The deep relief “hit” or impression of art and letters into a thick paper stock is what makes the resurgence of letterpress unique and in demand.
Stationary, business cards, wedding invitations and posters (broadsides) are the biggest end use of letterpress.
It’s interesting to note that traditional letterpress printing did not reveal the impression of the letters as that was considered bad printing.
Detail of a letterpress print made with wood type, metal type and image cuts. Note the surface texture of the ink, the slight indentation into the paper, and the imperfections in the surface ink; all part of the letterpress aesthetic. Photo and design by Christine Medley
Letterpress printing is hot. It’s been experiencing a strong resurgence since the 1990s when everyone was giving away the presses and type for close to nothing. Many presses ended up scrapped for metal, in the dumpster or put outside to rust. Type was burned, trashed or made into crafts. Go on to eBay now, and you’ll pay a fortune for a complete alphabet of wood type or for what used to be an obsolete press and equipment.
I consider myself lucky that I started collecting five years ago, and even then it wasn’t cheap, but at least I could afford some of it. There are so many people getting into letterpress now, that the competition is high to get quality type and good presses.
Photo by Christine Medley
So Who’s Printing?
The Ladies of Letterpress has 1820 members at last count. While the name of the group would suggest it’s only a female membership, there are male members too. The letterpress community is running strong appealing to recent art grads who might have been introduced to it in a college course; young females and graphic designers who want to start their own business or be able to print their own products and work.
Book artists and printmakers have all along been using letterpress and some commercial print shops are dusting off their old presses and getting back in the act. Artful business cards, wedding invitations, napkins, coasters, fine art posters and more are in high demand to be printed as letterpress.
Sarah McCoy of The Permanent Collection Letterpress & Design studio, demos how to print on a pedal-powered platen press during the 2013 Ladies of Letterpress conference. Photo by Christine Medley
On the heels of returning from the Ladies of Letterpress Type on the Cob Printers’ Wayzgoose in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, I can directly report that there are a solid core of passionate artists, printers and designers that are determined to keep this craft alive and well. It was exciting to see the old-timers sharing their wisdom, their type and their stories with of all of us involved with this letterpress revival.
We saw some amazing collections of Victorian type, metal and wood type, and beautifully printed material along with getting a big dose of history. Some of the workshops showed us how to carve wood type, create paper enclosures, run a linotype, print posters, maintain presses and play with some huge, very old presses that reside at the Old Threshers printers’ hall.
Rick Von Holdt of Foolproof Press shows Jess Meoni how to use the Wesel hand press to print a poster at the Old Threshers printers’ hall as part of the 2013 Ladies of Letterpress conference. The Wesel proof press was made in Lancaster, PA in 1925. It can create up to 350,000 lbs. of pressure. Photo by Christine Medley
Scott Moore demos how to cut wood type from a pattern on a pantograph, which he designed and built. He is only one of two people in the U.S that cuts new wood type. Photo by Christine Medley
My Letterpress Story: The Workshop
I’m a graphic designer, printmaker and educator. What could be a better marriage then to do letterpress? As my collection of vintage advertising cuts, illustrations, logos, and metal type grew, I felt the need to share this historical way of printing with my graphic design majors—and to give them a creative outlet to get them off the computer.
I had them make cards and posters with quotes or their names. The whole experience of picking out wood letters, complete with dents, cracks, and a patina that speaks of some wonderful history, was exciting. Spelling backwards and upside down in a frame where it feels like you are putting together a puzzle, was challenging. Inking the surface of the letters, giving the press a crank, and carefully pulling back the corner of the paper to reveal a print—a print with character that an inkjet print lacks—was close to magical. They wanted more.
So I bought a press, and all the stuff that goes with it; furniture, chases, keys, quoins, and eventually another press. And I opened a studio, Crow Designs Studio, in downtown Scranton, PA with the purpose of giving community workshops and to do my own printing projects. I share the space with a letterpress printer, Revival Press, who has been doing this for a few years. So far, so good. People are excited to see the shop and turnout for the workshops has been strong.
The Workshop, 334 Adams St., Scranton, PA, houses letterpress studios, Crow Designs and Revival Letterpress. Photo by Cheryll Davies
The community of letterpress is widespread. If you need to find a roller for a press, some wood type or need to read the original manual for a press made in the 1930s, then visit Briarpress.org, the online hub for all things letterpress. If you want to join in on the fun and attend a printer’s fair or a wayzgoose as it’s called, check out Hamilton Wood Type in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Hamilton is the original company that started making wood type back in the 1800s and is now a working museum. And join the Ladies of Letterpress; check out your area for letterpress studios; there are many community shops that offer workshops. And if you happen to be in Nashville, visit Hatch Show Print where you can tour the shop and buy the most awesome music related posters printed from vintage blocks. There’s a lot of history to explore and an exciting revival to become involved with—letterpress truly is a hit.
Examples of flourishes and cuts made by the Hamilton Wood Type Company. Collection of Rick Von Holdt. Photo by Christine Medley