Letterpress is the centuries-old craft of printing that we most associate with the likes of Johann Gutenberg, or Ben Franklin. It is the art of pressing paper against raised type, often with a slight-to-heavy debossing effect, which can create a sense of quality or artistry. The Gutenberg Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and newspapers during the Civil War – all shaped history with the power of the letterpress.
Letterpress has never really gone away. When I took print shop in both junior high and high school, we’d do projects on the letterpress. And there still printers and print finishing vendors that have letterpress capabilities. Sure, offset printing and now digital printing are the more “normal” means of putting ink on paper. But letterpress still has its uses: wedding invitations; high-end stationery; text-only flyers, posters and other graphics; and finally, as a craft. Let’s take a look at the craft of the letterpress.
WHAT IT WAS
Letterpress, as I mentioned above, was part of the legacy started by Johann Gutenberg. It was a trade that passed through families, or apprenticeships, and tasked with printing newspapers, handbills, and fine stationery. It involved taking letters cast from lead, placing them in a device called a composing stick, and placing small strips of lead called “E” spaces, or “M” spaces between words, then with another strip of lead between each line (hence, when you’re adjusting spacing between lines of type in InDesign, you increase or decrease the “leading”.) Once you had a small block of type assembled (and remember, it reads backwards), you took it out carefully and placed it in a chase, which was a metal frame engineered to fit precisely into the letterpress. You’d take a metal lock, called a quoin, and then take a T-shaped tool called a quoin key, and turn until the lock (one on each side of the chase) kept the section or sections of type all in place. Before you totally tightened it up, you’d gently tap on the type to get it all level with a wooden mallet. Finally, you’d place it in the letterpress. Once in the letterpress, ink would be applied to the face of the type (hence the term “typeface”), and then the sheet of paper would be pressed against the type, leaving the image impressed onto it. My old junior high letterpress required feeding each sheet by hand, and then pulling a lever to print the image, and then removing the sheet by hand. Most letterpress now have automated that process. But it still involves putting a set of type in a chase, putting that in the letterpress, applying ink to the type, and then pressing it into the sheet. Another method has the chase sitting flat on its back, and then fed into the ink roller system, applying the ink to the type. The paper is fed from the top, one sheet at a time, onto the paper roller, which is then pressed against the type.
WHAT IT IS NOW
Now, there is a whole world of individuals who are making letterpress a business, doing fine invitations and stationery, or unique letterpress art. Ironically, it’s the digital age that has inspired this, namely for two reasons. As we move faster into an automated and digital society, letterpress has allowed those who appreciate the craft to present an alternative and perhaps more creative means of print. In a blog post I did earlier this year, I highlighted a cousin’s wedding invitation and wedding program, all done on letterpress. The second reason for this resurgence is that these artisans are getting exposure in both online and social media. There are YouTube channels, like this one by Panthera Press. And there are many Instagram feeds that I follow that highlight the craft, such as Cotton Belt Press, Ladyfingers Letterpress, Superfine Press, New North Press and Hamilton Wood Type. These fine printers are bringing back an artisanship to printing, both for personal enrichment and even income generation.
Letterpress, just like print itself, will never go away. But now, with these fine printers bringing it back to create uniquely printed items, it will continue to thrive.