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The Humble and Wonderful Letterpress
August 23, 2007 8:28 PM   Subscribe

I loved this beautifully filmed short documentary on The Letterpress. For those of us who have ever risked our very own fingers for the cause of printing, or had the California Job Case burned into memory, this will be a trip down memory lane. For the rest of you, it may give you an idea for your next hobby.
posted by The Deej (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
And then there is this less-beautifully filmed piece, but with more attitude.
posted by The Deej at 8:31 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Have printer's devils taken over MetaFilter?
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:35 PM on August 23, 2007


Loved this the first time I saw it, but thanks for reminding me. I must have watched this a dozen times over the past few years. Beautiful.
posted by Ricky_gr10 at 8:43 PM on August 23, 2007


O beautiful. If Comic Sans is the wal-mart T-shirt, this is the saville row tailored shirt. I'd love to have the time to get back into this, but my hand press is in storage, just like my darkroom equipment. The Mac is just so much easier, for results only a little less fine.

The. announcer. talked. quite. slowly. though. didn't. he?
posted by bonaldi at 8:46 PM on August 23, 2007


Oh lord, that gave me wood.
posted by lekvar at 8:48 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


(One thing the Mac can't do is cook fish or bake potatoes: but you sure can on the pot of a linotype.)
posted by bonaldi at 8:48 PM on August 23, 2007


That was just delightful.
posted by dbiedny at 8:52 PM on August 23, 2007


Lovely, although the announcer comes off as if he's doing a poor imitation of the way the printer talks.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:03 PM on August 23, 2007


The old guys got it right.

This is why I don't understand Project Gutenberg and other digitization projects that neglect the original document with all its wonderful typesetting and fonts and organic look and feel. The only project that gets it right is Internet Archive with its high-quality color scans. Google Books is a wasteland of low-quality B&W scans, while Gutenberg is a bland ASCII cracker, the more you eat the drier it gets. Typesetting and fonts really do matter and some of the best looking stuff was produced pre-copyright, largely because of letterpress. It's possible to read books in beautiful letterpress by reading old scanned books, books that would cost hundreds of dollars if produced today using the same methods.
posted by stbalbach at 9:09 PM on August 23, 2007


Very, very nice. For your further delectation, handmoulds.
posted by tellurian at 9:18 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


first seen on the blue in '04

loved it the first time too...
posted by dawdle at 9:23 PM on August 23, 2007


Sllt. The nethermost deck of the first machine jogged forward its flyboard with sllt the first batch of quirefolded papers. Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doing its level best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt.
posted by peacay at 9:58 PM on August 23, 2007


Wonderful. I can't help but feel I am not doing the short doc justice by watching it on YouTube though. The resolution isn't good enough for me to really see the three-dimensionality and craftsmanship involved.


Still, a very enjoyable 6 minutes. Thanks!
posted by lazaruslong at 10:16 PM on August 23, 2007


Oh my fucking lord, that is gorgeous. My next project is to build a tiny hand-cranked letterpress dealie, but there's no way it would be feasible to do with actual metal type - I'll have to make do with photopolymer plates. Oh man, what a cool fucking job. I bet that guy goes home every night contented and happy. I don't know whether to be excited or jealous or both.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:00 PM on August 23, 2007


That was very enjoyable, thanks. Machinery like that always cooks my noodle. It amazes me that people can design something so complex.
posted by friendlyjuan at 12:06 AM on August 24, 2007


Where can I buy letters if I wanted to make a simple press?
posted by Lord_Pall at 12:23 AM on August 24, 2007


I used this documentary in my speech and debate class in college. Later I found out Art Center in Pasadena offers a course taught by Gerald Lange on the Finer Points of Letterpress Typography. It was a fantastic class; the only prerequisite for Mr. Lange letting you take the class was memorizing the California Job Case.

If you’re interested in Letterpress Typography, I recommend that class, or Type Design with Hrant Papazian. Both courses are offered at Art Center @ night.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 2:11 AM on August 24, 2007


Excellent video. I had not seen it before. That guy is a true master. The bit where he fabbed his own Maltese cross was impressive.

I am constantly grateful that I was part of one of the last generations (if you will) of graphic artists for whom letterpress was a required part of the training.

One of the things that video touched on was the concept of "appropriateness" of the type to the job. That's such a hard concept to drill into students today. It's almost a demarcation between the pre-digital and post-digital generations.

That's not to say the digital way is evil. Far from it. However, the freedom it allows requires a whole new level of restraint and understanding.

As an aside, when I was in college, we took a field-trip to Chicago to tour Ryder Type (at the time, one of the largest typography houses in the US) If it set type, they had it there. Cold type, photocomp, etc. I still remember the wonderful mechanical noise of the rooms full of Linotype machines working away and the pots of molten lead.
There was one area we were not allowed to see. The door was locked and a big "No admittance" sign slapped across it. We later discovered that this room was for the brand new digital typesetting system they were working on. This was around 1978 or so.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on August 24, 2007


Awesome story Thorzdad. I recall a few times where I had to make a letter or logo by shaving away bits of other letters and combining them. There was a particular pride in figuring it out and making it work. It was a common enough occurance that it was taught as part of the class.

first seen on the blue in '04

I knew it had to have been here before! With the high quotient of design-and-print-geeks here, I would have been surprised if it had not been. Glad to have "re-found" it though.
posted by The Deej at 6:23 AM on August 24, 2007


Lord Pall: ebay, NA Graphics, Dale Guild, M&H.
posted by adamrice at 7:57 AM on August 24, 2007


Oh, and if we're going to talk about Linotype here too, TNH had a great post on them and the modern history of typesetting.
posted by adamrice at 8:00 AM on August 24, 2007


The. announcer. talked. quite. slowly. though. didn't. he?

Chuck Kraemer has been doing some fascinating television spots for WGBH ("Chuck Kraemer at Large") and WCVB here in Boston for years. While his delivery can be irritating to some, his work has been appreciated by many, garnering him 20 Emmy awards and two Peabody Awards.
posted by ericb at 8:23 AM on August 24, 2007


> "This is why I don't understand Project Gutenberg and other digitization projects that neglect the original document with all its wonderful typesetting and fonts and organic look and feel... Gutenberg is a bland ASCII cracker, the more you eat the drier it gets. Typesetting and fonts really do matter and some of the best looking stuff was produced pre-copyright, largely because of letterpress."

Agree completely. I can sort of understand why PG does what it does -- there's no really good, universal format for well-typeset text (or at least there wasn't when the project got started, I think that DVI or PDFs come close now), but it's painful to take a beautifully-typeset 18th or 19th century book and munge it down to straight ASCII. It's a great 'bomb-shelter format,' but terrible to read.

They have been loosening up on the ASCII-only rule lately, I think. At least for math books and the like, they're producing PDFs, and some of them can be quite true to the originals.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:28 AM on August 24, 2007


Other Chuck Kraemer videos: Chet Raymo | Garage Sales | Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge | Steeplejack.
posted by ericb at 8:29 AM on August 24, 2007


Interesting. A time when things went from mind to hand to brawn to paper. Now it goes from mind to hand to paper. What's the next technological adjustment? Mind to paper? Will the documentaries of the next century show how people used to use their hands to actually type, scan and "draw" the images on a "screen" before "thinking" print?
posted by any major dude at 8:36 AM on August 24, 2007


Will the documentaries of the next century show how people used to use their hands to actually type, scan and "draw" the images on a "screen" before "thinking" print?
I somehow doubt there will quite the nostalgia for our current digital era as there is for something like letterpress work.
Letterpress is a solidly, tactile, analog process from beginning to end. Digital, alas, isn't nearly as huggable.
I think it's somewhat akin to the analog/digital divide in music.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:25 PM on August 24, 2007


Never say never - once the oil goes away we may be going back to the printing press and then there will be great nostalgia for a time when we could create media in the bat of an eye.
posted by any major dude at 1:30 PM on August 24, 2007


My printmaking class at the university I attained my BFA at was the last to do letterpress. After us, they boxed it all up and sent it over to the library collections where they used it for special order printings of some kind or another. As a result, my class was the last class who both understood and pronounced "leading" of type correctly. I still have to correct these young'uns when they use InDesign.

The rhythms you attain when flipping sheets into and out of a machine driven press is impossible to explain. Some of the happiest mornings I've spent were cranking out a four color broadsheet.

I have a small collection of the old lead type in my ceramics studio, if I ever lose it, I seriously doubt I could ever replace it, and in spite of it's mud caked and dusty condition, I treasure it greatly.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:56 PM on August 24, 2007


1f2frfbf, your description of flipping the sheets into and out of the letterpress is right on. This was part of my high school graphic arts training in the late 70s. I wonder if liability issues would even allow such a potentially dangerous activity today.

One girl in my class did manage to smash her fingers in the press. Thankfully it was in the neutral position, so no permanent damage was done. She was swollen and in extreme pain for quite a while, however. And the most amazing thing of all: no one even thought of filing a lawsuit!
posted by The Deej at 2:24 PM on August 24, 2007


My boss bought out another print shop that was going out of business during the bad ol' days of the dotcom bust. Among all the nice, modern imagesetters and presses that we got was an old letterpress. Guess what got left behind. Honestly, I'd have no idea how to use the damned thing, but I still wish we'd brought it back to our shop.
posted by lekvar at 2:34 PM on August 24, 2007


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