Archiving Letterpress Blocks / How to

sean's picture

Ok, so I got my local ex-letterpress guy
( he now die-cuts ) to let me poke around
his warehouse at a date of my choosing.

In the corner of this rather large space under
a layer of dust and dust bunnies there is
a linotype machine, several letterpress machines,
wood and metal fonts and two or three cases
of block plates of logos, dingbats, flurons,
boarders, monograms and who knows what else.

Now, while all of this stuff seems a treasure
to me, it is the block plates that are
of particular interest to me now. When I had
the chance about three months ago to dip
my fingers into case one, in was obvious
that many of these were twenty, thirty and
even forty and fifty years old. When he bought
the place many of these blocks came with it.
My estimate is that there are between 300 and
900 of these total.

This is my objective. To bring a stamp pad,
plenty of paper and when I get there, stamp
away. He has agreed to let me do this.

So I am wondering if anyone has had any
experience in archiving this kind of thing and
if any advice, before I head in, could be
offered. I don't expect to make my trip for at
least another week.

Paper choice is a major concern. And since I
have no blocks to experiment with myself in
the meanwhile is a simple ink pad going to
work well enough?


matteson's picture

Sean: From my limited experience in making block prints without a letterpress, I think that results from a stamp pad are going to disappoint you. You might be better of picking up a pound of black relief ink and a brayer. The ink'll be tackier and, I think, give you a better impression.

Try placing the block face up, rolling out a thin layer of ink on a peice of plexiglass or lexan, inking up the block, placing the paper on top of it, and burnishing it with the back of a wooden spoon (er, make-shift baren). It's the white trash way of ancient Japanese woodblock printing.

You could also try using a "galley" or "proof" press if there's one laying around the shop.

Good luck.


hrant's picture

Sean, stamps are for kids. Since the equipment is there, do a real print of the stuff. Although Nathan's method seems interesting.

BTW, from what/the_little I've seen, galley/proof prints are only good enough for checking the layout: the actual forms become way too fuzzy. Unless there's a way to use something besides contact paper...


matteson's picture

Hrant's definitely right that galley proofs aren't worth a heck of a lot. For that matter, my trailer-park-Hokusai method isn't going to be absolutely stellar. If you're planning on archiving these things digitally though - i.e., if you just want something to trace a vector image of - I think that either one would be OK. If you really want to archive them on paper though, you might want to fire up a small platen press if there's one available. If you're not that familiar with letterpress, I think it'd be easier to get decent prints off a platen (e.g., C&P) than a flatbed (e.g., Vandercook).


sean's picture

...stamps are for kids


But I don't know how to use a letterpress.
Block printing I know and I have all the
materials I need already. I guess I'll just have
to improvise and hope I'll be able to stop by
more than just once. I was hoping to spend
more time hunting and gathering than
cleaning. Oh well.

My objectives also include maybe, just maybe
getting someone to show me how the stuff
works. I have a basic idea as I visit my printer
on a weelky basis and was a pre-press guy
for awhile but hands on these machines in
particular is diffrent.

Secondly if there is enough good stuff I would
like to put a book together.

Thanks for your help so far.


matteson's picture

Hmm. Inking up, printing, and cleaning hundreds of blocks would definitely take an inordinate amount of time. The advantage of a proof press is that it's pretty simple. Just a flat bed that your galley (or block in this case) sits on, and 2 rollers that you pull over the paper. Essentially like block printing but with rollers instead of a baren. Faster than a hand baren, but with uglier results.

To be honest, if you're not looking for top quality prints, learning how to lock up a few blocks at a time in an old platen press wouldn't be too hard. It's pretty easy to pull a print - pretty darn hard to pull a good one. I'm no Gerald Lange, but if you're interested I could email you some pointers.

Incidentally, below is a pretty standard proofing press. Simple little beast, innit.


sean's picture

Pointers would be much appreciated Nathan.

I do have a copy of Gerald Lange's Printing
Digital Type on the hand-operated flatbed
cylinder press
but have not had a chance
to read it yet. I am about 2 books away from
that right now.

I guess I never paid much attention to the
old stuff when I was a pre-press guy. Direct
to plate was just coming out during my term
of service.

How does this proofing press ( the photo )
compare to the cylinder press that is the topic
of Geralds book? Are better prints pulled from
the latter?


matteson's picture

>Are better prints pulled from
the latter?

Lord almighty, yes. Proofing presses, traditionally, are used for pulling proofs of "galleys." A galley is a tray that a typeset page would sit in, after being composed, before being printed. So the proof, like Hrant said, is just for layout/proofreading.

Cylinder presses are the real deal. I've got a "platen press" (see pic below) that I think would be easier to get the hang of for a beginner than a cylinder, although rumor has it that they don't produce the same quality.

I'll try to throw a simple How To sort of thing together for you. It won't make you a great printer, but hopefully it'll help you lock up and print those blocks. Sounds like a terrific project.


matteson's picture

Incidentally Sean, you might check out this link and look under "Getting started" and "Guides/tutorials."

Also, Lange's book is of course excellent, but I wouldn't worry too much about understanding everything in it before I printed those blocks. A lot of it is geared towards using new materials (i.e., photopolymer) and it sounds like you're talking mostly about wood and/or copper.

Two different worlds in my opinion.

bieler's picture


Sounds like a project. I'd say Nathan has guided you well here. The best blocks to reproduce would be any with a copper face. These would be older than zinc or magnesium faced blocks and would repro much better as their detail is much finer. Rubber stamping won't do unless you are just using it for identification purposes. The use of a traditional hand buren is difficult and the spoon technique is probably worse than rubberstamping.

The galley proof press could work well if you are somewhat skilled with a brayer. A lot of these galley proofers are Vandercooks (Model O). But they are not the sophisiticated models that come with registration and inking mechanisms.

Best would be a Vandercook equipped with these (any of the Universal or SP models are the top of the line), as these were specifically designed for exacting reproduction work. At the end of the commercial letterpress era, these were used by type shops to repro metal type for the photo offset folks. We did a lot of repros for folks intent on digitizing these faces at one time. We even did a couple of repros for Doyald Young's first book.

Most likely, in that shop you are messing around in there is a platen jobber, as in Nathan's last photo. (Nice looking press by the way.) This would do the job as well, but the reproduction quality would not be near what you could get with a properly adjusted Vandercook repro press. The platen jobbers are quite beatific to work on but I think it a bit easier to learn on a Vandercook as the makeready and inking concerns are less formidable to a beginner. The Vandercook is also better for bookwork, if for no other reason than it has a relatively massive bed size.

Best to take a workshop on letterpress before you engage in this project. The blocks themselves are becoming quite valuable, especially the copper faced. A search for letterpress items over at eBay would give you an idea of their relative value.

FYI: I've got a group site on contemporary letterpress practices at

Gerald Lange
The Bieler Press

matteson's picture

Thanks Gerald. You know, I always thought that platen presses were easier to run, but that's probably because I've done very little with Vandercooks. Thanks for clarifying my misinformation.

Also Sean: it would be a really good idea to take some sort of workshop before you get started on this. If one's available near you. If you do want some fast instructions on simple platen operation, I'm totally willing to get something together for you. But, again, it won't get you ready to pull great prints. But it should work.

sean's picture

Nathan and Gerald,

Thank you for you help.

Please, by all means email me any
information you are willing to put together.
Anything is likely to help and the information
would not only be useful, but interesting.

>Best to take a workshop on letterpress
before you engage in this project.

Boy do I wish this was an option. I've tried to
seek such a thing out around here. No luck. In
the print houses I frequent, that at one point
did letterpress, there is an average of one
person who still knows how to do it. I am in
New Mexico by the way. Sometimes I wonder if
I am the only person designing type around
here. Know of any?

I've lived in both Boston and San Francisco
and I wish I still had those options.

I have one more source I can try to tap to teach
me here. I will give it a try.

my email is speak at


hrant's picture

> I think would be easier to get the hang of for a beginner than a cylinder

I've never used a platen, but I found the cylinder pretty easy (at least to get started on).


matteson's picture

>I found the cylinder pretty easy

By god I should try one. I love platens, but the more I think about it, it does seem that a cylinder would make hitting a(n almost) perfect page a lot easier.

Good thing I live in a state with a lottery and lots of warehouse space...

matteson's picture

Sean: you live in New Mexico? I'm actually flying to San Diego in a week and a half to visit a friend of mine. Forgive my ignorance of the southwestern geography, but if it's not too far to travel, perhaps we could meet up somewhere. Nonetheless, I'll start putting my "intro" together this weekend and email it to you as soon as possible.

Nice website BTW. I like the printers marks. Funny to see them in Internet Explorer.

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