modern day letterpress: beyond gutenburg
October 10, 2011
I was approached nearly a year ago to be a part of a modern- day letterpress article in the October issue of American Lifestyle Magazine. A lot has changed since the interview, but I was very honored to be in the company of EM Letterpress and Studio on Fire. They are true letterpress masters.
If you’d rather not read through the transcript, you can download of the full article here: American Lifestyle article.
Letterpress printing was developed centuries ago as a means of creation for the masses. Very simply put, raised metal or wood type is inked and then pressed into a substrate. Originally, pressmen used only a “kiss” impression- never leaving behind a hint of the impact that occurred between paper and type. There was and is a reason for this: hitting the type too hard would wear it down and destroy it. Now with the ease and accessibility of digital printing, the need for such equipment has vanished. Some continue to use the tools and machinery in the way that they were intended, while others have adapted by using these presses in a new way, trading the “kiss” for a deep impression.
TALK ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY AS AN ARTIST:
My family is full of makers: carpenters, writers, builders, sewers, artists, chefs, and musicians. I learned the value of using my hands, and discovered that I was similarly capable. I think that it’s those likenesses and differences that make a family; boy, are we a family!
I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design in the heartbreakingly beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia. My college career started off in photography. When I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do, I dabbled in graphic design, sculpture, and printmaking until I ended up in fibers. It was in that program that I learned weaving, dyeing, screen printing, etc., and where I fell in love with surface design. A lot of people go their entire lives without finding that thing- I found it, and it treated me well. Then as I grew and changed, I found it again in letterpress.
FIRST LETTERPRESS EXPERIENCE:
My first letterpress experience actually came from a search on Craigslist. I found a young couple starting up a printing business; they had seen a greeting card that was letterpress printed and fell in love. They rented a space in an old fabric mill in the Port Richmond neighborhood in Philadelphia and began filling it with any equipment they could get their hands on. Letterpress is definitely one of those things that is best learned by doing. Get your hands (and elbows, face, and clothes) absolutely filthy, and run into every problem; make every mistake (a couple of times). It’s the only way to learn.
FIRST DAY ON THE JOB:
My first day, I was introduced to cabinets of type and an eight-by-twelve Chandler and Price old style. The press was one hundred years old. I was awestruck and terrified as I watched it move. They told me to pick a font and set something, anything. Completely on the spot, I walked over to the bookcase and grabbed the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities off of the shelf. The first page I opened showed the nine-banded armadillo. It was perfect. I set it in forty-eight-point Goudy Handtooled, inked up the press with green ink, and away I went. It is framed and sitting on a shelf in my office.
TELL US ABOUT THE PROCESS OF LETTERPRESS PRINTING:
Once I have my design (or the client’s design) finalized, I have to make color separations to prepare the files for print. I send the files to an offset shop to have them made into negatives, which I then use to expose the plates in my platemaker. There are five major steps in the platemaking process: pre-exposure, main exposure, washout, drying, and post-exposure. This generally takes twenty to thirty minutes per plate. After the plate is finished, I apply an adhesive sheet to the back and cut it down to size. It is then attached to an aluminum base that is locked up in a chase, which is then ready for the press.
If the job calls for more than one color, the lightest is always printed first in order to speed the cleaning process and to decrease the likelihood of ink contamination. The press is inked up with the appropriate amount of ink for the job. Next, tympan paper is put on the press, and the appropriate amount of packing is added to control the impression. The guides are then set up, and then I am ready to print!
If there is a second color (or third or fourth), the press is cleaned of all ink, the chase comes out of the press, and the plate is changed. The setup process repeats itself.
After the printing is finished, the pieces are either die cut or cut down to size on a paper cutter. I always die cut business cards and tend to die cut thicker stocks as well to avoid any possible issues. After the cutting, each piece is counted, examined for consistency, and then wrapped up!
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC INK OR PAPER THAT YOU PREFER?
As far as paper goes, Crane Lettra is pretty standard around here. It is made from one hundred percent cotton, from fibers discarded by the garment industry that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
I managed to find a large lot of ink from an offset printer closing shop. For smaller jobs that don’t require a large amount of ink, I mix just what I need from a set of Pantone mixing colors. There is much debate about the friendliness of inks, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about which is the “greenest.” I feel confident using ink that would have been thrown away.
TALK ABOUT THE PRESS YOU USE IN THE STUDIO: I have a 1971 Heidelberg Windmill that is my absolute pride and joy. It is most useful for high quantities and tricky ink coverage. I also have a twelve-by-eighteen Chandler and Price that was built in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1907— it was my first press, and being born in the same place, we have a special relationship. Its size makes it great for larger pieces, and it is great for small runs.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT LETTERPRESS?
Letterpress has a tangible presence. When I get my hands on a piece that someone else printed, I could literally stare at it for hours. Being a letterpress printer means constant problem solving. I love being challenged to figure things out on my own! All the while, I’m creating beautiful things.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR DESIGNS?
I am inspired by words and National Geographic. I love animals, wallpaper, fabric, and anything old. I am drawn to objects and places with a history. Going to school in Savannah definitely brought that out in me—all of the history and detail in the architecture, the trees, and the cobblestone streets. The things those stones have seen!
Other printers/designers are absolutely an inspiration. Recently I joined Pinterest—a virtual pinboard of anything and everything online that inspires you, and allows you to see the pin boards of other artists/designers. For any creative person, I think that it is incredibly important to immerse yourself in your art. Believe in it. Sleep with it. Paper the walls with it. I’m getting close to papering the walls.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF LETTERPRESS HEADING?
A while back, I handed a friend my three-by-one printed business card. They asked how much it had cost to produce and asked why I chose letterpress. They didn’t understand why I would spend more money on a business card. My response was, “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand.” It wasn’t meant to be snobby; it was just the truth. Some people are drawn to letterpress, and some just aren’t. Those that are will keep it alive.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF OUTSIDE OF THE STUDIO:
I am a reader, a doodler, and an avid thrifter. Always covered in ink. Blessed with amazing family and friends, a very sweet dog who is allergic to everything, and a boyfriend who puts up with me. Overall, a very lucky woman. They do say that each person makes their own luck; I believe that putting good and beautiful things out into the world is a way to make it. I can pay my bills, and I’m doing what I love. Life is good.
Download the full issue or request a complimentary copy here.