Sunday, August 8, 2010

L is for Letterpress

While researching last week for an article I never got around to writing, I was struck with an immediate interest in the topic. The article was supposed to be about letterpress at home, which I found was a much larger topic than could fit the article parameters, so I abandoned the title.  Title abandoned, my interest would not be deterred.  I spent hours searching around the net looking for information about letterpress, the plates, the process, the history, etc.  I was completely enamored by the prospect of learning to letterpress. What a beautiful and complex art form, I thought, something I might like to try my hand at.  I've always been creative, though in recent years every ounce of creativity spills into my writing with very little left over for aught else.  I need another hobby, something to take my strained eyes away from the computer, a hobby with which to actively engage apart from my keyboard.  Letterpress, I thought, could easily be it.

In my research I learned a few things:

  1. I learned that letterpress is one very expensive hobby. A table-top platen press will run anywhere from $5,00 to $5,000 and then you have buy the plates, which at first seem relatively inexpensive, until you realize that you're paying about $10 for one letter or symbol. Inks and brayer are also expensive, but not so much they're unaffordable.

  2. I learned that it takes an immense amount of training to learn to letterpress. Books, classes, and seminars are available to learn about the process of letterpress, but going it alone without help can be an exercise in futility.

  3. Finally, I learned that letterpress professionals and enthusiasts are not a very welcoming bunch. Blog after blog, forum after forum it was much of the same thing, letterpress proficients rejecting letterpress hobbyists as amateurs without a chance of making anything of their expensive new hobby.

The third point is the one that really got me. You would think that if someone enjoys a hobby, they would want to share that hobby with others, no matter how difficult, expensive, or time consuming it may be.  A labor of love is a labor of love, regardless of the effort, after all.  It seems to me, however, that most of the people getting offended at letterpress hobbyists are those who making a living as letterpress professionals. I got the feeling they were threatened by the idea that others might enjoy letterpress, too. Many letterpress professionals have an education in letterpress, years of experience, and with these credentials cannot accept that others might enjoy letterpress without the formalities.

This almost turned me off to it... almost.  I can see how those who consider themselves artisans (and letterpress certainly is an artisan skill) would take offense to amateurs treading on their craft, but I think many letterpress proficients fail to remember that they themselves were amateurs once, too.  Some of them have an education in printing, while others took it up as a hobby, became enthusiasts and learned by trial and error that they were damn good at it.  Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with trial and error. An education in printing is not open to, or practical for, everyone and why on earth should that stop someone with a dedicated interest in letterpress from pursuing that interest?  Short answer, it shouldn't.

There seems to be a particular uproar in the letterpress community about the Lifestyle Crafts L Letterpress.  Some in the letterpress world have gone so far as to call this little machine a glorified stamp machine, while others defend its validity.  Is it really so important?  It's not like anyone is going to take the L Letterpress and make a living printing with it.  It's a home craft machine which, due to it's relatively low price, is a good place for those with a beginning interest in letterpress to try their hand before forking over $500+ on a platen press only to find that they suck at letterpress in a major way.

Frankly, I'm considering getting it to do just that, to try my hand and see if maybe, letterpress on a larger scale might be for me.  I have an education and it's not in printing, nor is an education in printing in my future, but my interest in books and printing makes letterpress a realistic hobby for me. As much as I'd like to buy a tabletop platen press and give it a go, it's simply too much money. I am going to check around at local antique shops and keep my eyes open for one, who knows right?  Until then, I'm going to order some letterpress books from Amazon and learn what I can away from the net, because what I've learned on the net is that you're not likely to find a lot of help from the letterpress community.  This doesn't mean they're all unwelcoming, but it does color my initial impression quite a lot. The thing is, I really, really, really don't want to dislike them. Some of them do the most beautiful work, work I envy. I just wish they were more willing to cut new letterpress hobbyists some slack.


  1. Really sorry to hear about your negative responses from the printers. I guess they come from an age where putting the black stuff onto the white stuff was regarded as nothing less than alchemy. I remember as an apprentice letterpress printer in the 60s, no one, but no one especially customers were allowed into the machine room. The printing trade was steeped in traditions, rituals and rites with a very strong union and it was sometimes a very dark place being up ones own backside.

    Putting the black stuff on the white stuff is no big deal really if you wipe away all the crap. All it really boils down to two fundamental things. One, getting the right impression with whatever machine you have, and 2, getting the right coverage of ink on the type. Ink is very much like gloss paint, get too much on your brush, you get runs and it takes ages to dry, too little and it gets faint and streaky. Getting the right impression is a little more tricky but once you crack it you wonder what the big deal was all about. Basically, think of how a clam opens. You put your knife in the opening , prize it, and it hinges open nicely.
    But if you try to open it at the hinged end it gets messy. A printing platten is kinda like that. Put the printing area at the bottom and the pressure is greater thus you get almost embossing and the ink spreads making a fuzzy image. Put the printing area at the top, and you hardly get any impression and a faint image. I could go on but honestly, keep the faith and you will be rewarded. And I don't mean learning how to print $10 bills !
    Kind Regards Vaughan

  2. Thank you for your feedback and kind words, Vaughan. I really appreciate hearing from a friendly voice on this particular topic. I still want to give it a try and I can't right now because of all of the negativity--and the expense, of course. The machine I want is pretty pricy. Thanks again!

  3. Hi again Kristyn.

    Yes it can be expensive to a degree. So here's an idea or two. How about setting up a girls group, call yourselves the 'Letterpress Ladies' or the 'Printing Princesses' put some ads out to get interest, because honestly I'm sure there are a lot of gals out there would love to get into something like this.
    then you could maybe have fundraisers and buy a press between you. Get the local newspaper updated.
    Once you have a core and a vision check out say you want to start 'The Womens Community Press' or something along positive lines like that, and maybe, just maybe you'll get funded and end up with a whole factory full of princesses and presses.
    So. like I said. Keep the faith and any advice or brain picking you need to do mail me anytime. I'm in the UK as you've probably guessed but the black stuff and the white stuff is just the same over here lol
    Kind Regards Vaughan