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Issue #24 August 29, 2013 Aug 29, 2013 Aug 29
Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #20 July 4, 2013


Letterpress printing has been revived as a craft after its commercial death.

By Nancy Gohring Twitter icon 

There’s something soothing about the whir of a letterpress machine in motion. It’s a low murmur with a gentle knocking mixed in.

“That lovely sound I call the art of the clanking iron,” says Carl Montford, the man many people credit with fostering the thriving letterpress community in Seattle. “When I had my shop in the garage in Kansas, my son remembers going to sleep at night listening to the clanking iron.”

His colleague Jenny Wilkson, one of the first people in Seattle to hold instructional classes on printing with letterpress, gushes about the studio she set up at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC). “It’s beautiful equipment, so attractive, so romantic,” she says.

It wasn’t always so. At one time, there was very little romance to letterpress. It was a means of reproduction. Tradesmen — and they were mostly men — learned to run the machines at vocational schools. The trade and craft mostly disappeared as photographic, offset lithographic, and digital technology replaced the old gear.

But it never died out, and it’s experiencing a limited but substantive renaissance as an art around the world. Seattle is one of the centers of this modest rebirth.

Hands on

Letterpress was the dominant method for producing large and small editions of pamphlets, books, and periodicals nearly from the moment Johann Gutenberg figured out the right combination of interchangeable (movable) type, ink, paper, and mechanical pressure around 1450 up until the 1950s, when a vastly cheaper and more efficient replacement took over.

For those 500 years, the vast majority of printing involved locking raised metal and wood type into a frame. Carved images from wood and other material joined them; later, so did photographs etched into metal. Ink was originally brushed on by hand and later mechanically. A press would make an impression, pushing paper with exactly the right amount of force onto the inked surface. Montford’s “clanking iron” is the sound of a manually operated mechanical treadle in motion; later, steam and electricity powered presses at all scales of operation, from one-room shops to city blocks of newspaper machinery.

Until the 1880s, every bit of that type was handset, one letter or symbol at a time, from metal produced in specialized type foundries, or carved from wood for larger sizes. (See “Wood Stock” in this issue, in which Jacqui Cheng visits the Hamilton Wood Type Museum and recounts wood type’s history.) In the late 19th century, “hot metal” typesetting equipment sped up composition by allowing an operator to tap away at a keyboard to cause molten lead to gush into molds and set lines of type all at once. (Linotype: The Film documents the rise and fall of hot metal.)

Hot-metal type sped up newspaper, magazine, and book production by orders of magnitude over handset type, and thus dramatically reduced the number of people needed to compose the same run of text. But however the type was made or set, printing was still almost entirely ink brushed on metal and wood impressed into paper.

“It was this utilitarian thing in every small print shop, every ad agency, wherever somebody needed to do small print runs,” says Kristine Lynch, a relatively recent letterpress devotee and owner of Flourish, a Seattle shop that sells letterpress cards. “And now it’s this piece of art really. Just the press in and of itself is a piece of art.”

That’s because of the shift in the 1950s from letterpress printing to offset-lithographic printing. This newer technique, tinkered with for a long while, became cost effective. Offset printing as it emerged uses flexible plates coated with a photosensitive material. (The use of photosensitive plates for making prints dates to the 1820s, even before the capture of realistic photographic images was possible.)

Expose a film negative of the material to be printed — like a newspaper page or an illustration in a book — directly onto the plate, and those exposed areas harden. After washing the unexposed areas off, the hardened parts accept ink (“oleophilic”) and the unexposed areas reject ink (“oleophobic”). Initially, letterpress typesetting was still used to make a single “proof” which was photographed as a negative to expose onto the plate.

But the seeming death knell of metal and wood type came as computers became cheap enough in the 1960s to allow for phototypesetting (“cold type”). Type was reversed out of opaque glass or film strips; the outline of the letter could be exposed by light shining through onto paper or film behind it. The computer controlled moving the plate to the right position or flashing a light through a spinning film strip on a drum at the correct fraction of a second. Phototype was, in turn, replaced starting in the late 1970s by imagesetters, which used lasers to paint computer-created type and images directly onto paper or film.

Even though some print shops clung to using letterpress years and even decades after replacements appeared — they had already paid for all the equipment and had trained staff — all commercial operations eventually gave it up.

Abandoned in the back of print shops, old letterpress equipment collected dust for a while — or was taken out and scrapped, especially as print shops and newspaper presses moved out of city centers close to commerce and into cheaper suburbs and even rural areas. (Seattle’s last major commercial printer left for the hinterlands in the late 1990s, and its giant brick building was turned into urban storage lockers.)

But not long after technology had passed letterpress by for commercial use, people like Montford started to toy around with it again. Now 76, he and a small number of his peers carried the dying process through the dark decades until more recently, when some say a backlash against all things digital breathed renewed interest into letterpress.

With that revival of attention comes a bit of experimentation with new technologies aimed at making letterpress printing more efficient, bringing elements that left letterpress for dead into focus as key elements of its renaissance.

What was once strictly business became an art form and is now coming full circle as some people hope to turn letterpress printing back into a livelihood.

Carl Montford in his letterpress shop.

Ink and lead in the veins

Montford’s love for printing started young, when his father “graciously allowed me to go downtown and find a job,” as Montford puts it. “At the ripe old age of 13, I figured I needed a summer off.” Montford had spent his free time shoveling chicken waste on his dad’s farm and range operation. He ended up doing odd jobs for the weekly newspaper in a small town in Kansas.

Years later, with an engineering degree and a job at Boeing, Montford just couldn’t shake the allure of letterpress. “The ink and lead seemed to get into my veins, unbeknownst to me,” he says.

Montford moved to Seattle in the early 1980s and ended up finding a few other letterpress fans by reading the classified ads while on the lookout for machines and typefaces. Three or four of them would meet Saturday mornings for breakfast and help each other out with equipment problems.

At the time, very little craft printing of the sort he liked was going on across the country. The American Printing History Association existed but mainly “printed these little three-by-four cards with witty sayings,” as an exercise in using the antique type and cuts they’d find, Montford says.

From then until around the turn of the century, there was a small but growing community of letterpress fans in Seattle. That’s changed in the last decade: as people began spending more time staring at screens, the interest in this old-fashioned, deeply tactile and messy process has boomed.

“A graphic artist goes to work, sits at a computer all day, and leaves at night, and their hands are just as clean as they were when they went to work,” Montford says. “So many of the students are present-day graphic artists, and they want to come in and get something tangible in their hands.” Montford teaches at SVC and takes on some private students in his own studio.

Wilkson finds a similar yearning in her students at SVC. “It’s a reaction to how distant we’ve gotten to working with our hands,” she says. “There’s a huge DIY revolution going on in a lot of parts of the country. Letterpress is so perfectly suited for that.”

About half of her students have a graphic arts background — SVC teaches visual and communication arts and trades. But the rest are people who “don’t think of themselves as creative types but love the printed word,” she says. Surprisingly, she has a fair number of accountants in her classes.

A ruinous business or an expensive hobby

The problem for many students, though, is what to do with their newfound knowledge after they take a class in letterpress. “You spend 10 weeks learning this craft, but it’s not like you’re learning tennis and you just go to the courts on your own. There’s no way to carry it on,” says Lynch, who took Wilkson’s class.

Making a full-time living based on handset type and hand-operated letterpress is nearly impossible, most people agree. “I think you can either try to teach it or you create art books or sell broadsides, but I don’t think it’s a viable living,” Wilkson says. To set type and make greeting cards on a hand-operated press, running each individual card through multiple times to add colors, is just too time-consuming to pay all the bills. Some turn to it more as a hobby that pays a small return; others mix in higher-paying work to make letterpress production financially feasible.

Plus, since it’s become more popular, letterpress type and presses are harder to come by and growing more expensive. No one is making new presses and few are making new type, and the world’s supply of workable items is always dwindling. In the 1970s and 1980s, an uncountable number of pounds of lead, antimony, tin, cast iron, and steel were junked when shops closed down or went bankrupt. Printers — or creditors in bankruptcies — typically had to pay to get presses and cases of type hauled off. (The wood type sometimes survived in limited quantities to be sold by antique and knick-knack stores for household decoration.)

As the supply of presses has shrunk, however, prices have gone sky high. When Wilkson was creating the shop at SVC in 2000, she was able to acquire most of the machines for free or around $1,000. The same kinds of presses today go for $10,000 or $15,000, she says.

And they easily break. “When people move these presses, they don’t know what the heck they’re doing and the presses fall over and break,” Montford says. “When cast iron is 150 years old, it becomes brittle with age.”

With his engineer’s background, Montford has become the go-to man for repairing old machines. He’s “in cahoots” with a local machine shop that does a good job of welding cast iron and helps him repair broken pieces, he says.

Mixing bits and metal

While no one has really solved the problem of a shortage of presses, people have turned to new technologies to try to address some other issues that make it so difficult to make letterpress printing into a business.

For instance, to create the Flourish logo that appears on the back of cards that Lynch prints on her 1920s Chandler and Price 10×15 platen press, she designed the logo in Adobe Illustrator and sent it off to New York, where a company created a photopolymer plate for her.

These plates combine modern, recent, and antique technology. Photopolymer, invented in the 1950s, began to be used in the 1980s for letterpress as good-quality handset type became scarce and the hot-metal machines fell out of use. A polymer plate can be directly exposed to lithographic film — film that is either transparent or opaque with no shades of gray — to harden its rubbery surface in almost the same method used for making offset printing plates.

But when offset plates are washed, only an extremely thin layer of material is removed. With photopolymer, a significant amount of the medium comes off with warm water and “washing soda,” a non-toxic alkaline, leaving a high relief.

The finished plate is attached to a plastic or metal backing, which then pairs with a base through reusable adhesive or magnetism. The plate plus the base bring the material to “type height,” always exactly 0.918 inches (23.3mm) in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

“The great thing about polymer is it can take a beating,” Lynch notes. Lead type of the kind originally used in many letterpress machines is quite soft and can easily be damaged. Although there are a few foundries now that produce fresh type for letterpress, they make very few faces and the cost is quite high. (For more on foundries, see the editor’s note in this issue.) If you ruin what you’ve got, you may not be able to replace it. Magnesium plates using caustic acids for washing are also made, but are better for foil stamping than printing — they are very hard.

Wilkson also has a studio where she too prints off modern plates, although she’d prefer to make a living out of handset printing. “There’s just no way to make it financially make sense if I were to handset everything,” she says.

In addition to using polymer plates, some printers are attaching motors to their old letterpress machines so that they can churn out prints faster and with less labor. Designers are even farming out the printing — they create a design and hire a commercial printer, like Seattle’s Evolution Press, to print it on a letterpress machine.

Apple introduced modestly priced “letterpress” cards in October 2010 that combined fancy color laser printing of custom messages and photos with photopolymer-based commercial printing. The company wanted the nostalgia of letterpress but the convenience of modern production.

Six of one

To Lynch, these are all ways that people are experimenting with letterpress in hopes of making a living at it. If the work is high quality, she may be interested. “People are trying different things like using neon inks and different paper stocks and printing on chipboard instead of Italian art paper,” she says.

Some artists, though, point out the difference between handset printed materials and those made on polymer plates. “What’s better about handset? It’s imperfect,” Wilkson says. “Digital letterpress, because it’s a relief plate it’s all precisely the same height. Sometimes that seems a little dead. I think the handset projects really stand out in their imperfectness.”

The uninitiated, too, seem to prefer the imperfections, even if they might not know exactly why. One of Lynch’s suppliers, Ghost Academy, makes a line of cards that aren’t actually made on a letterpress. The artist hand-carves linoleum and simply inks it and presses it to the paper by hand. “Look how primitive it is,” Lynch says, holding up the card.

It turns out, these cards are Lynch’s best sellers. “I think this is a backlash maybe to these perfectly printed things,” she says. Part of the allure, though, is in the message on the Ghost Academy cards; one reads, “If you were a zombie, I would totally let you eat my brains.”

Even as designers continue to play with ways to make letterpress printing into a business, hobbyists and artists are sure to carry on with the traditional handset printing just for the love of it.

Like Montford. “I’m not a commercial printer and never have been. I’m a private press proprietor. I print and do art work for my own amusement,” he says. “I go to art shows and book shows and set up my table and sell my limited edition wood engravings, and that’s enough to keep me in paper and ink money for a while.”

Whether the public buys one of his limited editions at an art show or a more mass-produced card in a shop, it seems that letterpress has gotten under the skin, just like the lead in Montford’s veins.

Photos by Glenn Fleishman.

Nancy Gohring’s work has appeared in Wired, the New York Times, the Economist Babbage blog, MIT Technology Review, Computerworld, CITEworld, ITworld, and many other publications. She started writing about cell phones when they were huge and expensive, and now covers a wide range of technology and science topics.

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