Having started my career in a print shop that still used letterpress printing for a number of clients, I was fortunate enough to have received quite a bit of experience in ‘pressing raised type onto paper’. This took many forms back then, as automation and repeatability were becoming the norm. The printing press that I spent the most time on was a Heidelberg windmill platen press. This was essentially a small format, modern letterpress, many of which are still in active service today. But I was also able to spend many (many) hours on an older hand-fed press, of the style you would have found available at the turn of the century. Nowadays, people have to form co-ops or clubs to get their hands on such things, but back then, I just called it… work!
That’s right. I wasn’t creating the next great work of letterpress art. I wasn’t trying to move people with filigreed craftsmanship etched into every sheet. I was simply trying to get through one bloody job quick enough that I might start on the next one. The customer was waiting, and they didn’t give a hoot how long my makeready took me, merely that they needed it, and wanted to pay for it. Such is common in most business transactions to this day. An agreed upon product, manufactured to specifications for an agreed upon sum.
Today, in the world of letterpress, things are different. I am pleased to see that the craft lives on. People ARE still interested in such things, and are willing to go go greater lengths to procure it. And people are generally able to appreciate the artistic merit that goes into the creation of a printed piece. But there is one thing that I have noticed changing over the years. When I was learning, my supervisor (often my father, whom I learned the trade from, or another pressman in the shop) would hold the sheet up perpendicular to the light, to see if he could see the indent into the paper that the type had made. If you could see the impression, it was too much. The correct way to print with letterpress was to make as little impression as possible into the surface of the paper‚ merely ‘kissing’ the surface of the sheet. This required a degree of skill, as any less pressure usually resulted in not enough ink transfer, and your type would end up looking broken.
Modern letterpress printing has evolved. It is not uncommon to find printed pieces where the impression is pressed quite deep into the surface of the paper on purpose. Why? Because that gives the work some ‘depth’ and of course, shows that it was done letterpress in the first place. In fact, if traditional letterpress printing is done really well, you would have a hard time figuring out that it’s letterpress at all. Now, I understand that over time, things change. Our aesthetic desires change. Plus, letterpress printing had to evolve in order to continue to secure a niche for itself in the future of printed communications. There are some amazing craftspeople working in the field right now, making some terrific work. However, it causes me just a slight quiver of sadness when I see type having been smashed enthusiastically into the paper.