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
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.