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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: A Sample of the Art of Letterpress

I picked up a booklet of poetry and illustrations in a thrift store yesterday for fifty cents. It was really more of a pamphlet, like a program for the theater, 6” x 9”. It caught my eye for several reasons.

What I Saw When I Paged Through the Booklet

  1. It had French flaps (cover flaps that folded back toward the inside of the book).
  2. It was bound with thin black string just slightly thicker than thread (it reminded me of a Smyth sewn book).
  3. The pages had rough, deckled edges (with each one slightly different). This was clearly hand-made paper, not like the faux-deckled-edge of a “rough-front” print book trimming performed on bindery equipment.
  4. The thick paper had a rough and uneven texture as well as a pleasing cream tone.
  5. When I ran my fingers across the printed type, I could feel indentations in the paper. Looking at the paper in bright light, I could see that every letterform had been ground slightly into the paper fibers, an indication that the booklet had been printed via letterpress rather than offset lithography.
  6. Upon closer examination, I could see ligatures within the text (pairs of letterforms that had been tied together with small extra strokes, such as the “ct” in “select” or the “st” in “illustration.” Back in 1987, when my office bought a Macintosh II and Adobe PageMaker, a lot of the artistry of prior years’ typesetting disappeared. Before learning PageMaker, I had set type on a dedicated Mergenthaler computer-typesetting machine, which included the finer details of typesetting. (Fortunately, some of these have since returned in select digital typefaces.)
  7. The print booklet was hand-signed by both the author and the artist responsible for the woodcut images within the text.
  8. Artwork within the text consisted of three types of images: multiple rust-brown gesture drawings that looked like they had been sketched with a brown pencil, line drawings depicting a clamshell platen printing press, and small ornaments (like flowers) used to separate sections of type.

How The Custom Printing Artisan Produced This Booklet

I went to the website of the printer noted on the back of the booklet, and I researched their capabilities. I also read the “colophon” of the poetry book (a statement at the end of the text noting the specifications of the type and paper as well as the length of the press run—250 copies).

The printer had produced the booklet on a clamshell platen press. I watched a YouTube video that showed such a press in action. The press operator first smeared printing ink on a round plate at the top of the press. Hot metal type (raised lettering rather than the flat typesetting plate of an offset press) was locked up in a “chase” and supported vertically within the press. Opposite the hot metal type, a flat surface held a sheet of hand-made custom printing paper.

When the clamshell press operated, the type section and the paper section of the press opened away from one another on a hinge. Ink rollers rolled up and across the round plate at the top of the press to collect ink and then rolled the ink down and across the custom printing plate containing raised type, line art, and illustrations. Then the press operator inserted a sheet of printing paper in the press, and the “clamshell” closed again. The intense pressure of the inked type block pressed against the paper (and its metal support backing) created the printing impression. Then the press opened, and the operator removed the printed sheet and replaced it with a new, blank sheet. Then the rollers inked the type for the next impression, and the process repeated itself.

What Makes This Interesting

Reviewing the YouTube video as I paged through the letterpress-printed booklet gave me an appreciation for the artistry involved. The signed print booklet was more than a communication vehicle. It was a piece of art. The tactile quality of the paper, the indentations in the paper left by the hot metal type and illustration blocks, and the design flourishes of the letterforms made the poetry print book reminiscent of a bound series of lithographs, or a book of woodcuts, linoleum cuts, or engravings in a museum.

Over the years, I’ve done research and have spoken with some small commercial printing vendors that have purchased and refurbished these old presses. These vendors provide letterpress custom printing as a service for such jobs as invitations, letterhead, and small booklets. There’s still a market for this kind of custom printing, even within a culture that has become increasingly digital. Or perhaps this tactile printing is a needed respite from that digital, virtual world.

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