The Tech That Launched A Thousand Zines
July 25, 2019 6:24 AM   Subscribe

The Pulp Librarian explains Letraset, the dry transfer kit that revolutionized graphic design by bringing a plethora of fonts to the masses. Ever wonder what happened to Letraset? You can still find letraset sheets on Esty.
posted by dinty_moore (26 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I can guarantee you that those presstype sheets on Etsy are dried out and not transferable.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:37 AM on July 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

I associate Letraset with playing around as a tot. I'd type up a newspaper on my Sears Roebuck junior typewriter, and then rub on headlines and the name of the paper.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:38 AM on July 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I used these in my earliest days as a creator of RPG materials, to label hand-drawn maps in a professional-looking way. Those were for my own consumption and pleasure -- in a way, they were solo play of AD&D and Traveller, since groups of people are not my thing -- but they've led in a roundabout way to doing OSR RPG materials as a professional sideline in 2019.

So cheers, Letraset, and thanks.
posted by Quindar Beep at 6:39 AM on July 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

And don’t forget the wonderful dry transfer halftone dots! It was always such a treat to get anything Letraset as a kid!
posted by rikschell at 6:41 AM on July 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

Used it regularly to make punk flyers in the mid-late 90s, and at one point had a desk drawer full of random parts of sheets w/different fonts. It was always exciting when a font like Shatter (used by no less than AC/DC) would appear among the otherwise bland ones typically stocked by the art supply store where I'd buy them.

In retrospect, the mix of Letraset and dot-matrix printed c. 1990 Mac fonts I used on those flyers places them almost perfectly in a kind of primitive time, but in the pre-consumer grade desktop publishing world, it was exciting to be able to make something reasonably interesting so quickly and cheaply.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:44 AM on July 25, 2019 [9 favorites]

My mother was a commercial artist and I have fond memories of being her work assistant using a little bone tool to burnish Letraset. It was satisfying in a way popping bubble wrap never could be, and I can kern the fuck out of a line like nobody's business even now.
posted by sonascope at 6:44 AM on July 25, 2019 [13 favorites]

Plus, I was the only ten-year-old I knew of who knew how to properly operate a stat camera with halftone screens. My ma was magic.
posted by sonascope at 6:47 AM on July 25, 2019 [10 favorites]

Oh my god the magic of Letraset. My dad worked in the purchasing department of a large company that used a lot of Letraset—he once brought home an outdated catalogue and it became a treasured possession. I’d lovingly copy the fonts and pore over which ones looked best for my school projects. It sparked a lifelong interest in beautiful fonts and typefaces.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:09 AM on July 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

Of course fonts are downloadable now but there is still a need to put text on things that won't go into a printer. I was looking into what might be a modern equivalent to this, laser-printable "waterslide" decals, for an enclosure for an electronics project. Alternately I might try getting deep and transferring a mask to etch the labels into the aluminum - more work but potentially pretty nice looking if I don't make a big mess of it.
posted by exogenous at 7:17 AM on July 25, 2019

Growing up the child of drafting teachers, I spent far, far too much time playing with Letraset and Rotring Lettering Guides. Oh! The smell of that ink! The joy at writing random kid things in such precise and beautiful letters. The perfect moment when the letter peeled off the sheet. Sigh. So much fun.
posted by teleri025 at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I still have a suitcase full of Letraset sheets! (Also DECAdry, LetraGraphics, and C-THRU Graphics Demi BetterLetter.) They're equal parts fun and frustrating to use, and it's been a while since I've had a real use for them.
But they have a special place in my heart because they were the last thing I ever got from an amazing mom-and-pop variety store in my hometown called P.M. Jones, that's since closed. It was the place where I discovered the magic of both comic books and art supplies and, if I really boil it down, is probably responsible for my becoming a graphic artist. That shop has been gone for at least 20 years, but it's still fresh in my mind and remains one of my favorite places. On their last day in business, my mom went in and bought their whole display's worth of dry transfer letters and gave them to me for Christmas. I'm pretty sure that gift will never be topped.
posted by D.Billy at 7:44 AM on July 25, 2019 [9 favorites]

Oh man, I have laid out and hand-kerned full paragraphs of text with Letraset. The only thing I really miss about this is the high art fees that this sort of work used to command. I remember getting most of the way through a paragraph and having to do major repairs to the work if one of the letters didn't transfer right, or, worse, you accidentally picked up or tore previous laid down letters.

Or running out of letters in the middle of a layout.

Sometimes you'd just have to start all over again with a different but similar font that you had in stock.

Plus, I was the only ten-year-old I knew of who knew how to properly operate a stat camera with halftone screens. My ma was magic.

Hi, me too. I spent so much time in the dark room processing huge sheets of stat film that I'm pretty sure I still have silver salts in my bloodstream and a vitamin D deficiency.

So I briefly worked in a place that made custom dry transfers, and a quick search shows that there are still multiple companies making them, as well as someone selling a DIY system of some kind that is apparently full color.

I've seen these being produced and it's not entirely unlike screen printing vinyl decals or something, but with some really esoteric and weird twists. One twist I remember is that instead of a squeegee to flood and print the ink through the screen, the ink/pigments is very low viscosity and one uses a metal bar or threaded rod as a squeegee to coat the screen. (Pic here!)

People still widely use dry transfers for stuff like product packaging mockups, enclosure and faceplate designs and labels for industrial hardware, audio gear and other related products where you have a lot of buttons and need labels for them.
posted by loquacious at 8:14 AM on July 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

There is a shitload of this at the 2nd Life store in Providence, RI, run by Rhode island School of Design students, if anyone wants some. It's over to the left of the fireplace, by the front window.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:16 AM on July 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

And don’t forget the wonderful dry transfer halftone dots!

There's this thing called manga, they use screentones A LOT. Like this.
posted by sukeban at 9:22 AM on July 25, 2019

(Recently I would assume most manga artists just add the tones in the computer because it's easier and cheaper, but if you want to see how a manga is traditionally made, Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun manages to teach the reader in the first books and besides it's a fun sendup of romance comics for girls)
posted by sukeban at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I made a lot of cassette tape inserts with dry transfer letters in the 80s and 90s, and my friends were all like "How did you do that?!?"
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 9:38 AM on July 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

> Recently I would assume most manga artists just add the tones in the computer...

The high page count and deadline pressures of most manga publications drive artists to computers, for expediency if nothing else. A dozen-plus years ago, Deleter began marketing their products heavily outside Japan, hoping to ride the increasing popularity of manga and anime overseas, but while I'm sure it helped stem whatever losses they might have faced in the Japanese art market, I don't know how sustainable it is. A kid whose family already has at least one computer in the house can buy a tablet and copy of Clip Studio for less than a set of 72 Copic markers.

I doubt the industry in screens, press type, markers and pens will ever go away there but I'm skeptical that it'll ever grow either. Press type still has use in certain types of signage and product mockups but even that's being taken over by things like heat-shrink vinyl wrap.
posted by ardgedee at 9:48 AM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love love LOVE Letraset! I'm the sprout of two graphic designers so our house was full of this stuff, as well as Rubylith, rubber cement pickups, eraser shields, type loupes, swivel knives, pounce-bags, and French curves.

We also had these wonderful Sesame Street transfers that came with a background. Kind of like Colorforms but more permanent.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:58 AM on July 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

Was there something special about Letraset other than being first and largest? You can certainly find brand new dry-transfer lettering if you look.

I remember those Sesame Street transfers, also Smurfs and videogame characters. And, um, Michael Jackson. Being a kid and not knowing about them, these were magicial.

Kind of like Colorforms but more permanent.

Some of the kits were actually made by Colorforms.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:42 AM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh man this needs a trigger warning. If anyone needs me I'm going to spend the next hour or two having flashbacks about cutting 10-20 plate spot color separations from a photostat keyline hunched over a light table for hours and weeks on end.

There is a special kind of terror in getting mostly done with a plate with dozens or hundreds of spot colors in a single plate of the keyline and Rubylith mask and then fucking it up by peeling or cutting the wrong area badly enough to be unrecoverable and having to start over.

I still remember the very first digital spot color separations I ever did and even just having one undo in a graphic design program was life changing. That and I could automate spot fills, spreads, traps and bleeds without having to resort to darkroom tricks or traditional art reworks.

Wait, most people probably have no idea what I'm talking about.

So Rubylith is a specialty film product used by graphic designers, printers and lithographers that consists of a hard polyester clear layer and a soft, gel-like photo opaque red layer. It's used in a variety of ways but it's mainly used to make a photo mask so you can make contact prints on to a new piece of photostat film.

So imagine, say, a black and white line art image of a cartoon character. Or it could be a boat or a car, or just about any image that starts out as line art without shading or color.

In my shop we would take a keyline image drawn by one of our artists or designers, or as "camera ready" art from a customer and/or outside designer hired by that customer.

This plain paper image is then photographed on a graphic arts photostat camera. These cameras can be table top sized, the size of a large home appliance or even larger. At one end (usually the bottom) is the copy board and it's lit up by quartz or halogen lights bright enough and hot enough to light a cigarette off of or start fires. At the other end is the film platen that holds the unexposed film, usually with a vacuum pinboard surface to hold it completely flat and still. In between there's an iris, some high quality lenses, some light safe bellows and some way to move the film platen or copy board and the lens so you can do enlargements or reductions.

And, yes, the photographed image comes out upside down or mirrored just like a plain consumer film camera or your eye. There's no reason to introduce lens distortions or correct this because you just orient the film the right way up to use it.

More advanced versions of these cameras have a way to insert halftone screens or other effects, and if you have the ability to do four of these screened images, you take four pictures of the same color photograph or print and create a 4C (four color process) set of plates for CMYK printing, as found in, say, a color newspaper or magazine.

In my case it was a vertical bed, horizontally traveling camera that was about twenty feet long and had a copy board and film board large enough for something like 48x78" originating art and film stock. It is the largest graphic arts camera I've ever even personally heard of. It had a piece of extremely high precision Nikkor glass in it as the primary lens about the size of a small melon and was the most expensive component in the camera, and today would likely be worth a sizeable down payment on a house.

(Years later I did some homework about this camera because it was unusual that it didn't seem like a graphic design camera but an industrial camera, and apparently this was the sort of large format camera they used to use to make microlithography masks for early integrated circuits.)

My dad found this gigantic photostat camera through a dealer and had to fly to Florida and drive it back in a rented truck. I think he paid something like 10k for it, but the list price of such a camera new was likely 10x that. We're talking about nearly a ton of precision metal and glass and vacuum pumps and such. I think we had to have a tech come out to do the final installation and level it or something. We didn't just build out one room for it, we built out two rooms, one for the light side or copy board side and one for the darkroom and film platen side, because that's how this kind of camera worked.

Lighting was provided by four high intensity quartz lamps that had a tendency to scorch your skin or clothes if you got too close, and they had an alarming tendency to explode. They also had a fairly short life span and needed replacing often, requiring brand new surgical gloves, kimwipes and other clean handling methods to install them otherwise any dirt or finger oil left on the bulbs would cause them to explode.

Anyway, yes, uncommonly large photostat camera, but this is relevant to my Rubylith PTSD.

We had this huge camera because we did a lot of oversized high definition art for t-shirt printing, often at insane color depths. We had a very rare contract at the time with Disney to be able to do our own in house designs, and a fantastic character artist that could perfectly replicate and create brand new Disney branded character designs and IP but with even more detail, because technically we were scaling designs up in both size and detail compared to, say, a DVD cover, not down. Imagine any of the more complicated character designs from Disney's output in the 90s, put one or many of them in a scene complete with a background or other structure.

Now give it like 10-20 spot colors, and this is where the Rubylith terrors begin.

So we take this complicated design, which is usually drawn oversize, even reduce it so the detail is even more fine and that black and white line art becomes a black image on clear polyester film.

When dried that film goes to a light table and taped down. On the light table - if you're lucky - there's a film registration bar, and you have little adhesive plastic tabs that slot over pins on the bar. The black and white line art keyline has tabs applied to it. Then you lay a fresh, new sheet of Rubylith over the keyline and tape it down, too. Then apply registration tabs. (If you're really lucky you have an integrated film registration system with pre-punched film, or film punching systems.)

If you're unlucky you do your registration marks with printers marks and targets that often come on a roll of transparent tape (or dry transfers, or self adhesive sheets, etc) and you apply these directly to each layer of the film. Manually. You do this one corner at a time and try to optically line it up on the light table, and this step is ridiculously important throughout the rest of the design and printing process.

Ok, so you have your keyline and your Rubylith taped down and secured. Now take an X-acto knife - preferably the #16 with the offset so you can what you're doing,

Now you get your colorway guide, often a copy of the keyline that the artist has colored in with markers and called out with color spots, indicating how many plates and colors there are in the design and where they go in the keyline.

And you gently cut through the red layer along the keyline and peel away the mask inside the area you want there to be a spot color inside that keyline, and you start laboriously painting by numbers using an X-acto blade, always splitting the difference and staying inside the width of the keyline. Not over, not under, 50/50, every time.

Some designs might have keyline details less than 1mm width, and spot colors can be as tiny and as simple as a dot of similar or smaller width. Each plate might have hundreds of similar details as well as large, sweeping areas of color. And some designs might have as many as 20 colors or plates with similar detail.

This could take days of work for a complicated design, with multiple people working on it.

Do this for all the spot color plates. Check it. Triple check it. You don't really get to see errors until expensive screens (or printing plates) are made, as it's really difficult to "proof" discrete color designs without digital help or printing a sample of the final product.

Now we need to make our photostat plates. The keyline and stack of color separation masks go into the dark room to the contact frame which is a metal frame with optically clear glass on one side and a vacuum platen system beneath it.

You load in a piece of film, the keyline and one mask in that order. If you're lucky, you have registration tabs and a bar in the contact frame, and you can add registration tabs to the new unexposed film. If you're unlucky you get to try to align the keyline and the mask with registration marks and targets you taped into the film in the dim red photosafe light, because you're working with live unexposed film and that stuff is expensive.

Turn the vacuum frame on. Hit the exposure control timer, light up the film with a high precision collimated light. Light turns off, pull the exposed film, drop it in a tray of developer or feed it to a developer machine. Repeat for however many plates you have.

But wait, there's a problem. You go to print and it's almost impossible to hold registration because the spot colors are so precisely trapped inside the keyline that there's little room for error, and you need to make all of the spot colors just a smidge larger so they get overprinted by the (usually) black keyline.

In desktop publishing a common way to deal with this is to adjust the "stroke" of a graphical element and all you really have to do is bump the pen width a little, and the professional way is to adjust your "spread" or "overprint" or "underprint" settings from the plate output functions and it's handled by your RIP or image setter or platemaker or whatever.

With analog film ou take your photo masks and keyline back into the darkroom and do the same thing over, except you add one or more layers of clear film between the new film and the keyline/mask sandwich, thus raising it a small amount. You bump your exposure time a little more to give it a little more light and the light "spreads" just a smidge or hairline more.

Anyway. Even in the earliest days of desktop publishing our art production for color separations like this went from "days" to "hours" for complex designs, and saved incredible amounts of money on design supplies like Rubylith and registration tabs and X-acto blades, not to mention endless hours hunched over light tables picking at Rubylith.

Towards the end of our business our art library took up a rather large room, and likely weighed a ton or two of stacks and stacks of polyester film of various sizes. Thousands of full sets of artwork on film, each with however many plates, often all of larger sizes, like a medium sized blueprint size.

I could store all of that line art and black and white art on my phones microSD card in vector or SVG format and it would barely make a dent. Heck, I can replicate that kind of detailed color sep work in fractions of the time, even in a FOSS program like Inkscape.

It is utterly incredible how many different supplies and processes it used to take to make this kind of industrial or commercial art, and even how many different solutions people used to print and make imagery from text to graphics. Rapidograph pens. Photo-opaque india ink. Brushes, triangles, curves, compasses. Magnifying lenses and inspection lamps. Foil transfer proofs. People were still using Linotype hot cast type well into the DTP era, and likely still do for letterpress work. When my dad's shop was smaller and we had more complicated text to lay out, he used to send me over to the local printery in the neighborhood with text copy to output on their optical Hell-Agfa typesetter which spit out optical typesetting like an oversized label printer, and I'd come back with those fairly expensive strips of paper so we could gang them up and lay them out into blocks or cut them up for re-arranging or whatever.
posted by loquacious at 11:46 AM on July 25, 2019 [17 favorites]

Well, I can guarantee you that those presstype sheets on Etsy are dried out and not transferable.

I dunno, not necessarily. I stumbled upon a bunch of Letraset Spacematic Presstype about 10 years ago that had a copyright of 1972 and it transferred great.

In fact, I just went into my basement and found a sheet of 36 pt Avant Garde Gothic Medium (minimum 10 years old, possibly 47 years old) and I had to press a little harder than I remember but it worked just great. (My crappy baseline skills notwithstanding).
posted by jeremias at 11:50 AM on July 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

A shot of spray adhesive or light brushing of contact cement should restore dried presstype.
posted by ardgedee at 12:41 PM on July 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wow, that set the wayback machine and no mistake. Somewhere around 1978 (when I was a literate lad but unpossessed of any manner of actual judgement), my dad brought home a number of sheets of Leteraset stock from a trade conference, and immediately gifted them to my young self, in what was an act of either genius or wild unreason; very possibily both.

It was some sort of lovely uncomplicated sans-serif typeface in various sizes -- something Helvetica-adjacent. To this day, various random household objects are labelled in what can charitably be called approximate spelling, but with immaculate typesetting. Hat tip, eight-year-old me, for instinctively knowing what kerning was before knowing what it was called.
posted by sourcequench at 2:01 PM on July 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

There's also the nightmare of a letter not fully leaving the contact sheet and tearing as you lifted it off!

Should come with a trigger warning.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:13 PM on July 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

In the early 80's, punk and art co-ops were big and friendly in Denver. Performance art, too, for a while. I made dozens of flyers with Letraset. Great stuff.
posted by kozad at 5:29 PM on July 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I recall correctly, I learned the little bit of math/planning required to properly space out type like this from my father that year I was home-schooled. He was teaching me from his '70s-era knowledge of graphic design, having studied it at the community college before his vision got too bad. So I remember using Letraset as a kid at least on occasion! I think my mother used it to typeset various posters she illustrated for stuff we were doing at school, too. Another artists' kid, right here.
posted by limeonaire at 9:18 PM on July 26, 2019

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