Letterpress

Double Elephant's picture

What is your view of letterpress? Do you think it is largely outdated and redundant? Do you consider it to have any value to young/new designers? Do you think its would help young/new designers to know about and/or use letterpress as a foundation stone for typographic learning?

Giampa's picture

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Do you think its would help young/new designers to know about and/or use letterpress as a foundation stone for typographic learning?

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"foundation stone" Absolutely.

Gerald

BruceS63's picture

Letterpress is more than an old technology. It is a beautiful art, and when practiced by craftsmen, truly stunning. I do think it is also a good tool for learning about typography.

oprion's picture

Well, as a young designer who owns his own press, I'd have to say Yes on all counts. It's a great way to get to the basics of typography, relearn all of those silly rules they teach you at school, but this time, from a practical hands-on perspective. You don't have to get completely into it, just a few typesetting, lever-pulling sessions might be enough, that is, unless you get hooked. Oh, and it's tremendous fun.
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Personal Art and Design Portal of Ivan Gulkov
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Don McCahill's picture

I think one of the advantages of letterpress, particularly with hand set type, is that it slows down the pace you create at. Pulling one letter at a time from a case (and knowing that you will have to put it back eventually) gives you time to reflect on many things that you never get to on the Mac.

Think of it this way. Learning to make bread with Grandma in her old kitchen, vs. going to Wonder Bread, where most of the workers push buttons (and never actually touch the dough). And think whose bread will taste best. Even if your career will eventually be with Wonder, you will know far more from having kneaded the dough at Grandma's (and if you are lucky one day you will be able to break free from the corporate world and buy/start your own little artisan bakery.)

blank's picture

What I really adore about letterpress is are the unavoidable inconsistencies. Digitally rendered type all looks the same; I love seeing screwball deformed letters here and there.

AGL's picture

"Do you think is is largely outdated and redundant?"

I don't think so. But it is certainly obsolete, if compared to offset litho. Nonetheless, certain printing works only can be achieved by the pressure the plate or types and rules caused in the paper. If compared to offset litho one can say that as for color, you would have more saturated colors with letterpress, because the pigment is pressed on the paper with no other agents involved; on offset litho there has to be a fountain solution to humidify the plate, so the only areas inked are the images in it (as little dots for images or line-work). Check this 19th century technology.

I said that some printing jobs can only be achieved by letterpress. You can lock in a chase a very good engraved plate, made of steel or zinc or even more fancy and expensive: brass. And utilizing this kind of plates you can print whatever you want, images, photos, etc. A example of good letterpress principle a rotogravure presses, used to print currency; it uses plates that are no more or less then engravings, a cliché, where the image is raised, and inked by rollers in the same fashion as letterpress, just more detail, thin lines as thin as thin can be. And foil stamping, no letterpress, no shining gold or true metallics.
It is obsolete. This is Two Thousand and Eight and there is no time to waste! It is just click enter and sent out the files to the printer and thats it.

Now, just imagine yourself publishing a book in the 19th century. If the printer was big, and depending how many pages the book would be, you maybe would have proofs for 8 or 16 pages, which after proofreading and everything OK to go, would be printed as signatures. After that, the compositors would distribute all the materials back to the cases and compose again more 8 or 16 pages, utilizing the same materials. That would take months. He he.
The fun with letterpress is that you have a absolute amount of materials, type, cuts, vignettes. Unless you are a very rich printer or have the luxury of living in a time of the Linotype casting machine, just forging your lines one after the other, which no need to put back in the cases the used type, things got accelerated that it gave us mass production never seen before.
Another important fact is with the advent of photography, etching plates become easier. Before it was carved on wood (a flat press era) or drawn over a coper or other metals. With photography chemistry got involved in the equation and bang! We got mass printed images.

The same principles still apply today. You gonna print something, you get some negatives and they become plates.
The letterpress printing of today uses all sorts of plates, totally plastic or with some metal backing which allow very hard plates. A layer of the plate is made of light sensitive resin (photopolymer), which receives light and kind of 'filter' the image to the plate when you shine uv light on it. The coolest thing in this world! And this 21st century plates allow you to print even images. 4 color jobs can be achieved, just takes longer.

"letterpress as a foundation stone for typographic learning?"
Check this out. As you can see all the the designs are squared, based on a square or rectangle. I think that has to do with a fact that anything, type, cut, vignette is squared or rectangular, along with the whites, no more then squared spacers.
What I love about letterpress is that I own a beauty like this this.. This, Ladies and Gents, is the pinnacle of letterpress technology. I have to take my hat to the germans. The unbelievable, unmatched by any other similar models. Thompsons and GrafoPressesnever delivered accuracy and joy to work with. This press was first produced in 1913, discontinued in 1985. The presses like this anywhere. I myself worked with one made in 1934, even thought it was very very old, the thing was still going, and the remaining ones will stick around for a long long time.
If you like heavy machinery , this is a must. Look at T and GT models. Also, look also the KS thru KSDZ, and SBG models too. The cylinder presses - I am so sorry I don't have space for one of those...
For those of you that think letterpress is dead, I am obliged to say NO. I started thinking about letterpress without a apparent reason, just that it was fun. But then I realized that there is a letterpress movement in the US. I don't know much of the peoples, but you can foofle letterpress and you will be flooded with very interesting info about people who refuses to shred the old Chandler & Price and move to offset litho...
I am one of them! With a growing type collection. Pure shiny lead, and my awesome NuBus 7100 Powermac...
Cheers

André (or should I remember:) The Small Printer

graham bignell's picture

I know I'm late in this discussion, but I have only just joined and can now add my two penny worth. I have been teaching letterpress printing for about 6 or 7 years to students studying graphics & communications at Chelsea College of Art. The students who are all very computer literate love the opportunity to try their hand at setting and printing on hand presses. The rewards for the student cannot be underestimated, they gain a fantastic understanding of the origins of typography and printing before the computer, they learn in a very hands on way the nature of leading, spacing, quads, rule, ornament, the feel of wood or metal type, the flexibility that moving something around physically around a page can have on the finished product, the different methods of printing, colour, graduated colour, light & heavy inking, hand-made papers, japanese papers, proofing papers artists' books, bindings, type styles, case layouts, display font, you name it they do not get this from looking at a flat screen. I have not had one student over that time who has not had a great day experimenting with letterpress, all have gone away with a knowledge that I hope will help them in their careers as designers and quite a few have wanted to come back and take letterpress further.

i have been printing letterpress since 1985 and I have noticed a resurgance of interest particularly with designers incorporating aspects of hand printing in design. So yes Letterpress is here to stay and its upto presses to see if they can hold their own in a commercial sense.

HowardRoark's picture

I am a newcomer to typography and print design, but I am a proponent of the letterpress for a few reasons. I echo Don and André in that it letterpresses slow down the process allowing time to think, are versatile, and produce unique prints.

I'd like to add that the use of the letterpress is far more carbon neutral than other printing presses. The fact that they are human powered and often do not rely on external energy is tremendously important today.

Also, they are simply amazing engineering and produce beautiful results.

CJ
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I've never sort of woken up with a typeface coming up, you know like some people, "Oh look at this, I need to go to there, to the easel with these amazing brush strokes." I don't have that urge; when I wake up I usually go back to sleep. -Erik Spiekerman

innovati's picture

just my 2¢ as a young designer:

I value the history of typography and the technologies involved in it, not just the letterpress. I don't think very many people could make a living using just letterpress alone - but I think it is still valuable, will never die (hopefully).

I don't think it is the highest form of typography either, it's just one step in an evolution of technology that started by hand lettering and ended with digital typography as we know it now.

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