There has been some letterpress activity around here lately, which is such a good thing in so many ways. I was encouraged by a local print shop owner to print several designs for his sales reps to include in their portfolio: an extremely generous opportunity I jumped at and just the incentive I needed to spend some quality time with the press.
I’m hardly an expert printer yet. The finesse of fine printing is coming slowly – practice seems to really be the best teacher at this point, though the books and online articles are indispensable for reference. And so far I have done only single color printing, though of course I’m itching to try more complex designs. Using photopolymer plates instead of hand setting type means the options are wide-open design wise. My main constraint is the small size of my press, a Chandler and Price Pilot press which is a table top platen press with a printing area that doesn’t easily exceed 5×7″.
As an exercise in reminding my future expert-printer self how little I really knew at this point, here is How I Make a Letterpress Print:
1. The first step is to sketch out designs. I should always start with a pencil and paper, but often the doodles happen digitally in Adobe Illustrator. How things start is somewhat dependent on the type of project, but I do think that getting off the computer and sketching is super important so I’m making an effort to do that more.
2. Regardless of the first step, the designs are then finalized in Illustrator.
3. And then they are sent off to the wonderful people at Boxcar Press who do magical and mysterious things and then a few days later I receive a very exciting package containing my designs in the form of photopolymer plates.
4. Now we get to break out the ink! I love the smell of ink. I also am aware that the ink and accompanying clean up solutions are fairly unhealthy to breathe, which is why my press is currently located in the garage. I’ve been using offset printing ink that was given to me by a kind and generous printer in Vermont when I first got my press. The important thing about ink and letterpress is that less is best. A little goes a long way. Too much and you will have stringy drippy prints, ink-clogged plates, and a lot of clean up. Don’t ask me how I know this.
5. A few dabs of ink are spread onto the disc – the round part at the top of the press – and the handle is pulled repeatedly, allowing the rollers to spread the ink evenly across the surface. This part is fun: crank, clang. Crank, clang. Crank, clang. It’s a great left-arm workout. My left arm is going to be ripped.
6. The plate, which is like a thick plastic sticker, is stuck onto the base (a gridded piece of metal that is kept in the chase and held in place with furniture and quoins). Placement is key, particularly on a small press such as mine. To print as large as possible in the circumstances, I got a base that nearly fills my chase. This means that I have to be very careful where I place my gauge pins (little metal clips that keep the paper in place while it is being printed) and grippers (metal arms attached to the press that also help hold the paper in place) so they are not pressed onto the base during printing.
7. Then comes arguably the most important part: adjusting the packing – the layers of paper upon which the printed paper sits, allowing for an even and clean impression. I use phone book pages for packing because they are very thin and we have a cupboard full of yellow pages that are never referred to anymore. The packing adjustments are where the art of printing really comes in. I had a realization of that recently, as I was grumbling my way through the process and just wanting to print already: this is printing. What comes after is the manual labor part. This is the finesse, the learning process, the problem to be solved. I feel like I have a lot to say on the subject: grand parallels between printing and Life that seem so profound while I’m working out the details of why the left bottom corner of the print is faint while two lines up is getting ink splotches but of course come off as trite when actually written down. Something about slowing down, appreciating the process, living in the moment…
8. And then, pulling the prints. The part where it all pays off. The paper slides onto the gauge pins, the handle is pulled and released, the rollers go up over the plate, re-ink on the disc as the paper presses against the plate, return down as the paper peels off and a fresh print is pulled from the press. I usually can’t help but examine each print as it comes off, checking for errors before remembering that it is identical to the one before.
Except, of course, none really are identical. That is the real beauty of a little hand press such as mine and a good part of the reason letterpress is becoming so popular again. Although the press is a marvel of antique engineering, there is an undeniable quality of “handmade” about each print. Small imperfections – or variations, rather – are inevitable. Each printing session is a learning process: an opportunity to develop the balance between practicing patience and attention to detail when adjusting the press, laying down the ink, and paying attention to the pressure of each pull on the lever, and then letting go of absolute perfectionism and appreciating the distinctiveness of every print as it is removed from the press.