Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Process: Letterpress

Greetings! I am now going to tell you all about letterpress. Today's item is Jen and my "OPUS" poster (along with a more detailed story of our letter-pressed journal page).

There are three main reasons why you should fall in love with letterpress.

1) Unique Aesthetic: Letterpress has its own beauty. There's a certain raw texture that it creates which can make letter-pressed items appear rustic yet detailed, refined, and glorious. (Don't listen to the slew of graphic designers out there who claim that they can capture the same effect with their fancy-pants Adobe art programs and house-sized printers. They're just jealous. ;))

2) Appreciation: Even if you never actually get your hands on a letterpress, just learning about the process will forever change the way you look at books (unless you're a year-round scrooge). In our culture of mass-produced books, catalogs, magazines, pamphlets, syllabi, and student papers, it's easy to forget that in the not-yet-hazy past, books were a prized possession.

3) Awesomeness: That's right. Letterpress is a pure form of awesomeness. (If Po the Kung Fu Panda had lived in Europe during the mid-1400s, he would have letter-pressed books--free of charge.)

With that in mind, let's explore the actual process.

For the first page in our leather journal, we started with choosing a typeface. Typefaces are the alphabets, made of wood or metal, that one uses for printing. There's a huge variety of typeface styles and sizes, which makes things fun. For this journal, we used Garamond, which is a classic serif typeface (serifs are the strokes that subtly project from the stems of letters).

Next, we laid out our type on the letterpress bed using support rods and magnets. And this is where it gets extra fun: you have to spell your words with each letter facing backwards, moving from right to left.


If your brain starts to do loop-de-loops in the middle of placing a word, just press any confusing letter(s) against your forearm to remind yourself that it truly will face the right direction once printed. Lowercase Bs and Ds, anyone?

Yep! That's the "d" on the left and the "b" on the right.

(Oh! Fun fact: the terms "lowercase" and "uppercase" originate from the old letterpress studios. Printers organized their type by size: large letters in cases on top and small letters in cases beneath. So that became their nice and efficient way of referring to them: uppercase letters and lowercase letters!)

But! Before I get too carried away with type, I have to tell you about our "OPUS" poster. For this item, we used a really cool device called a polymer plate. This is such a handy option because it allows you to letterpress your own designs--which is exactly what we did! We created our own typeface for this poster and Beaver Engraving made us our polymer plate. (Check out their website--they've got good stuff!)

Once the type or plate is secure, it's time to pull out the ink and a brayer. Letterpress ink is quite thick so a little goes a long way. We smeared a small dollop onto a glass palette and then coated the brayer. You know you have the right amount of ink on your brayer when it stops making a really loud smacky sound as you role is across the palette (this usually requires several runs across non-inky areas).

Finally, we inked our type/plate with the brayer, secured our page on top with the clamp at the front of the letterpress, and ran over the page with the roller.


And that's letterpress!