Letterpress? What is it? And why?
Letterpress is the traditional method of printing -- the same method used by Johan Gutenberg, William Caxton, Benjamin Franklin, and millions of other unsung artisans throughout the long history of the printing craft. What sets it apart from the offset lithography and laser technologies that dominate the printing market today is that letterpress works by a relief method. It creates an actual impression on the paper, an embossed effect that you can see and feel. (You can probably taste it too, but we've never tried it and don't recommend it.)
In traditional letterpress, type is set by hand, one letter at a time. The type is then locked up in a frame (called a chase), which is placed into the press, into which paper is fed, one sheet at a time. Setting type by hand is not required for letterpress printing, however. Copper and magnesium engravings, wood blocks, linoleum blocks, and photopolymer plates made from digital files are all perfectly legitimate means of creating relief images for letterpress printing.
There are a few broad categories of presses, most common among them being proof presses (such as thos manufactured by Vandercook) and platen presses (such as those made by Chandler & Price). At Letterary Press, we're awfully fond of our platen jobbers. We maintain a Franklin Gordon (circa 1891) and two early twentieth-century Chandler & Price presses. These are the sorts of machines you would have found in any commercial printing establishment or small-town newspaper around the turn of the last century.
Our presses have been adapted to run with electric motors, and we're happy about that. We like being able to print more, more, more, and faster, faster, faster! For the same reason, we use a combination of hand-set type, copper and magnesium blocks, and photopolymer plates. We're not purists. We like the idea of adapting new technologies to old, especially if it breathes new life into anachronistic machines.
It's been about a century now since William Morris, the great English poet of Arts & Craft fame, objected so loudly to the electrification of printing presses. He feared a future when craftspeople would become mere machine-minders, and he held up the great illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages as supreme models of craftsmanship, the pure fruits of manual labor.
Well, if only he knew. At the turn of this century, those once-menacing motorized presses are not quite so scary. You might even call them quaint. Today, letterpress printing seems to be taking hold as an antidote to the emerging world of the internet and cheap personal printers, a world that often seems vast and impersonal, just as the world of motorized presses must have seemed to Morris. Today we look back at the mass-produced products of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century press with something like reverence. We admire the feats of manual labor such works entailed, and hold them up as models of craftsmanship.
All of this is a long introduction to a simple observation. The past several years have seen a widespread resurgence of interest in the craft of letterpress printing. Letterary Press is proud to be part of this renaissance.
Why letterpress? Because it's still the best way we've ever found to make a good impression on a piece of paper. And because (despite what we said about motors), there is no way to print something quickly on a letterpress. It's a precise and plodding process. It forces us to slow down, consider, and do things right from the beginning.