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.