’ or the home-grown trans­lates to let­ter­press where each item has been handled, pre­pared and checked indi­vidu­ally.

It’s a con­strain­ing pro­cess but allows a cer­tain freedom which inspires lots of design­ers. The time taken can induce a con­cen­tra­tion which excludes the imme­di­ate world. In many ways let­ter­press is the anti­thes­is of the mod­ern graph­ics work. It provides a won­der­ful and absorb­ing pas­time that demands just as much time, space and money as you would like to allow.

Let’s look now at how you can get into this world. First, you should estab­lish a pur­pose for your ven­ture. Some people come to let­ter­press to make money. I’ll be frank and say that you’ll need to be very good, have plenty of time and effort to be able to make a profit — try to begin with a ‘pleas­ure as profit’ approach to test the waters first. Many of us have a mild obses­sion with typo­graphy and let­ter­press is a won­der­ful way of being immersed in the detail of type and design. Com­mon terms in digit­al design: points and picas, lead­ing and white space all appear as three-dimen­sion­al objects bring­ing a new clar­ity to your think­ing about the prin­ted page.

You might want to develop new skills. I’ve espe­cially enjoyed the engin­eer­ing side of let­ter­press: tak­ing old and dirty machines, clean­ing them, mak­ing small repairs and get­ting them run­ning again. There’s a min­im­al out­lay in terms of tools and the equip­ment is so well made that it with­stands the efforts of the ama­teur.

Armed with a pur­pose, you need to speak to someone about let­ter­press. There are many won­der­ful online com­munit­ies out there cater­ing for the let­ter­press new­bie, but most of the exper­i­ence rests with the job­bing print­er on your high street who still isn’t on the inform­a­tion super­high­way. Many print­ers are keen to help new let­ter­press print­ers and you can’t afford to miss out this step — ‘word of mouth’ is still the biggest source of inform­a­tion in the let­ter­press world. If you have no luck loc­ally (and the decline in com­mer­cial let­ter­press might mean you might meet blank faces) then you’ll have to con­tact a ‘fine book’ or ‘private press’ print­er and they too will help new print­ers when they can.

Once you have found someone, you can ask some of the more detailed let­ter­press ques­tions: how did you start print­ing? is there any equip­ment avail­able loc­ally? where would I get the ‘con­sum­ables’ like ink and paper? You need also to ask about get­ting some hands-on exper­i­ence. Are there any loc­al classes, enthu­si­ast­ic print­ers or pro­fes­sion­al print­ers who would be will­ing to give you some time with them? Take some time to get into let­ter­press as much as you can while you exper­i­ment with this as a hobby.

You’ll now have a much bet­ter feel for wheth­er let­ter­press is for you. Let’s take stock for a moment about what lies ahead — you need to decide how much time, space and money you can afford to invest in let­ter­press. There are plenty of guides that can take you from here: decid­ing on a par­tic­u­lar machine, the act of print­ing and devel­op­ing a style. One key point: you can get the bene­fits of let­ter­press from the most mod­est of equip­ment — there is no need to put off print­ing through lack of space or money — start small.

On now to some top tips for your next steps –

  • Remem­ber that there’s a lan­guage bar­ri­er. Just as web design­ers wince when novices talk of using tables for lay­out; print­ers share their own lan­guage with its own nuances — the point and picas, lead­ing, formes and founts are all spe­cial­ist terms. Give your let­ter­press guide a sense of your enthu­si­asm by using the right terms
  • Set some para­met­ers for your­self. It’s easy to acquire all man­ner of things and you’ll very quickly run out of space. Work out what you need to get hold of and where it will go when it’s home. In terms of fin­ances cheap presses can soon escal­ate in cost when rig­ging and mov­ing is included
  • Soak up the let­ter­press resources on the web
  • Steal­ing John Ryder’s words, see ‘pleas­ure as profit’ and enjoy your new hobby before tak­ing on pay­ing work

Offline help

There are many books about let­ter­press, but few start from the pos­i­tion of the ama­teur tak­ing their first steps. I’d recom­mend John Ryder’s Print­ing for Pleas­ure and J. Ben Leiberman’s Print­ing as a Hobby but unfor­tu­nately these are out of print — try look­ing for second-hand cop­ies of them. For prac­tic­al help Gen­er­al Print­ing (re-prin­ted by Liber Apertus Press) gives an excel­lent illus­trated guide to each step in the pro­cess.