Learning to Letterpress

We all have to start somewhere, for me there have been several starts, but not a lot of follow through, so this time I will attempt to start in earnest.

My journey to becoming a Letterpress master really started last year when I travelled over to Iceland, meet a bunch of super cool awesome people, created a card, printed it, ate some tasty Korean food then flew home and sent pretty much everyone I know one of the rocking cards I’d made (there is another post where I go into infinitely more detail). Then, with the best will in the world, life took over and my dream of a small coffee shop with printing press in the corner took on sepia tones as it played in my mind whilst life cracked on around me. Then Christmas with all it’s twinkly lights sparkle rocked up and an unexpected gift got me to thinking. I set up an Ebay alert, placed my bid and essentially bought something I had no idea how to use, but was very excited to own; an Adana 5×8 printing press.

In my humble opinion a thing of beauty, well, ok not quite beauty perhaps, mine certainly wasn’t, dusty with a touch of rust. But none the less still working in very much the same way it would have when it was brand new sometime back in the 60’s. Problem was, that’s what I assumed, whilst I knew the general jist of what I was meant to do the details alluded me, so whether my Adana would print or not was still up for debate.

Time to call in the experts. I reached out to Harrington and Squires, a small company run by Chrissie Charlton and Vicky Fullick who both have oodles of Letterpress experience, booking myself in for a 1:1 training course using the Adana 5×8 so I could learn the ropes. Class started at 10am and I was welcomed into the shop by Vicky with a beaming smile and an offer of a cup of coffee, the perfect start. The shop/workshop itself is worth mentioning here, based in Tufnell Park, it appears to have been a redundant space between two buildings that was stolen back and reinvented into a welcoming studio. Also, it’s rather narrow, which is a novel way of getting you up close and personal with the printing process. Three floors up, we talked through what I was hoping to get out of the day, looked through some examples of what people had produced and started to sketch up some ideas for my own design.

Chrissie took me through the process of setting the type that I wanted to include on the print, showing me how the type was then set into the chase. This is the part of the whole process I think I will have to revisit, it probably is the most complex part and arguably you don’t HAVE TO know all the terms that refer to the different sizes of type and spacers, but i’m someone who likes to know these things. It’s probably only a select few who will nod approvingly as I refer to an em, en or quad, but I would nod back at them in appreciation. For those of us who love a well organised desk I would highly recommend a visit to H&S purely to marvel over the type draws, the wooden casings full of lead spacers all organised by size and length, a work of wonder and highly satisfying to behold.

A short break for lunch and we were back at it inking up the rollers and working out what ‘packing’ we needed to get the impression just right. I was amazed at how little you needed to adjust the amount of packing to have a large impact on the impression. Packing it turns out is essentially how much paper you add under the printing surface to increase or decrease the amount of pressure that is put onto the printing surface when a print is being taken, or at least it’s one of the methods used. One brilliant trick is to do your initial print onto some acetate and then line up your card or whatever you’re printing on underneath so you can see exactly where the print will fall and get the positioning just right. Mark-up your placements and hold the card in place with some sticky fixers and you’re good to go!

As the shop has more than one Adana we inked up another with a vivid pink colour to work alongside the marine colour already on the go and achieved a wonderful contrast between the different wooden letters I had chosen to print. The type setting process for the wooden letters was that bit simpler and I managed to get the hang of it myself, alternating between an S for Something and A for awesome to put together some rather delightful calling cards for Something Awesome.

Then came the bit if i’m honest I hadn’t really been looking forward to, the clean up. Which as it turns out isn’t half so bad as you might think. In this case, a good dose of white spirit and a cut up old t-shirt are your friend. With a tip from Roy at Caslon (who now own the Adana rights) Vicky showed me a nifty way to clean the rollers and ink disk where you didn’t have to take the rollers off the machine – much simpler.

And there you have it, with the basics under my belt I toodled off home to give my own Adana a once over, asses what I thought was missing, set up a few more Ebay alerts for quoins, spacers and a polymer plate mounting board and started to sketch up some ideas. The next key learning step for me is to get my head around the delights of the Adobe Creative Suite to allow me to get my ideas from paper, to computer to polymer plate. Technology moves so fast and I feel as though I was perhaps a few school years too early for the great shift towards computerisation (if that’s a word). Everything seemed to happen just a few years after i’d moved on, coding is now taught in school, graphics programmes seem to be something a lot of teenagers are already a dab hand at. So, it’s back to school for me. Perhaps that’s why I like Letterpress, I can see the moving parts, I can figure out what does what and if something isn’t working you can stick your hand in and give it a tweak. Computers aren’t like that, they aren’t tangible in the same way, but they can do some wonderful things. Working with polymer plates, for at least some of the printing I do, gives me the best of both words, computer aided design, human aided printing.

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