I Love Typography

Letterpress From Scratch

By Benjamin Brundell

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.

letterpress

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.

letterpress why not start with something smaller

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 yourletterpress 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

adana

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 Lieberman’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.


Visit Ben’s British Letterpress site for more tips and resources.
Related:
Sunday Type: typesetting type—letterpress videos
Sunday Type: napkin type—free letterpress ornaments
My Adventures in Letterpress Printing


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  1. Really interesting post, I want a letterpress but suffering with a slight space issue at the moment (got any suggestions?). Certainly on my to-buy list though & this is a great resource - spot on.
    Cheers, George

  2. I wish i had one of those babys at home :)

  3. nice article. I love the ad for the “Arab”

  4. Lovely post, Johno. I’ve been passively looking for a small hand press to put in my garage, for personal projects. I came across this guy often. Has anyone used or heard anything about this press?

    -MP

  5. Sara

    Funny thing - I just went this morning to a meeting with a local printer to talk about paper. They gave me a tour of their facility and in a corner there was a letter press machine. I stopped cold and walked up to it, they had a shelf with all the different letters… it was beautiful! for a second I forgot where I was and thought I had gone to letter heaven. The guy that was giving me the tour noticed my enthusiasm and told me that if I wanted to learn more I could come back (as I was short of time). I am definitely taking on that opportunity! He said that if I had any questions about printing or paper I should call. I think there is something that bounds us all together to pass along all this information (not just paying for it in school - which they rarely teach about paper and such)
    Then I come to check the site and this is what I found!

    Thank you Johno!
    Every day I love it more.

  6. I’m taking a set of graphic design classes at OTIS in Los Angeles, and they have a letterpress lab. I got to take a tour of it with my class, and now I’m working on some projects with the letterpress. I have had a lot of fun with typesetting and design without the computer, and I think that it has helped me with my understanding of digital typesetting.

  7. Bonnie

    I want one sooooo bad! And the sad part is, I am old enough to have ordered one from the back of a comic, as I understand some of the first ones were sold! Instead my dad (a linotype operator) bought me a little printing set with tiny rubber letters and an ink pad, and my first issue was my last! Mainly cuz Mom and Dad laughed at the name I gave my paper, “The Once a Week Daily.” It took me a while to figure out why they were laughing, and then I was so embarrassed I quit.

    Anyway, I bid for one on eBay a few months ago and thank goodness did not win because I know NOTHING about what to do with one when I get it. I will be following your posts with extreme interest! I may yet have one of my own! If all I do is family newsletters and birthday cards, I will be happy.

    Bonnie!

  8. Yeah cheers man, get everyone in on it why not? ;)

  9. the man with the golden farm

    Off-topic, but what do web designers call them if not tables? I’m a web designer and I’ve never heard them called anything else.

  10. George, for space issues, many letterpress studios today use the small, hand operated press (LOL, well, you know what I mean, a table-top) and photopolymer plates instead of metal type. There are advantages to this, space usually doesn’t become an issue and if someone comes back and wants more of the same project (like business cards) reprinting isn’t a big deal as it would be with handset type. There are those purists who will argue printing entirely with photopolymer isn’t real letterpress printing. I suppose it’s up to you, really. For saving space, though, it’s almost the only way to go.

    Sara, you are so lucky you found someone to teach you! I’ve been asking around at several printers who I work with, but no one knows much. I’m taking a letterpress class right now and I’m having to drive an hour (and with gas prices, that’s a big deal!) to take a class and I only get 2.5 hours/week for four weeks at $120.

    Wiley, the class at the Pasadena Armory of the Arts is much cheaper than the Otis class, though I’m sure Gerald Lange would be an amazing man to learn from. I’m taking the Armory class right now.

    Benjamin, this was a great write up. Thank you!

    Common terms in digital design…all appear as three-dimensional objects

    That is one of the coolest things! I also like being a part of the entire process from design to completed product.

    I have been told by the woman teaching my letterpress class that most serious printers who have been in the business for decades are rather unwilling to help newbies. Do you really find that people are eager to share their knowledge of the craft? I had a chat with Ross MacDonald a while ago and he was sure an interesting guy. Too bad he’s all the way on the other side of the country from me! And you’re even farther away, Benjamin!

    Thanks for the link to the Fine Press Book Association. I hadn’t found them yet. I wish the presses listed their location, though!

  11. Lindsay Rollo

    I had my first hands-on experience of setting and printing type on an Adana hand operated press of an earlier vintage than the one illustrated.

    We bought it from an advertisement in the paper and took it home on the back seat of the car.

    We subsequently sold it to an institution for people with disabilities, who wanted a hand operated press for safe reasons.

    Later we graduated to ‘Arab’ press to which a washing machine motor had been mounted.

    I had the tips on my fingers caught between the platen and the bed plate — a valuable lesson in the dangers of hand fed printing presses.

  12. Guys: thanks for the positive comments, and thanks John for publishing.

    Picking up some comments…

    @George: starting small is good — I began with two storage boxes around 1’ x 2’ x 2’ containing everything. You’ll need a small press — look for Adana in the UK and Kelsey or a small Pilot in the US, try BriarPress classifieds

    @…Golden Farm: point here was that tables is a one way of laying out pages (and I missed the word pages), but it’s more fashionable and standards-compliant to use CSS — it’s a tiny point, but illustrates that tiny points can change the tone of a conversation

    @Lauren Marie: true, some printers are grouchy, but that comes in all walks of life. Most are good to newbies and here’s why — they know letterpress is not commercially a good idea; they can see you aren’t competition; and finally they spend a lot of time alone in their one-man shops and like talking! I’ve only met one printer in the last four years that I wouldn’t want to deal with again

    Keep the comments coming.

  13. Nice article. I always wanted to try working with a letter press. There’s a quality there you can’t get anywhere else.

  14. One of these days I’ll find the time to dust off my Adana. We sourced our metal and wood type by asking as many printers as we could if they knew anyone who had anything. It didn’t take us too long to find a small jobbing printer with a stash of stuff in his basement. Can’t remember how much we gave him but whatever it was there was a condition that we took everything, cabinets an all. It was back-breaking stuff, hauling it up stairs into a van.

    Now, unfortunately, everyone’s getting wise to the value of wood type.

    Great article Johno.

  15. Rebecca Lawrence

    Your post came at the most apropos time! We recently acquired a Damon and Peets platen press into our education collection and I’m having a blast working with the former owner (a printer, of course) learning letterpress basics. There’s nothing quite like feeling that you’re a part of a historical process, not to mention share it with other people.

    We’re planning letterpress demonstrations for families at our museum and to the previous owner of the press, nothing is more special to him than for his press (and type) to have a new life after decades in the industry. At least in my experience, he is such a pleasure to work with and a very interesting individual. A little energy, enthusiasm, and time spent listening to stories goes a long way.

    I have to agree with your statement that many retired printers aren’t on the information superhighway, so a phone call and good ol’ snail mail might be worth trying out. Newbies might also want to contact members in their local chapter of the Amateur Press Association (US), or other small printing associations (found on the web) to find equipment, supplies, or classes.

    Thanks so much for your post!

  16. Man I wish I had a letterpress. Or at lease one I could rent time at. *sigh* One day…and when that happens, I’ve got your post bookmarked for reference. Thanks!

  17. It might just be the sites I visit (Lauren’s site being one of them) or the circles I run in but it seems like the letterpress, metal type and linotype machines/technology are starting to come back in fashion!

    As it’s been said by a couple of you, it’s the hands on aspect of it, I think. With it being easier and easier to have a completely digital work flow for the graphic designer these days, it’s nice to be able to touch the type and feel it on your finger tips, than it is to just click the mouse a couple of times. Something about it being tactile just makes it that much more special and real, no?

  18. Great article. I just finished college where I had access to extensive amounts of letterpress equipment, wooden type & hundred of cases of metal type. The equipment is only used during term time which is a bit of a shame. It’s just sitting there the rest of the year.

    I was keen to get my hands on an adana to keep it up.

  19. Andy Keck

    When the bug bites, it bites _hard_. And thanks to all the information sharing online these days, it’s actually probably easier than ever to get involved with the craft. Briarpress.org has been instrumental in my progress, but let me add another link or two that I have found useful:

    http://www.fiveroses.org/intro.htm
    https://listserv.unb.ca/archives/letpress.html

    Thanks to the bad influence of the folks involved with those sites, I now have an Intertype Model C and a 10x15 Kluge clanking away in my garage.

    http://web.mac.com/andykeck/intertype.jpg

  20. Thanks for this article with all the illustrations! I love any knowledge that I can get for letterpress.

    The most recent item on my wishlist is a kelsey letterpress. They are so hard to come buy but I would love to complement a letterpress with my gocco machine (silk screen device).

    I have contact the few printers around in the Santa Cruz area and they don’t feel like helping. Perhaps if I went in to talk to them. Who knows. I think art making knowledge should be shared, especially with a process that is dying out!

  21. DavidR

    Thanks for this article.

    Brings back happy memories of days in the 1950’s spent watching with fascination as our local printshop typeset the parish newsletter, which I would later put into envelopes and take to the post office.

  22. Amanda

    Instead of focusing on the commercial side of letterpress, check out universities and colleges with book arts programs. There are a handful around the country—the U of Alabama, the U of Utah, Mills College, Dartmouth. Also, in San Francisco, The Center for the Book. NYC has The Center for Book Arts. Portland, OR has a crafts school.

    In some book arts circles, letterpress is considered the “only” way to print. They are a very friendly bunch with a lot of advice and support. These programs give the public great access to equipment, presses, type, workshops and classes.

    If you are putting together a print shop of your own, don’t neglect finding a very good paper cutter. They are harder to come by than a press.

    Fortunately, in this digital world, the book has been elevated to an art form that relies on the oldest and best way to print. Check out artist like Julie Chen, Marnie Powers-Torrey, Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, Mary Shihabuddin Laird.

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