This past weekend I took the Letterpress Printing Intensive Workshop at Hollander’s in Kerrytown. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in taking a letterpress class, you can’t at Hollander’s anymore as they have discontinued their workshops. However, there is another option. boundedition is a new community arts center that will offer classes in letterpress and book arts, like bookbinding. So if you’re interested in letterpress, be sure to give boundedition a look.
The workshop was a general overview of how to do letterpress. Letterpress is a printing technique using movable metal type (and engravings) with a raised surface to transfer the ink from the type (and image) to the paper. The actual instructions was fairly minimal, but we had tons of time to practice and print items for ourselves. Over the two days, I printed a couple of quotes, some calling cards, and a set of notecards and envelopes.
Learning to letterpress is on my life list. I’ve always wanted to give it a try for a couple of reasons. One, it’s immensely popular right now, I like the look of it myself and I wondered if it was something that I would like to do as a hobby or even professionally. While I really enjoyed the workshop, I think I would only enjoy letterpress printing on an occasional basis. It’s very tedious work, that can require a great deal of precision, both are things that I don’t tend to deal well with.
Here’s an illustrated overview for the process of printing a quote:
First you decide on what typeface you’d like to use and what size. The drawer shown here is for Alternate Gothic No. 1 in 36 points. Hollander’s had several typefaces to choose from (more than I expected) and many point sizes. I ended up mostly using Alternate Gothic No. 1 because I liked the look of it. A drawer map was included in our lengthy handout we were given at the start of class. Type drawers have specific layout with the uppercase letters on the right in alphabetical order, except for J and U which were added to the to the alphabet (at least in regards to printing) later so they’re just stuck at the end. The lowercase letters are in the center and on the left, according to use with numbers along the top center and different spacers and ligatures around the sides.
To begin setting type, you adjust the composing stick to the length of line desired and place a slug (a strip of metal that is used between lines of type, can also be called a lead depending on thickness) of the same length. Then you begin setting the type. The letters are already backwards, but you have to put them in upside down. A notch on the side that needs to face upwards indicates the correct position. Different sized spaces are used so that each line is snug in the composing stick. Once all of the type has been set, another slug it put in place.
Before we actually print from this type in the press, it’s good to take a test print to make sure there are no errors. This is done by securing the composing stick, rolling ink on the surface of the letters, and running the proof press roller over the letters. Can you spot the error above? the ‘u’ in Hughes is upside down. I pulled out the letter and rotated before moving on.
The next step in the process is to impose the form. Imposing the form is to get the type locked into the chase (the steel frame). To impose the form, the type is slide from the composing stick onto the imposing stone and the chase is placed around it, with the type roughly in the center. Small wooden blocks, called furniture, are used to put equal pressure on all sides of the type. In addition to the furniture, two quoins are placed, one on the right and one on the bottom, which are tightened with a key to get everything snug. This pressure is what keeps all the type in place. Once the type is locked in tightly, the chase can be moved to the press.
The press is inked (the large circular metal plate at the top is covered with the ink as are the rollers at the bottom). The chase with the type is secured in place and the paper is inserted. There’s a bit of time spent on getting the paper in the correct spot, a lot of that is through trial and error (at least for me!). Then it’s time to print! Pull the handle and the rollers (which already have ink on them) roll over the type, inking them, up to the circular plate at the top to re-ink, the plate pushes the paper against the type, the paper pulls away, and the rollers go back down over the type. I have a quick video below showing one print being made.
And there you have it! I printed this quote on some watercolor paper I already owned. I’m planning on painting around the text and then framing it for display. The ink is rubber-based, I’m hoping the watercolor won’t make it run. I made several copies so I’ll be able to experiment a bit.