Learning Letterpress

on Design, Printmaking  

Letterpress has always felt like such an aspirational thing to me. Beautifully tactile and fascinatingly anachronistic, I’ve toyed with the idea of having letterpress work done for my wedding invitations or business cards, but always balked at the cost.

Since doing a letterpress evening course at my local TAFE, I now have the utmost respect for those who choose to print this way and the prices they charge. It’s a very manual and surprisingly physical process compared to the immediacy of digital design. In the course we did most of our projects the old-school way – selecting vintage lead or wooden letters from huge drawers, setting them into a frame spaced with pieces of wood or lead ‘furniture’, rolling on ink with a paint roller then printing each sheet of paper individually through a proofing press. This manual typesetting process was standard for printing until the mid 20th century, which to me is astounding because it took me hours to put together a simple quote. Commercial presses have a bit more automation for feeding through paper and inking, and these days many letterpress printers use photopolymer plates instead of moveable type, but it’s still far more laborious than modern offset or digital printing.

As we were given free reign to produce whatever kind of work we wanted, I set about trying as many different techniques as possible in the five sessions. I experimented with printing different combinations of ink and paper, doing a blind print (creating the impression without ink), thermography (adding a powder resin on the printed wet ink then heating for an embossed effect), gold foiling, hot blind debossing, printing with a photopolymer plate and even printing with a 3D printed plate I made from my logo.

I found it particularly interesting that technically the deep letterpress impression coveted by people these days was considered shoddy work previously, where it was preferred to have a ‘kiss impression’ – a touch light enough to clearly print without leaving any indentation at all, as that would make the reverse of the paper unusable and is hard on the metal type. Martha Stewart is often credited (or blamed) for the current revival of letterpress, especially with that heavily impressed style.

I spent a good few weeks researching how I could get my own press and continue experimenting at home, but being big, heavy, and now very popular antiques, this is not an easy task. There are some tutorials out there for creating your own proofing press, so that might come later down the line! Someday I’d like to play around more with 3D printed plates, multiple colour prints and combining prints with calligraphy or watercolour illustrations. If you have a spare press somewhere collecting dust, I’d be happy to take it off your hands!

The best thing about letterpress is how tactile it is, especially compared to digital. The feel of the individual letters, the smell and stickiness of the ink, the textures of the paper, the surprising physical effort required to work the press. If you have the opportunity, any lover of type and words needs to give it a go. I think I’ll be going back to this course to have more time playing with the presses eventually!

Course details:

Central Slice letterpress course runs 5 Wednesday evenings, 5:30-8pm in Northbridge, Perth for $345. 

I’m not being paid for this, just really enjoyed the course and wanted to share. Don’t forget to try ALL the things.

The TAFE letterpress studio - each drawer contains one 'font', in a particular weight and size.
The TAFE letterpress studio – each drawer contains one ‘font’, in a particular weight and size.
There were several different proofing presses to work with, this one being the most huge and impressive!
There were several different proofing presses to work with, this one being the most huge and impressive!
A rolling press with a foam roller. For this one you rotate a handle which moves the tray beneath the roller, pressing the paper onto the forme.
A rolling press with a foam roller. For this one you rotate a handle which moves the tray beneath the roller, pressing the paper onto the forme.
This proofing press has a handle with a roller attached, which is rolled over the paper and forme to create the print. I think this type of thing would be the easiest to DIY?
This proofing press has a handle with a roller attached, which is rolled over the paper and forme to create the print. I think this type of thing would be the easiest to DIY?
Wooden type
Wooden type
Metal type set in a forme held together with magnets. It's tough trying to think in mirror image!
Metal type set in a forme held together with magnets. It’s tough trying to think in mirror image!
One of my first prints
One of my first prints
Blind print, creating an impression without ink
Blind print, creating an impression without ink
Blind deboss and gold foiling fun
Blind deboss and gold foiling fun
Gold ink is my favourite
Gold ink is my favourite
Gold ink with thermography embossing
Gold ink with thermography embossing

Printing with a photopolymer plate

Prints from photopolymer plate
Printing with a photopolymer plate, produced for me by Whiteman Park Print Shop
Printing with 3D printed plate
Printing with 3D printed plate

One note

  1. I am currently undertaking this same course with Brad Burrows. Amazing course and amazing lecturer! Once a week for 5 weeks is just too short 🙂

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