A look at our Letterpress

I wrote this post for our sister blog Adventures-in-Making in October 2015. It gives a little peek into one aspect of our process.

With the weather turning gloomy it’s becoming less practical (and pleasant) to work outside, but I have had more chances to work more with my lovely letterpress. It dawned on me (while I was listening to the clunking and whirring of the machine) that I haven’t ever shared my adventures with this 126-year-old guy, even though he takes up a huge space in my heart (and my bedroom.)

I thought I’d show you a couple of behind the scenes shots, and talk about my printing process.

An old etching of the letterpress model I work with, in the amazing American Wood Type book my mom passed down to me. Synchronicity?

There are a lot of great resources for learning about the history of printing (I’ve listed some resources below) so I won’t get too much into a subject that I’m learning more about all the time.

My first experience printing was at the University of Texas, on a Vandercook press using antique wood type (from the Rob Roy Kelly collection) and modern polymer plates. I eventually acquired a small table-top platen press (a Craftsmen Imperial) and started printing greeting cards and more using the same method I use today on my floor-standing platen press.

Nearly two years ago we moved the one-ton California Reliable into a corner of our bedroom, and it has become a my go-to for printing with love.

Polymer plates before they are aligned on the aluminum base for printing.

While I still use lead type and wood type occasionally, I mainly print with polymer plates on an aluminum base. I draw up the artwork, scan it, clean it up and prep it for the plates, then send the artwork out to have plates made. The plates are somewhat similar to the clear sticky stamp sheets some people use with a clear block; however the material is much harder which allows for much more detail and lets it stand up to the high pressure of the letterpress. The height of the material has to be just right to bring it up to type high on the aluminum block and allow for the ink rollers to roll, and the printer to print.

Hand carved linoleum blocks being printed on a small tabletop press.

Occasionally I get a wild hair and print from hand-carved linoleum blocks. There’s less perfection in this mode, but you can end up with really great results with lots of character. There’s a trick to raising the blocks up to the right height, but it’s definitely possible.

There’s a long list of things I love about letterpress printing, but color is at the top. I love how each color I print is one solid color instead of being made up of a pointillistic nightmare of Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black. (There’s no room in my blue for little pink dots.) Each color on a letterpress print is printed separately; each color has its own plate. I’m a somewhat inexact ink mixer, but I always seem to end up at the right color (and I try not to get ink everywhere.)

Printing the first color of a leafy card.

Alignment (registration) is something that has taken a little getting used to, but I’ve come up with a method that works great for me. Here you can see a couple of polymer plates on my aluminum base, printing the first color of a two-color card.

The opening and closing action on this Gordon-style press is powered by a flywheel and a foot-powered treadle. There is a single magical dance that inks the rollers on the ink plate, rolls them across the printing plate, then presses the paper into that plate to make a print. (I’m learning a little more all the time about the mechanics of this magic, but the first lesson was DON’T LEAVE YOUR HAND IN THERE.) I’m responsible for pumping with my foot/ankle/hip and feeding paper.

Printing on paper handmade from the scraps of other cards.

One of the nicest things about the letterpress is that with a little ingenuity you can print on just about anything flat. Most of my pieces are printed on thick cover stocks, often 100% cotton. I’ve started printing more and more on sheets of handmade paper that I make from the trimmings of those other cards. I love the texture and softness of the paper I make, and I adore the fact that it means I’m contributing less to the landfills. (Want to know more about making paper? 1 2 3)
I’ve also just started to experiment with printing on fabric…. I have ideas….
So that’s my old guy. Our love is still new, but I think it’s made to last.
Time will pass– I will get more ragged and he will get less, and he’ll always have new things to press.
I’ll keep learning.

Resources and Links

Briar Press: A never ending resource for letterpress parts and printers
Letterpress Commons: Developed by Boxcar Press with articles and resources
Boxcar Press: My usual source for polymer plates and some other materials and supplies
Reich Savoy: One of the papers I print on.
Van Son Rubber Base Plus Ink: My preferred ink

A Look at Some Lettering

This post originally appeared on our DIY blog, Adventures-in-Making in 2015.
I think that it’s one of life’s small miracles that no one has to listen to all the noises that go on in my head while I’m working. The cajoling, the reassuring, the brainstorming, the problem solving, the bickering, the promises, the compromises… you get it. It’s noisy, but generally productive (“What were you thinking, Ali?” “You can do it, Ali!”) That’s my process.

Since this month’s craft challenge is all about LETTERS, and so am I, I thought I’d give you a little glimpse into the sketching steps of my lettered pieces.

img_6405I showed you my travel kit of supplies, but my sketches rely on just a few tools. A mechanical pencil, a ruler, a compass, clipboard, lots of erasers, and some thin white card stock.

img_6411I usually have a concept that I’m trying to convey in words. Often it’s one of the mantras I repeat to myself while I’m working (which makes the whole process very meta.) I will write down a bunch of phrases, and think about…
• Priority of words (Visual Hierarchy) – The most important words should generally be biggest and easiest to read to reinforce the message of your piece. I like to think that if you only read the big words, it would be like a summary of the whole statement. As fun as it is to make a really big and elaborate THE, it doesn’t make much sense. (THE message gets hidden.) You can also use visual hierarchy to hide a message and make people really look.
• What shapes I can use in the phrase: Is there a representative shape I can work into the overall form of the lettering? If I’m writing about lemonade, should I make it fit into the shape of a glass?
• What kind of typography would best represent the words? – Some words want to be formal (“Typography”) and some want to be flourishy (“Passionate”). Sometimes it’s fun to mix those up.

I’ll also start looking at the way a word is structured so I’m sure to give it enough space per letter.

When I have a general idea of the shapes I’d like to play around with, I’ll build myself a make-shift grid with the ruler and compass. I find that I like to make mostly symmetrical pieces, so I’ll map out the middle of the page and go from there. I end up with a lot of extra reference lines, but that’s fine.

Then I will start very lightly penciling in the skeleton form of letters. I do A LOT of erasing, so light lines are important. Usually while I’m working on the basic structure of the letters, I will start to think about the shape they will take in the end.

img_6421I am constantly working to find the center of a word or phrase. I can count letters in my head, but nothing beats a quick jot down of the phrase. I’ll then count (including spaces) and mark the middle. (This is also helpful because if a word has a lot of skinny letters – like Ilif – it will be much shorter than one with fat letters – MmNn)

(More penciling.)

At some point I will inevitably get a “better idea” and shift a bunch of letters to work better. In this case I shifted my grid up, erased and re-lettered.

Practice makes better.

One of the best consequences of lettering practice is that I’ve started to think of writing as “drawing letters” which makes it sometimes possible to write backwards or sideways. This helps with lots of things including spacing words from the center line (see above). It is also SUPER handy when you’re a lefty who tends to drag your hand through wet ink all the time.

When I have the skeleton of the letters basically where I want them, I will make decisions about how to flesh them out. My first inspiration was the word “Letter” which reminded me of a typeface I love in my very precious American Wood Type book. (We’ll be showing our favorite lettering books later in the month!)

I love to keep printed samples of type on hand to look at. I used to try to look at inspiration on a screen, but it never translated right in my brain. I’ve started saving all sorts of printed materials (filed by style) to look at when I’m lettering.

img_6435Again using a light touch, I will start to add details to the letter using my inspiration pieces. Sometimes I make little changes in a letter form to better fit my space (hey, I can do what I want!)

Sometimes the skeleton of my letters will have to move to allow for more space for some letters

and sometimes the letters stretch outside of my borders.

Once I’m happy with the general form of everything, I’ll start erasing the extraneous pencil marks.

IMG_6443Once they are gone, I will sometimes look at the whole thing and decide to make changes.

img_6501Like for instance, I might change the phrase itself.

But that’s okay- it’s just a sketch. If I love it I’ll take it to the next level with paints and ink, and if I don’t love it I’ll put it away to inspire me another day.