Old Skool Printing
October 6, 2004 10:48 AM   Subscribe

"Crisp. Tangible. Deferential to classical typography..."

It's always wonderful to watch who loves what they do someone swimming against the tide.

Nice post.
posted by 327.ca at 10:53 AM on October 6, 2004

Nice post, my second cousin used to do this. The company he worked for eventually discarded the old press. I helped him move it into his home.

The narrator's... manner of speaking is very annnoying to... me. He seems to add dramatic pauses at not quite the right point in his sentence.
posted by substrate at 11:02 AM on October 6, 2004

It's always wonderful to watch who loves what they do someone swimming against the tide.

I'm obviously swimming against the tide of comprehensibility this morning. That should say "It's always wonderful to watch someone who loves what they do swimming against the tide."
posted by 327.ca at 11:05 AM on October 6, 2004

Ahh. Letterpress. Great post!
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:07 AM on October 6, 2004

Beautiful. Thank you.
posted by letterneversent at 11:09 AM on October 6, 2004

Very nice (although I quite agree about the speech cadences). But I don't believe letterpress is as close to death as the narrator and his subject seem to think. A lot of invitations and announcements are printed on this equipment, and one doesn't have to apprentice or invest in equipment to learn the craft. In New York City, for example, you can learn letterpress printing and use the facilities at the Center for Book Arts.
posted by Songdog at 11:09 AM on October 6, 2004

Makes me want to become an apprentice. Thanks.
posted by papercake at 11:12 AM on October 6, 2004

wonderful post, thank you.
posted by mosspink at 11:43 AM on October 6, 2004

Is this just audio, or is there some video to go along with the narration that I'm not getting?
posted by rhapsodie at 11:45 AM on October 6, 2004

Yes there is video. Now if I only knew where, when and who I was going to marry I'd get some invites printed before he retires.
posted by jeblis at 11:50 AM on October 6, 2004

Actually there is more and more hobbyist letterpress going on now - especially since it's become so easy, with the widespread use of photopolymer, to do the typesetting digitally. I have a Vandercook SP15 (email me if anyone here is near Sacramento and would like to use it, as I don't use it enough and it needs some love), a very easy press to learn & use.
posted by luriete at 11:52 AM on October 6, 2004

that's not oldschool. this is oldschool. [this post made my day, emptybowl]
posted by steef at 12:03 PM on October 6, 2004

10 points for the American Psycho reference.
posted by ScarletSpectrum at 12:04 PM on October 6, 2004

posted by quonsar at 12:22 PM on October 6, 2004

The closeups of the type in this remind me of reading my parents' issues of U&lc when I was little, and they were still in art school - letterform as money shot.
Incidentally, the U&lc web site is sucky.
posted by dammitjim at 12:28 PM on October 6, 2004

great post, thanks
posted by matteo at 12:42 PM on October 6, 2004

I totally thought this was an American Psycho thread. Beautiful photography. I'll have a new appreciation for this artform now.
posted by Juicylicious at 12:48 PM on October 6, 2004

Thank you SO much for this post, emptybowl! I love paper art, all kinds, but letterpress has really fascinated me for several years now. I found out more about it when a very good friend of mine attended Pasadena Art Center and he was able to take a class on how to do letterpress, and got to actually use these different types of machines. I very much want to do this for my wedding invitations (coming up in May!) and I have looked into a local letterpress printer here in Los Angeles. They had gorgeous samples of their work and despite the cost I really want to do this. I loved watching the different machines print others' projects, and they even gave me a little tour and created a lead stock (I learned this word from the video!) of my name right there. I might be emailing you, luriete, cuz if I could do this myself that would make it even better!
posted by rio at 12:53 PM on October 6, 2004

Glad you all like the link so much. I wish I could take credit for it, but I posted this for a friend that doesn't have an account. His obsession with American Psycho is.....disturbing.
posted by emptybowl at 1:09 PM on October 6, 2004

I was lucky enough (and old enough, I guess) to have letterpress printing be part of the "Industrial Arts" curriculum we took in grade school. (Old enough, also, that it was an all-boy thing...we did things like letterpress and woodwork while the girls were all learning to cook in "Home Ec".)

I've always been interested in this, and had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the commercial aspects of printing when I worked in publishing. There's a tremendous amount of technical knowledge in the craft, and while this sort of older approach is becoming much more of an avocation than a profession, things like "makeready", are still very much a part of modern commercial printing.

Finally, while I'm not a designer myself, my business partner very much is, and he has always said that one of the most valuable classes he ever took, in terms of font and type, was a stonecarving class that focused specifically on type. It was really eye-opening to learn how many features of modern type--like serifs--are grounded in chiseling techniques (as well as the need to strengthen thin lines on press stock).
posted by LairBob at 1:21 PM on October 6, 2004

How in the world does this guy still have his right hand? It almost gets crushed in the press about five times in this video. I wouldn't trust myself enough to cut it as close as he does.
posted by zsazsa at 1:26 PM on October 6, 2004

Beautiful. I love seeing that level of craftmanship, it's inspiring. Kind of funny that they have a
posted by anathema at 1:57 PM on October 6, 2004

Argh. Ignore the fragment.
posted by anathema at 1:57 PM on October 6, 2004

zsazsa - my friend who took that class I mentioned above told me that those parts of the letterpresses are called "snappers", a nickname that came about because several operators' thumbs had gotten crushed.
posted by rio at 2:28 PM on October 6, 2004

interesting post... always nice to see a true craftsman.
posted by jcruelty at 3:13 PM on October 6, 2004

I disagree with the interviewee's assessment that letterpress will die out. There is a sub culture of a book arts community that won't allow that to happen. Rather coincidentally, I just attended a printer's open house last night where there was a demonstration of letterpress techniques. The process transforms something like a business card from ephemeral to an art object just by the very nature of it's contemporary uniqueness.
posted by quadog at 3:42 PM on October 6, 2004

Also, in Minneapolis, Minnesota is The Loft. The Loft is the collection of groups around 'the word' - printing, spoken, writing, etc. All in this complex. Made me want to move back to I could be close to it.

Time to make a road trip to Sommerville - pay homage to his work. This stuff and woodcuts make me drool. Thanks for the post!

Two Firefly presses - huh?
Somerville, Ma and Oregon

I can't find a webpage for the Somerville Firefly...
posted by fluffycreature at 4:29 PM on October 6, 2004

I've always wanted a letterpress and very recently started pricing them (C&P and Kelsey, primarily on Ebay) and seriously considering purchasing one. Anyone interested in the art and history of the letterpress, should check out BriarPress.org and the Letpress mailing list. There is a huge subculture, as quadog mentions and prices for old Chandler & Price presses always seem to be going up.

Great vid, emptybowl!

Hey Rio, Claudia Laub does invitations and has apprenticeships too.
posted by shoepal at 4:34 PM on October 6, 2004

Great link. Back in the 80s I bought some letterpress Subgenius book from this guy(scroll down) that were just gorgeous. I was also going to say Lurie has a letterpress, but I'll just add his link.
posted by planetkyoto at 4:38 PM on October 6, 2004

reminds me of the poor Coach House Press in Toronto that is going to be shut down soon due to lack of money.
posted by krunk at 4:39 PM on October 6, 2004

Art-like letterpress and wood type products at Yee Haw
posted by dmo at 5:47 PM on October 6, 2004

Delicious. Thanks, emptybowl.
posted by bdave at 5:57 PM on October 6, 2004

As long as there are those with boatloads of money and a willingness to own that which is unique (as opposed to the 99% of "things" on you, in you, in your house, etc. that are mass-produced), there will always be room for artisans and craftsmen.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:59 PM on October 6, 2004

This is probably a stupid question - how does digital typesetting work? I understand that you can lay out a page on screen, but how does that turn into something physical that gets coated in ink and pressed against a page?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:19 PM on October 6, 2004

I love letterpresses. Don't own one, but love them. I have a couple of old books that were produced that way. The pages feels so wonderful when you hold the book...the words just seem more alive.

One of the coolest presents I've ever gotten was a typebox of a defunct paper from a town that no longer exists. I've never had anything to set the type *in* mind you...but the sorts themselves are all kinds of groovy.

As an aside, Obi, I'm kinda confused about that too. Perhaps you create the font face digitally, and thus it's easier to create the mold for the sort?
posted by dejah420 at 6:47 PM on October 6, 2004

how does digital typesetting work?

Others who know better will no doubt respond soon enough, but in the meantime ISTR that it's photographic. The computer-generated image exposes a photosensitive printing plate that's then wrapped around a drum. Magic chemicals make the ink stick the to right parts of the drum and fall off the wrong parts.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:04 PM on October 6, 2004

ROU has it, except for the part about wrapping around a drum. That's true of offset printing, which is used for commercial book applications and which takes a flexible polymer plate, but in letterpress the plate has a rigid steel backing. It's the paper (or "substrate", I think) that's wrapped around a drum and rolled over the inked type. The plate is positioned on a magnetic base to hold it in place, and various bits of furniture (wooden or metal spacers) are wedged around the base so that the type impression falls at just the right spot on your envelope or business card, etc.

Ink is applied by steel rollers that pass over the type's surface just before the paper makes contact. Some presses use an ink reservoir and some need the ink applied by hand with a little trowel. Too much ink and you get a muddy impression with dirty blobs, too little and your letters don't stand out, ink the roller unevenly and you'll see the letters fade across the page. About a thousand little things have to be fixed to incredible tolerances, and all by hand, and THAT is what makes letterpress worth having, worth doing.

Thanks, emptybowl, for a nice little post. A friend of mine in NYC does this work; I can see if she wants her info circulated if anyone is interested.
posted by Pyth at 8:09 PM on October 6, 2004

Thanks ROU/Pyth. So would it be true to say that you won't get the same tactile effect with digital typesetting that you would with lead sorts? I mean, the photosensitive plate doesn't bite into the soft paper in the same way, does it?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:59 PM on October 6, 2004

No, it does bite in, that's called "impression". (The polymer plate is run through a hardening process before use.) Over a number of impressions this causes wear on the type so multiple plates may be needed for a long job depending on how much impression you want, ie how much pressure is used. The plate is usually inked by a rubber roller so there's less wear at that stage, although the steel roller delivers ink to the rubber one. It's a little complicated.

The same wear issue is true of metal type to a degree, which is why for a certain period in the history of printing the "kiss impression" was preferred -- that is, a gentle contact of type and paper that leaves very little indentation but still produces all of the text crisply and evenly. Of course, people who're willing to shell out bucks for letterpress work in this day and age mostly want a visible impression -- it's "proof" that they paid for an archaic, time-consuming hand-printing process.

I should add, to make my earlier post more accurate, that some models of press don't flex either the paper or the plate but vertically press the plate down onto the paper, which rests on a flat surface. Especially useful for heavier papers, cardstock, etc that couldn't be curled up. You can see both types in the QT footage.

Any experts should jump right in, here. I dabbled in letterpress for a brief time and am really am not qualified to be explaining this but I do like to spread the love.
posted by Pyth at 9:45 PM on October 6, 2004

Okay, some revisions to what's been said. Digital information can be printed in a couple of ways beyond laser/inkjet. Almost all commercial printing is offset. Books, magazines, etc. The description above is basically correct. You generate a film, which is used to create a plate. There is no raised surface - the plate just physically accepts/rejects ink. You will not see "tangible" proof of the printing process here.

You can combine the ease of digital with the craft of letterpress by using photopolymer, or even getting a metal block engraved. In this case yes, there is a raised surface that creates that bite. This is not cost-practical for large-volume printing.
posted by O9scar at 10:31 PM on October 6, 2004

Not only was this a beautiful post (I love books, paper, typography - this is better than an avi of sweaty naked people) but this man's business is also on the street where I now live. I'll have to look him up and get some wedding invites made.
posted by ArsncHeart at 11:40 PM on October 6, 2004

Excellent post.

I love paper and writing and typography and all of that and I just loved watching this video.

Thank you!

(and yes, about the weird speaking method of the "Chuck Kramer" guy.)
posted by erratic frog at 12:46 AM on October 7, 2004

Who remembers Dot Matrix Printers? Lots of little pins making a physical impression on the paper. Ok, sorry for reminding people of that.

btw: beautiful beautiful post.
posted by Meridian at 5:35 AM on October 7, 2004

I remember the Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers as previously linked on mefi. Oh, and the printers themselves, too, yes.
posted by dammitjim at 9:32 AM on October 7, 2004

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