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Archive for the ‘Letterpress’ Category

Custom Printing: The Art and Craft of Letterpress

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

I saw a most heartening article today in the 2/4/13 HamptonRoads.com called “Old Fashioned Printing Method Is Just Her Type.” It’s by Krys Stefansky of the Virginian-Pilot, and it extols the virtues of a slow, beautiful, custom printing process using oil-based ink on fine paper.

The article describes Joy Ragland’s journey of discovery. She was given an old letterpress, learned how to use it, and fell in love with the process. The story is heartening because in this age of digital media it’s nice to know that some people love the attention to detail and all the tactile qualities of letterpress.

What Joy Ragland Does

Joy Ragland “painstakingly hand-sets type from her growing collection of font styles—one itty-bitty letter and decorative detail at a time.” She prints short runs of stationery, note cards, coasters, business cards, bookmarks, gift tags, announcements, birth announcements, graduation announcements, and wedding invitations. Ragland has a viable clientele of those “who appreciate a beautiful font inked on quality paper.”

The Process of Letterpress Custom Printing

Letterpress is a relief process. The type and images rise above the non-image areas, and, when inked and pressed against the paper, the type and images leave both ink and a slight indentation in the paper. There is something very tactile and sensuous about the process and the product.

Ragland’s press is a clamshell platen press, which means the two elements of the press open and then come together much as a clam or other mollusk will open and close its shell. One side holds the slugs of type set by hand using a composition stick—one letter or ornament at a time—locked into a metal chase, or frame. The other side holds the paper. Bringing the two sides together in a commercial printing press such as this by turning wheels or pulling levers will create enough pressure to transfer the ink from the raised letters onto the printing paper, one sheet at a time.

Why Joy Ragland Loves Letterpress

For Joy Ragland it is a love born of a personal history of using her hands. She was raised by parents who kept sheep and grew their own vegetables. Her father was a blacksmith. Ragland knitted and sewed, and made pottery, prints, and jewelry.

She was given the 200-pound letterpress by a friend who had salvaged it from a college in West Virginia. (Presses like these were common in shop classes and art classes during the 1960s and 1970s. Many came from abroad—from countries like West Germany—while others were made in the United States.) Ragland had to first learn letterpress printmaking from diehard enthusiasts who have kept the art alive. For instance, she studied at the Augusta Heritage Festival and also at a hobby shop in Northern Virginia.

Once she knew what she was doing, Ragland had to rebuild parts of her own press, including changing the ink rollers and replacing the metal chases that lock in the pieces of type, as well as removing the rust that had frozen all moving parts of the press. She had to depend on contacts at hobby shops and time spent on the Internet.

For Ragland, the joy comes from “the problem solving, the experimenting and improvising…[and] working with luxurious papers and colors and seeing a finished stack of gorgeous printed cards.”

The Implications for Commercial Printing

I think the resurgence of letterpress printing reflects some very human needs:

  1. Letterpress is the most tactile and sensuous of all printing technologies. You can feel the indentations each letter made as it struck the paper. You can appreciate the surface formation and tooth of the printing stock as well as its color and finish. Letterpress straddles the boundary between fine art and communication. I think people need this is an increasingly virtual world.
  2. People also need to communicate in a personal way. When was the last time you wrote or received a hand-drafted letter or card? Receiving such a card or letter is an intimate experience because it is rare and because it shows how much time and attention someone spent selecting the piece and writing a note. It shows how much they value you. Email provides a far less personal vehicle for communication.
  3. People crave a sense of history. They often want to do something their parents or grandparents did, something artistic with their hands. It gives them a sense of continuity and connection with something larger than themselves, something extending back for generations.
  4. People need art. In addition to being tactile, letterpress is artistic. Think of the variety of letterforms within all the historic typefaces, as well as the viscous ink and the rough paper.

There is something very humanizing about letterpress. I think it will live on for generations.

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