December 15, 2006

Return to Letterpress

This past summer I took a Letterpress class at the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia. I ended up enjoying it so much I decided to take it again (though this time as a 10 week course instead of 5). I felt so good to jump back into doing this again. And now that I had one class under my belt, it was much easier to experiment and play around with some of the projects.

The Conqueror Worm broadside (detail)

After getting through one of the intro projects (a postcard with an animal theme), I decided I wanted to do something with a good hunk of text. It was right around the end of October, so I had the idea to do Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm. Rob joined me on the project since it seemed like it would be easier to split the typesetting duties, given that we are only able to work on things during class time. Man, did it turn out to be a huge undertaking. We spent the better part of two classes finding a font with enough letters (I did a rough count of over 110 appearances of the letter “e”) and then setting the 40 lines of text. During the next class, as we brought our type onto the press bed to lock up, we discovered something awful. Over the course of the previous two classes we had used two different composing sticks each, not realizing that each one was every so slightly different than the rest. The difference added up to anywhere from a full en of variation in length from line to line, making it impossible to lock up. Argh. While Rob printed the title and byline (set in gorgeous Bulmer), I sat and spent hours re-balancing the 40 lines of the poem (set in Garamond). When we finally got everything up on the press bed the next class, we noticed one last detail out of sorts: we thought we could get away with using two hyphen in the absence of em-dashes. We figured we had spent so much time on it already, what was just a little more time? We’re obsessive, and if we were to print those impostor em-dashes, they would be all we saw every time we looked at the finished piece. So, we trimmed down some spare rule to the size of em-dashes and swapped out the hyphens. After that it was smooth sailing, and we printed the lot with some great results.

Business Cards, Cut

With only two classes left, I decided to try something a bit simpler: business cards. I only have a few of my old ones left, and with the holiday downtime, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to crank out some more. The idea came together pretty quickly; I can fit eight cards on a page, so, why not do eight different variations of the same card! I printed my name in large woodblock type, so that when the cards were cut out each would receive a unique splash of color in the background. I got my feet wet with using polymer plates (short for photopolymer) for my logo and contact info. Each card has one of eight sayings (visible in one of the large photos and also listed in my comment below), and a reprise on the back. I am very pleased with these, and sort of amazed at how well they turned out.

I’ve only been out of the class for a couple weeks now, but I already miss it. I really need to find a local letterpress studio or co-op that has open hours. Letterpress has become something bigger to me. I adore the way I can touch the past through the old metal type and really appreciate typography on a new level. I really can’t recommend classes like this enough. If you are a lover of type, you really owe it to yourself to spend some time with letterpress printing.

As always, I took a bunch of photos to document everything, which are on Flickr for your viewing pleasure.

Commentary (24):

1. Matt O. says… dec 15, 2006 | 12:15 pm

Awesome stuff, man! Great use of the polymer plates and wood type to get that one of kind feel for your cards. The Poe poem came out quite nice as well. Setting type by hand truly makes you appreciate the way printing has evolved over the years.

You’re really making me wish I had spent more time in our letterpress lab when I was school at UT. There is a phenomenal Rob Roy Kelly wood type collection in there, which as far as I can remember, sits unused. What a shame!

Out of curiosity, do you recall the name of that slab typeface you used for the “cluck” postcard?

2. Jason Santa Maria says… dec 15, 2006 | 12:36 pm

Matt O.: Unfortunately, the majority of UArts’ wood type resides in unnamed drawers, so your guess is as good as mine. Also, most wood type seems to be custom, and may either not be a part of a specific typeface, or, even more likely, never made the jump to digital type.

3. Khoi Vinh says… dec 15, 2006 | 12:36 pm

I was lucky enough to have a birthday recently, and lucky again enough to get a copy of that poem for myself from Jason. It’s awesome. I’m framing it.

4. The Colonel says… dec 15, 2006 | 1:10 pm

I’m curious…

I noticed that you have different funny phrases (such as: Picks his teeth with his business cards) under your name, care to regale us with a list?

5. Jason Santa Maria says… dec 15, 2006 | 1:38 pm

The Colonel: You can view them (with tilted head) in the original size of one of the photos. But, for those who are unable to tilt their head, the eight sayings are, “Jason Santa Maria”:

1. giggles, but in a masculine way*
2. sleeps with his eyes open*
3. can help you get the lid off that jar*
4. will let you borrow a feeling*
5. picks his teeth with his business cards*
6. is sober semi-sober*
7. once sneezed 28 times in a row*
8. is monolingual*

All of the backs are identical:

*he’s also a graphic designer

6. The Colonel says… dec 15, 2006 | 3:15 pm

My neck thanks you!

(also helpful for those with no Flickr account)

7. Dave (SpinThis!) says… dec 15, 2006 | 3:35 pm

the name of that slab typeface you used for the “cluck” postcard?
I did a WhatTheFont… which came back with a couple potentials

8. Chairman Rau says… dec 15, 2006 | 4:05 pm

Ohhh, I really dig the idea of different cards; and the sayings are great.

There’s something really awesome about doing analogue work like this; Josh and I get the same feeling doing screen printing all the time. It gives you a great appreciation for mundane things like mixing ink to get the right color — instead of just using the color picker in Photoshop. You should see the number of cups of mis-mixed inks in my garage!

Next analogue project? Screen printing with water-based vinyl inks on sheets of adhesive vinyl — yay, stickers!! I’ve got three-hundred 20x27” sheets sitting in boxes; and I can’t wait to use the super-dope mixed color named fire red. Analogue is yummy.

9. Cameron Moll says… dec 15, 2006 | 9:48 pm

This is fabulous stuff. “Envious” doesn’t suffice!

10. Kirk says… dec 16, 2006 | 7:10 am

These sir are masterpieces. I’ve recently been pestering Kevin with questions of a business card nature and yours are a true inspiration.

11. paul says… dec 17, 2006 | 7:43 pm

I only had an intro to letterpress in school, but would love to take a class like that one day.

Here’s a nice video on letterpress that inspires me.

Man I would love one of your business cards too. They look great. Nice job.

12. Shane Guymon says… dec 17, 2006 | 9:42 pm

Nice work, I love taht “Cluck” postcard, with the little duck…

Once again you did a fabulouse job with the business card, I still really enjoy the last one you sent me.

But gosh darnit I want one of these ones too.

Of course now I’m living in Austin and am concidering going to SXSW, so perhaps I will see you there.

13. Kelter says… dec 18, 2006 | 9:52 am

FYI - is a decent Wood Type Font resource I came across a while back - it’s nice to simulate the look with the real thing vs. the overly “grunged” faces.

14. Frank Chimero says… dec 18, 2006 | 2:56 pm

Letterpress is a great thing. When I was in school, I helped set up our old Vandercook press and made runs around the midwest to find type, cuts and other equipment like quoins and such.

I think coming up with a piece that you’re satisfied with from letterpress is probably one of the most fulfilling feelings you can have as a designer. After all, you did just spend countless hours obsessing over typography…

Love the cards Jason. I did a set once where I cut up test screenprints.

15. Blake says… dec 19, 2006 | 8:08 am

I’ve had a strange, wonderful history with letterpress. I started out in web design, then found a passion in printmaking (which lasted 2 years)…stuck to lino-cut strictly…never had the chance to work with metal type (I carved my own type, and cut myself many times in the process)…now that I’ve been in every other part of design, I’d love to jump back in and work with some metal type…I wonder if the local colleges offer it here…

16. Matt says… dec 19, 2006 | 11:55 am

Awesome! I’ve got a couple friends doing amazing letterpress work. Athenaeum Press and Seraph Stationery.

17. Pete says… dec 19, 2006 | 1:12 pm

Awsome post! I bought a tiny hand press from Kelsey’s when I was 15 (way back in the 70’s) and spent many wonderful days composing and printing business cards and various other items. There are few activities as demanding, time-consuming, frustrating, and rewarding as setting metal type by hand and then seeing your work magically appear on a printed page. To this day, I am a bona fide, anal-retentive, typography snob. My coworkers in our small web shop roll their eyes at my penchant for “curly quotes”, em dashes, and other little details that are far too often ignored in digital media. Thanks for reminding me where my love for beautiful typography originated.

18. Bill says… dec 19, 2006 | 3:22 pm

Good stuff — looks like a lot of fun. It’s funny most of the Letterpress enthusiasts I know are web professionals by day! (Myself included)

19. Tom says… dec 20, 2006 | 2:20 pm

There is but one made up word to describe those business cards… OK, two words, one made up:

DIY Gorgeousity.

20. Kevin says… dec 21, 2006 | 3:32 am

I was going to take this class, but I was too busy getting married when the class started! I figured you and Rob would be taking it again. Maybe in the spring…

21. Marcel says… dec 22, 2006 | 3:23 am

Really great stuff… fabulous!
If you don’t have any use for these cards, you can send me one ;)

22. Cherie says… dec 22, 2006 | 5:24 am

Thanks for reminding me that I want to take a class in letterpress. (I have a pretty long list of classes I’m interested in so I tend to forget items.)

Since you enjoyed letterpress so much you might consider taking a bookmaking class in the future. I had lots of fun in mine.

23. David Mohrman says… dec 27, 2006 | 12:30 pm

That’s how I learned graphic design when I was a kid back in the 60’s (yeah, I’m a designosaur fossil), setting type upside down and backward. Used woodcut/linolium blocks for illustrations too. Also learned all the bindry and book-binding processes as well as screen printing and engraving. Pretty much set the course of my life and career from then on out.

Only later as an adult did I learn that my grandfather - who died long before I ever knew about him - was a partner in a large printing company in the mid-west, so I guess it was in my blood without knowing it.

If I had the money and the space I’d purchase a letter press and all the type and equipment I could scrounge and start doing fine art printing for a hobby/business.

Right now I can hear the clanking of the platten and the smell the smell of the ink and paper in my mind!

Thanks, and Happy New Year all!

24. Richard says… jan 5, 2007 | 9:11 am

Damn, those look so good! The idea of having different backdrop on each card and a ‘saying’ probably isn’t totally new, but this is the first time I’ve heard of it so I’m officially calling you a genius.

“You are a genius.”