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.