Learning Letterpress Printing

I’ve wanted to learn how to use a letterpress for as long as I can remember.  No real reason; it just seemed like a gaping hole in my crafting knowledge.  I thought about printing our holiday cards a couple of years back but you have to take four classes at San Francisco Center for the Book before they’ll let you rent press time and while I do usually plan my holiday cards about five months ahead, I think that was the year we bought the house and we didn’t have a lot of free cash floating around.  I considered it again last year but I was nursing and it would have been a major hassle to have to stop and pump every couple of hours through an eight hour class.  Finally the stars aligned this year when both sets of parents offered to throw down some cash to cover the cost of the classes for my Christmas gift – thanks, guys!  I’ve taken two of the four so far and I’m really enjoying it.letterpress futura font

In the first class we learned the basics of printing – how to set type on the composing stick (left to right and upside down, with the nicks up!), how to transfer the type to the press and set up the ‘furniture’ (wooden blocks) to hold it in place, and how to run the press with assistance.  In that class I made a thank you card based on something my Dad used to say (and probably still does)…letterpress composing stick 2Letterpress composing stick

Part of the point of the series of classes is to just get used to setting type and operating the presses, so the basic procedures are the same for the second class except that we printed a ‘broadside’ (a small poster) and we operated – and cleaned – the presses with less supervision.  I really enjoy the rhythmic process – picking out the letters, running a proof, correcting the layout, running another proof, more correcting, and then the motion of running the prints – inserting paper, cranking handle, pulling print.  It’s a lot like my favorite things about printing black and white photographs.letterpress furniture quoins

letterpress cardNeedless to say, one’s letterpress ability is basically limited by the pithiness of one’s thoughts (or those of others you know) and some ideas about layout, as well as the availability of type – most of the type at SFCB was donated by working presses and students aren’t always great at putting things back in the right place, so for one of my projects it took me five attempts with different fonts and sizes before I found a set that had all the letters I needed.  A bit frustrating at the time, but it forces you to be creative – and makes you remember to check whether it looks like you have a full set before you start setting your type…

Registration of multiple colors is tricky!  I think the best thing I took out of the second class was to set it up roughly right, print a proof, and correct from there.  I find it incredibly difficult to visualize the type backwards.  I also should have printed the red text first, as I could then have adjusted the spacing of the brown letters – by printing the brown first I was stuck with the gap and had to just position the red to best fit.letterpress broadside magda gerber quote 2

The large letters are wood blocks.  A different look, and a different feel on the press too – you have to crank it a lot harder, and the first time I did it I thought I’d broken the press.

Letterpress broadside magda gerber quote

I have a small pile of these broadsides (the Magda Gerber quotes) – if you’d like one, please sign up to follow my blog, and then comment below.  If you’re already subscribed, then just comment – either way, I’ll be in touch to get your mailing address.

You’ll have to do something nice for me to get one of the thank you cards…

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  • Reply
    Anne T
    January 29, 2016 at 4:56 am

    So that’s how you made your lovely card! There is no end to your talents! How about writing and making a simple book for Carys? Anne.

    • Reply
      January 29, 2016 at 9:50 am

      The thing with printing is that multiple pages takes forever…multiple copies of the same page is easy though. I meant to mention that I’ll make a poster in the next class – does anyone need a poster for something?

  • Reply
    January 29, 2016 at 5:33 am

    Nice card, but the quote was actually “better than a poke in the eye . . .’ The phrase comes from Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus and his fellow travellers were trapped in a cave with the one eyed Cyclops Polyphemus they waited for the Cyclops to sleep and sharpening a stake drove it into his eye thereby allowing them to escape. And you thought I was just a metalwork teacher.

    • Reply
      February 4, 2016 at 10:13 pm

      Gosh – you mean I’ve been misquoting you (and Homer!) all these years?!

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