Letterpress – Slow death of a skilled trade

Freelance letterpress?

Yes. Please contact me with details, portfolio items and pricing.

State of letterpress:

What was once the only way to mass produce any printed pamphlet, brochure, business card, you name it, has recently become a dying trade and reviving art form. The single most distinguished characteristic of letterpress prints, in my opinion, is the humanized quality. The Linotype machine (which revolutionized the printing industry by molding lines of text in lead, dramatically improving the speed of setting type) arguably was the first step in dehumanizing the printing process. There is something that feels much more genuine and authentic and human about carefully operated machinery, type, elements and paper placement.

Most people in this day-and-age do not know (or care) what a letterpress is. The evolution of printing has become so computerized and technical that almost anyone can set type on any computer and print using their home inkjet or laser printer. Something has been lost in the transition, something human. Something that gave that printed piece something worth saving. In the modern world we live in, we are overwhelmed with mass produced, digitally-made materials…many lacking a human “touch” and consideration in the final piece.

The letterpress printing industry had it’s own language and terminology lost to many generations of technical changes over the years. The word coin and furniture have special meanings, but what about jets and chases? Or leading? Some of the terms (most) have been adopted in the digital design world, but many new designers do not have roots in terms (and it probably does not make much of a difference, either way).

Letterpress is a dying art form and trade. It is being kept alive by a few garage hobbyists and small print shops, unable to give up the tradition of the ages. Unable to give up the zen, if I may rephrase, of letterpress. Commercially, letterpress is not a “money-maker” and owners dispose of the artifacts as scrap metal or if they are lucky, to a museum of sorts. If you search letterpress or lead type on ebay you’ll come across quite a few of these artifacts.

I have been extremely fortunate (I cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunity) to work along side as an apprentice of sorts, with a gentleman who has made printing his life and with a dedication of precision I have not seen anywhere in the field. He is able to operate any press he could get his hands on with immaculate understanding and precise work. As you walk into the shop, all you see is printing machines from the floor up, corner to corner. Not all of them work the way they should, but he has collected them whenever he could afford it. He even has them surrounding the outside of his shop covered in tarps eager to be setup and run. It is like a walk-through printing museum. One glance down, you are looking at the scraps of cut rules and lead pieces, and further up you find yourself staring at cases upon cases of lead type (so many that there aren’t enough drawers to put them in). To your left you find stat paper and job samples and to your right an ancient, but fully functional, circa 1850’s platen press and a little further a beautiful Heidelberg windmill press. The platen press with its 1900 electric motor that shows blue arcs of electricity as copper brushes rub against the steel wheel as it turns the large letterpress wheel with its rubber belt. The windmill press with its beautiful motion and distinct sound and artfully crafted parts. The smell of the shop; a blend of kerosene, mechanical oil, cleaning solutions and scented hand wash. It is a unique workplace built around its function. Designed that way. It is an oddly creative feeling environment.

But all of this is probably mundane drab and babbling to those who do not experience the same satisfaction from the trade. I wouldn’t expect them to. For the most part, this is a very narrow appreciation group. The paper, the tactile qualities, the forms, the physical, tangible variations, the three dimensional aspects of printed pieces, the function, the subtle aesthetics, and the ability to mass produce quality pieces are all reasons why. I am finding there is something missing, or something that we are sacrificing, with the quick adoption of digital prints. What about alternative methods that show craftsmanship, skill and human intervention? After the machine is created (your inkjet printer or whatever), what makes that design you just created feel human and special? I think the best example that most of us can relate to is wedding invitations. They are not just printed on regular paper and put into a plain envelope. Fine invitations typically include embossing/debossing, foil, ribbon, hand crafted paper and many other small subtleties that give it that special feeling. It’s one of those things…you know its special when you feel it. And you dont get that special effect from your printer…you get it from tactile, hands-on experience, keen understanding of production and creative thinking.

I was a bit concerned to complete my graphic design major where an entire 4 year course plan they only mentioned “letterpress” twice. During the short week of “printing history” in Graphic Design History and again in Advanced Typography. When talking with classmates, most had little desire to learn or showed much interest in the field. The appreciation for the trade, even in the newer generations of design, is becoming slimmer. The worst part is, the school actually has a letterpress and a few cases of type (but only because of a few dedicated teachers bought it out of their own pockets). Now if only they could incorporate it into the curriculum. A simple “ink-on-paper” 1 week crash course on the history of printing, hands on…ask questions. I’d be willing to offer a weekend training session for any local designer if anyone is interested. Bring your ideas and projects, or just come to learn…shoot me an email.

3 Comments

  1. It was wonderful to read this post, esp. coz I feel the same way abt it.
    Infact as a fellow design student I am worknig with letterpress for my final project(dissertation of sorts) for my graduation.

  2. troy says:

    I just got laid off from a small printing business that had letterpresses and offset pressess. I ve been in the printing industry 25 yrs. in Utah. And I’ve seen a whole lot of shops close thier doors the past few yrs. This is a dying trade in my experience. I love printing and operating all types of printing presses.. But it does not love me anymore. I cant keep myself employed in the industry. No fault of my own. The printing business is just not out thier anymore. I spoke with a Heidelberg rep in my area a few days ago. They have’nt sold a new press in the area for two yrs. And the tech said he gets called out on fewer and fewer repair jobs. I hate to say it but the offset printing industry is dying entertainment.

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