Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Letterpress Printing

Financial Investment: $$$$
Time Commitment: TTTT
Space Requirement: OOOO
Skills Required: if you want to do anything other than text, some graphic design or drawing ability (i.e., you have to be able to create what you want to print)

Letterpress printing is an old style of printing that was used mainly from the mid-15th century until the 19th century.   Today, it is mainly used in high-end stationery, such as invitations and business cards.  You would recognize it for the distinct impression made in the paper by the image or text, which is created by protruding text or images that are inked and then pressed into the paper with pressure.  Printing is done with the help of large presses, such as a Vandercook, which is a cylinder proof press, or treadle platen presses, though tabletop platen presses are available.

I took the Letterpress I – Contemporary Letterpress Weekend Workshop with Amber McMillan at The Center for Book Arts.  If you know me, you won’t be surprised to hear that the first art I chose to learn seemed to be the most complicated and most expensive.  The class lasted 6 hours each Saturday and Sunday for three consecutive weekends and cost $540 for members and $565 for non-members.  The class taught how to use both the Vandercook and platen presses, hand set type, prepare a digital image to be sent out for polymer plate processing, process a plate by hand, and of course, print.

Hand setting type is the painstaking process of laying out each letter (known as “type”) and every space of your project by hand.  Once you determine what text you want to print and how you want to lay it out, you have to pick each of the letters of type and place them in something called a composing stick.  This can be quite tricky, as the letters get placed upside down and backwards.  One time I mistakenly placed a “u” in the place of an “n.”  After printing it, I had to undo my setup, fix the letter, and redo the setup.  

Below is an excerpt from “The Fountainhead” that I printed using metal type:

As a contrast, below is a date I printed using large wood type:

We were also given the opportunity to create a modern polymer plate to print our own design.  However, since I had no drawing, graphic design, or other “artistic” background, I simply made a business card for my sister to learn the process and compare it to hand-setting type.  In a nutshell, we had to create a digital image, such as a PDF, to submit to a company that would produce the polymer plate.  Below is a picture of the polymer plate and the text of the business card that was printed using the plate (I purposely blurred personal info here):

Next, we created our own printing plate by hand.  To do this, we took digital images (I used a picture taken at my wedding, but some scanned drawings they had created), changed them to black and white images if a color image was used, increased the contrast, inversed the color, and printed them on a transparency film using an ordinary office laser printer.  The films were then used to expose the polymer plate in a light box so that the parts corresponding to the black portions of the film could be washed away, while the white (clear on the transparency) portions would remain.  The polymer that remained was inked on the press and produced a print of the original black and white image. 

Below are the original picture, the high contrast black and white inverse image, and a side-by-side of the print and the plate:

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the class, but as you can see, letterpress printing is not for the faint of heart.  It requires numerous steps, which means a lot of places where things can go wrong, expensive materials and equipment, and huge time commitment (set-up and cleaning alone can take over one hour).  Although the class may seem pricey, I believe it is well worth the 36 hours of class time, use of the equipment, and the materials, which included polymer plates, paper, and ink.

On a final note, I really liked Amber as a teacher.  She’s very mild-mannered and clearly knows her art.  Although we were all new to letterpress printing, she stressed the importance of quality results and perfecting the printed image.  She has her own letterpress and design business (Post Editions).  I’m sure that her clients are happy with her attention to detail.

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