June 25, 2006

Letterpress Adventure

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.

Condensed Sans Serif

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.

My Finished Poster

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.

Commentary (27):

1. Grant Hutchins says… jun 25, 2006 | 5:36 pm

Beautiful! I keep narrowly missing opportunities to take book arts courses.

2. Jon says… jun 25, 2006 | 6:00 pm

Amazing. I really like the look of your poster!
I will make sure not to miss a class like that, if I ever get the opportunity.

3. James Mathias says… jun 25, 2006 | 7:06 pm

Jason, the final products look very clean, nice work!

This entry reminded me a lot of the time I spent working as a book-binder in the summers between my High School years. We had to set all the (lead) type by hand for title pages, colophons and covers. We had no computerized equipment, it was all hands on, get dirty, handcrafted stuff. It was a great experience and probably one of the most memorable jobs I’ve ever had outside web development… oh, and hot air balloons!.

4. Pop Stalin says… jun 25, 2006 | 7:10 pm

I am so jealous. I would love to take a letterpress course or any printmaking course for that matter.

I love the look of letterpress printing, the look reminds me of history and a time when things were slower.

5. Sean Fraser says… jun 25, 2006 | 7:45 pm

It is visceral, isn’t it. There’s little that compares with the fragrance of ink on damp paper.

Papermaking should be next on your lists of things to do.

6. Kevin Tamura says… jun 25, 2006 | 8:16 pm

I love letterpress. A good friend of mine would go down to Hatch Show prints for a week or two every summer to do letterpress. I was so jealous.

7. Nick Fitzsimons says… jun 26, 2006 | 7:32 am

Letterpress printing is a wonderful pastime. When I was a teenager my two main hobbies were printing, and programming the school’s PDP 8/e minicomputer. People assume it was the time on the computer that led me to where I am today, but after thirty years I still notice the ways in which my understanding of the noble craft of printing influences my work - it’s all Information Technology, after all. Once that printers’ ink gets in your blood, you never lose your love for it.

(I always found distributing the type back into the case afterwards was really dull, though.)

8. june says… jun 26, 2006 | 9:00 am

Great story.

After a couple years of being in the web/graphic design field, I found that I missed working with “real” materials.

There is some sort of niceness about working with real objects that computers will never be able to duplicate. (or at least not anytime soon)

9. Khoi Vinh says… jun 26, 2006 | 10:16 am

Fantastic. That work is beautiful. I never took to press work too well myself, but I’ve always respected those who could turn out amazing letterpress designs especially. The sheer physicality of it gives design a completely different dynamic… whatever little physical dimension design once possessed seems gone now.

On a different topic: I never thought I’d say this, but continuing education is awesome.

10. Jason Santa Maria says… jun 26, 2006 | 10:18 am
On a different topic: I never thought I’d say this, but continuing education is awesome.

It totally is… Nerd! :D

11. (Wilson Miner’s) Laura says… jun 26, 2006 | 11:12 am

You might check your local art centers- I found a letterpress studio to join in teeny Lawrence, KS.

Also, check out KC’s www.hammerpress.net for some amazing letterpress inspiration. (and some really cool rock and roll posters)

Wilson and I are doing a letterpress wedding set. He’ll have to put it up, oh, after we find time to finish it.

12. Mark Boulton says… jun 26, 2006 | 12:26 pm

Ah… the smell of ink and clatter of ‘real’ machinery at work. Brilliant.

I just love letterpress, but like Khoi, I could never really get on with the whole process. Don’t know why but it might have something to do with the strange man who taught me. (big, bad beard and bogging eyes - a strange chap)

There’s one thing I miss, which just can’t be replicated with litho, let alone digital or on screen typography, is the certain finish that comes from something physically imprinting onto paper. That and happy accidents that can come from overprinting and things. It’s all the things that make up that sense of ‘craft’ that I keep harping on about.

Great type though Stan. I wonder if they do anything like this near me in darkest Wales? Probably not.

13. Ambert Rodriguez says… jun 26, 2006 | 12:52 pm

There is nothing like going back to the roots and really understanding where it all started. I have worked with plenty presses, but I bet that was an experience!

14. Andrei Herasimchuk says… jun 26, 2006 | 1:09 pm

It makes me kind of sad to think you actually have to explain what a letterpress is to start this article. Other than that, nice work and a nice article on the experience. These days, I’m looking for more and more excuses to get off the computer, so maybe it’s time to start searching eBay for old design equipment.

For those in southern California, The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena has an excellent letterpress studio. I highly recommend it.

15. Jacob Sullivan says… jun 26, 2006 | 1:44 pm

Awesome, Jason. My aunt owns a small-town newspaper, and you’ve got me curious about going and poking around her shop. I’m almost certain she has some old letterpress gear…

16. Jason Santa Maria says… jun 26, 2006 | 5:57 pm

I wish it were more feasible to start up something on my own. The sheer amount of space for the big presses and libraries of fonts, let alone the financial investment, makes it a very difficult prospect. I imagine it can become so engrossing that you just end up with it as your day job. As for me, I’m going to keep designing websites for now…

17. Blake Haswell says… jun 27, 2006 | 2:37 am

Wow, they look really beautiful. I’ll be sure to have a go at something like this when I get a chance.

There’s a real sense of achievement when you do something the old way. Really makes me wish I had some more time on my hands, to do projects like that.

Thanks for sharing, Jason. :-D

18. Daniel Curran says… jun 27, 2006 | 1:02 pm

Letterpress = Awesome

19. Pierce says… jun 27, 2006 | 5:25 pm

I’m captivated by the Flickr gallery.

I love the Superior Person’s Book of Words. We have it at home. The only trouble is, they’ll sell it to anyone.

20. Jessica says… jun 29, 2006 | 2:36 am

It sounds like an interesting class to be aprt of I am a big history buff and love learning anything I can about the old days.If college was not so much it sounds like a class i would love to attend!

21. Fogfish says… jun 29, 2006 | 1:47 pm

Drinking beer while printing adds to the letterpress experience. It also make registering easier. At least, I like to think so. Welcome to the fray.

22. Katy Roth says… jun 29, 2006 | 6:17 pm

I adore letterpress. Stationery from Egg Press in Portland, Oregon is a favorite splurge. Look up Bradley Hutchinson at Digital Letterpress, he’s done amazing books, covers. Meredith Miller at Flatbed Press does gorgeous work, too. Both in Austin.

As for Philly, perhaps check out http://www.pointedpress.com and see if they can’t hook you up with a referral for studio time. Have fun.

23. LindaM says… jun 29, 2006 | 6:33 pm

Thank you for sharing your interest (new found love) of letterpress printing. It has always been one of my passions.

When you’re in NYC for An Event Apart you should visit The Center for Book Arts at 28 West 27th St. I took a couple of fantastic letterpress classes there a number of years ago.

I love your photos and found lots more with the tag : letterpress.

24. Catherine says… jun 30, 2006 | 11:41 am

Fantastic! I took a letterpress weekend workshop a couple of summers ago and enjoyed the heck out of it. I loved the combination of art and logic - creating something artistic to print but then going step by step to set the type, figure out the furniture, and so on.

25. Stephen says… jul 2, 2006 | 6:55 am

Excellent article. If you live in or around London and would like an introduction to traditional typesetting, then the The Type Museum is well worth a look. They offer demonstrations every first Wednesday of the month, including type casting.

26. Jason Santa Maria says… jul 3, 2006 | 7:40 am

Thanks for the kind words and for pointing me towards some more resources. I so glad there are others of you out there that have interest and/or experience (woo!) in letterpress too!

27. Mikulla says… jul 3, 2006 | 5:19 pm

I was never really familiar with letterpress until I moved to nashville recently. The gallery that I work for shows the work of a few excellent letterpress artists.

Bryce McCloud, http://www.isleofprinting.com/index.html , is an excellent artist with very affordable prints for sale.

Hatch Show Print:
http://www.countrymusichalloffame.com/site/experience-hatch.aspx , is a staple of Nashville, featuring prints for concerts, etc.

Great inspiration!