I am proud of being a part of a small, yet growing, group of young letterpress printers. The letterpress community is a tight-knit one-- an assemblage of artisans in small studios, barns, basements, and workshops, dedicated to preserving the techniques of the past. Sadly, the pressmen and women who learned the craft in the traditional way, by apprenticing in print shops, are beginning to pass away and the secrets of their process are beginning to fade with them. Taking up the flag is a new generation of printers, of preservationists who see the importance of keeping the flame burning. This excerpt from the introduction of Printmaking, Letterpress & Graphic Design, published in 2010 by Gestalten sums up why I care about keeping this craft alive and it gives me goosebumps when I read it...
Letterpress . . . offers a three-dimensional quality unrivaled by other printing methods—the physical bite into the paper adds its own topography, hills, troughs, and definition to crisp lines, patterns, and typography.
I feel really fortunate to have learned how to print from one of the good ones-- a respected figure in the little letterpress and wood engraving world, Jim Horton. He helped me navigate the secret world of setting metal type, adjusting kerning manually (spacing between letters), mixing ink, operating a variety of machines, and not melting my hands off with harsh cleaning chemicals. I feel so very lucky to have had the opportunity to have him guide me at the start, setting a foundation for my own work here at Gatlin Paper Co.
I obviously get pretty fired up about the world’s first mass printing technique and I have a deep desire to share its beauty with the world. I feel so lucky to be able to cultivate this level of quality and attention to detail in the work that I do for my clients, but it can be a difficult process to explain in an email or over a phone call. I started looking for a photographer who would be able to capture the beauty of the process in a fresh and vibrant way. I probably visited twenty five different photographers’ sites before I found one that I just knew would take my vision and run with it. Her name is Kathryn McCrary and she just happens to live and work in my neck of the woods. I couldn’t be happier with the photos that she took in our time together and couldn’t wait to share them with you here.
1. Locking up the chase
A metal base is surrounded by wooden pieces called furniture and locked into the chase, or frame, by a set of toothed quoins which are tightened by a key.
These days, designers can have copper, magnesium, or photopolymer plates made of their digital designs. I love the possibilities that are presented to modern pressmen as new processes marry with old.
3. Inking the Press
Rubber or oil based inks are mixed by hand to match Pantone colors. The ink is then placed on the disc at the top of the machine, which rotates as the lever is pulled and the rollers disperse the ink.
Paper is placed on little guides called gauge pins which hold it in place as the platen moves up towards the inked plate. The pressure of the raised letters and designs against the surface of the paper creates the inked-in impression and gives the process it’s name: letterpress.
Kathryn, I can’t thank you enough for bringing my vision to life and helping me to share the beauty of this process with others. Everyone else, check out this talented lady's work here.
Are you intrigued with the letterpress process? Do you want to learn more? I'd love to talk your ear off about it.