Learning letterpress printing

It’s insane to think that entire newspapers used to be printed this way: row after row of tiny lead blocks, assiduously and individually placed one by one, row after row, until a page was complete.

Printing technology has since developed far faster methods, but letterpress has reinvented itself as something unique and, well, handmade. Every piece inside that metal frame above was positioned and secured by me: each row of type, along with the leads* and slugs between them; the bigger blocks of “furniture” that fill the rest of the space; and the expander that secures everything tightly.

*These pieces are why the spacing between lines of text is called “leading.”

I’ve always loved the look of letterpress; I found last year’s “Jolly” holiday cards, pictured right, at Ruby Press, and the previous year I slipped a small tag  (similar to the one pictured below) between the holiday discs before popping them in the mailing envelopes. I’m pretty sure that I tracked down those tags at The Paper Studio, which is where I noticed an upcoming class on letterpress and platen printing. I was freakishly excited to participate.

(Click on any photo to bring it up full-size in its own browser window.)

Each cabinet drawer —or “case,” as it’s called — at Letterpress Central contains a typeface of a certain point size. Most lowercase letters are organized by how frequently they’re used — Es and Ss toward the middle, Xs on the periphery. This system has been in use for so long that J and U weren’t even part of the alphabet yet, so when those letters were added, rather than reorganize everything they just tossed the uppercase versions of those letters on the bottom row, after the Z but before the ampersand.

I’m sad to report that I failed my first step, which was just arranging the letters that would spell my name. It wasn’t about alphabet aphasia — I was of course able to identify the correct letters — but I overthought the process and literally reversed things. On a platen press, all of the letters are backward; the roller runs ink over them just before they’re pressed into the paper, and the end result reads regularly. (A groove that should appear at the top of the letters lets you know if you’ve placed them correctly, and not upside-down.) But for some reason I took it a step further and thought the letters also would have to appear in reverse order, too, like mirror-image style. To my mind’s eye, the order pictured above should have spelled my name, but in reality, the impression would have read “tdaetslettiM maS.”

Luckily, my instructor pointed out the error, and we moved on to the fun part — designing and creating our actual cards. One of my classmates had brought a book of inspirational quotations, but I had already made up my mind to create an invitation.

Look closely at the above left photo, and you can see all of the different elements that go into creating just a few lines of text: the letters, the different sizes of spaces, the tiny “leads” and larger “slugs” that put space between lines, and even the “coppers” and “brasses” that work as shims to keep the whole block of text tight together, so the letters don’t fall and scatter when they’re held vertically. (Sorry about blurring my phone number; I like my readers, but not that much.) Then the sections are loaded into the chase, which is the photo at the very top of the post. When it’s time to print, the chase is locked in the center of the press, and the rollers move up to deposit a tiny amount of ink across the platen, which presses against the paper (thus, letterpress) so the ink can be deposited on it.

Printing ink isn’t anything like writing ink — it’s viscous, almost gluelike. For our project of about a dozen cards, we needed such a tiny amount that anyone who has ever painted would have trouble wrapping your head around how little to apply. It goes on with a putty knife, then you pump the rollers repeatedly until it’s spread consistently over the plate. (That’s about halfway done in the middle photo.) If you use too much ink, the bowls of your letters — the insides of your Os and Rs, for example — could fill in completely, so a lighter touch is better. You can always blot some off by rolling telephone-book paper over it once to absorb some excess.

The test run on the paper backing lets you know how and where to orient your cards or sheets for the press; each piece is held in place by pins that you can adjust as needed. Placing the pins proved more difficult on my press, which had a smaller clamp space, so I ended up knuckling my hands all over the inked-up rollers in my attempt to get the pins secured. (The ink comes off easily with the right product, just like garage grease and oil.)

Then it was as simple as .. press. As in, press down. In the photo above left you can see that while the press is mid-stamp, the rollers are already atop the plate, picking up just enough ink to roll across the platen for the next piece. I quite like the final product — especially for a first attempt.

“I can see it in your eyes,” one of the owners said. “You’ve got the bug — you’ll be back.” She’s quite correct; I am already thinking about my next project, which I could tackle during Letterpress Central’s next session in early December. (I want to try using the larger, wood type. And multiple inks! And more-more-more!)

WHAT SAM WORE: 10-14-12
The shirt: “I [Texas] BBQ” T-shirt, purchased during last year’s trip to Austin.
The shorts: Below-knee cargos, from Uniqlo, New York
The shoes: Flip-flops by Reef, from the Reef store in Honolulu.

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