I just completed a letterpress course at the University of the Arts, and all I can think about is how I wish it was longer. I first found out about the class while speaking to a group of about-to-graduate students. I signed up straight away, and so did Rob, Kevin, Dan, Sutter, and April. Since this was just a summer Continuing Education course, the six of us comprised the majority of the class. Unfortunely, because it was a Continuing Ed course, we were only permitted to use the lab and facilities during class time. Perhaps it was for the better, because I would have spent all of my free time in the studio. Time restrictions aside, the experience was amazing, and being able to say things like “see you in class” again, gave us all a good laugh.
For the sake of those who don’t know, a seriously brief history: Letterpress is a later extension of the earliest form of printing, and makes use of individually cast (lead) or carved (wood) letters. German metal-worker, Johann Gutenberg, is credited with the invention of movable type and ushering in its popularity with the first mass-produced printed work in 1455, the Gutenberg Bibles. Due to the extreme amount of manual labor involved in printing large scale works, as well as advancements in technology like the computer, letterpress printing is mostly done for the sake of art or hobby these days. Many of the most popular and time-honored typefaces existing today (basically anything older than a few decades) started out as lead and wood letterforms, crafted by skilled sculptors and artisans. For more info on the history of printing and letterpress, you can read up at Wikipedia or poke around on Briar Press.
Many of the current digital versions of traditional typefaces are considered pale approximations of the centuries-old originals, having lost much their of the charm and craftsmanship when being converted to digital formats. I have such a tremendous amount of respect and reverence for typography and type history (some of my favorite topics), that I could help but feel a bit humbled by the opportunity to work with original lead typefaces. There are many things I take for granted by working with type on the computer, and other things that I was prepared to find in working with metal type. A perfect example is when I first saw some of the italic Caslon letters I used on one of my projects. I was blown away when I noticed that the letters were crafted to overlap one another—which you can sorta see in this photo I took of a lowercase “f”—to compensate for extra whitespace and tracking the tilting letterforms would incur. Absolutely stunning.
Some of the other things that go along with manually setting type, are tougher to put into words: lifting severely heavy drawers of lead type, the feel of running paper through the press, the sheer amount of time required to set type letter-by-letter, using real strips of lead between line (leading), reading your type upside-down in the composing stick, blocking out the press bed with wooden furniture, and distributing type after use. There is such a visceral aesthetic to the actual work behind letterpress printing that I can’t help but geek out on it a bit. It was also exciting to finally get to flex some of the typographic knowhow I had to learn in college like measuring in points and picas.
Our class was broken up into two projects: the first was an exquisite-corpse-style book where each of us wrote a sentence, and the second was completely open-ended. The first project was basically to get us familiar with the California Job Case layout of the type drawers, using the composing stick to set our type, and understanding locking up and operating the presses. All of the presses we used were some variation of the Vandercook SP-15 proofing press. For the second project, the six of us chose to do a poster for a word and definition from The Superior Person’s Book of Words to give us some structure (I chose the word “Kickshaw”). As far as type choices: I went with 12pt Bodoni for my part of the first project, and for the poster I chose an unidentified condensed woodblock sans serif for the word and 24pt Caslon at a 40 pica measure for the definition (with a fleuron and a sprinkling of borders). You can see the final book and my poster on Flickr.
Even though time was very tight, I managed to make 40 prints of my poster, including a few impromptu experiments. There are things I would change about the poster if it were a real project, but I told myself going into the class that I would embrace the medium—and more specifically my lack of experience for it. The spacing and imperfect impressions are part of the charm of letterpress for me. And I can’t help but love the first things I ever printed this way.
If you love type and ever have the chance to take a course like this, I highly recommend you give it a try. I know it’s a long shot, but if anyone from Philly reads this and knows of a local letterpress place that rents studio time, I would love to hear about it; just drop me a line. Though the class is over now, I hope to be able to find a way to still use the studio from time to time. UArts also has a longer class scheduled for the fall that I just might have to be a part of. I took a bunch of photos of class, printing, and equipment, and you can peep them all on Flickr.