I love words and anything to do with making words – a sharp Ticonderoga pencil, smooth flowing gel ink, bold ballpoint blue, even the feel of a computer keyboard with just the right spring to the keys. It is both the physical process and the thought process of creating communication that is alluring.
This weekend I added a new method of word-creation: Letterpress! I waited three months for this workshop and woke Saturday full of excitement. Letterpress, which I previously blogged about here and here, marries art and the written word in a way similar to a chainsaw artist creating wood sculpture. It is also an activity I’ve wanted to try in my journey to find my way to a new life of creativity and connection to my work in the world.
I arrive early, wandering into the cozy GCAE Print Shop, replete with reminisces of its former life as an early twentieth century firehouse, including the remains of a sliding pole jutting from a man-sized hole in the ceiling. Mitch, the instructor and founder of the Printing and Book Arts program at GCAE, is busy laying out materials for the small workshop. In his round glasses, goatee, English driving cap and easy demeanor, he reminds me of a college professor with a dash of The Dude – and I mean that in the best possible way. As he steps out for coffee, I am encouraged to look around.
The ceiling in the Print Shop is high (remember, a fire truck once parked here) and the room well-lit; I soak up the atmosphere of exposed brick walls, polished tongue-in-groove ceiling and parquet floor – a warmth juxtaposing against the heavy-metal industry of at least 5 presses, including a mammoth Heidelberg, paint tins, oil cans, the appropriate array of mechanical fragrances, tools and rags, and letterpress prints tacked up on the walls. (The prints are from a 2 week exhibition of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., an important letterpress artist.)
Mitch returns, the other two workshop students arrive and then it’s a lively hour of chatting about Kennedy, local Letterpress outfits, what exactly is all this stuff in here, who is Gutenberg, what is Linotype, and why are we all here. Mitch nails it when he suggests that people gravitate to Letterpress when they ache for art in their lives, but have failed to excel at drawing, painting, pottery or photography; they (we) grasp at Letterpress as a final hope: Maybe with Letterpress I, too, can be an artist. (Oh, Mitch, how did you know?)
We start by thumbing booklets printed with type examples, grouped by where the cases are stored around the shop. Clicking the pull-down menu of fonts in MSWord gives you an idea of what we’re looking at – thumbing through pages of type examples is a thrill of choices and a bit of awe that someone had to pull out all this type to print these booklets. The project is to be a note card, so I decide that a “Thank You” card would be most useful, and simple. I choose a type that looks like stenciling stamped on the side of a box (think: FRAGILE), then notice that there are whole cases of type that are symbols, icons, and fun details. From this selection I choose a small oval enclosing “Printed in the USA.” Now on to the cases to find the type.
The Banks are storage chests that come up nearly to my shoulders, full of type cases set in shallow drawers, about 2 dozen to a chest – I know the Bank number but not the drawer number for my detail type, so it is a lot of pulling out and pushing back in, hoping I don’t pull out a drawer too far as they are full of heavy lead type (you spill it, you refill it). “Printed in the USA” is a small piece of type at less than one-inch, and I finally find it in a drawer amongst stars, curlicues, corner pieces, tiny animals, crosses, Stars of David, pointing fingers, arrows, company logos, and just about anything you can think of.
Picking through lead type is a lot like sorting change – there is a pleasant weight in your hands from these mere bits of metal that have traveled through time and circumstance, and in the shop there seems to be an endless supply. But, considering that worldwide millions of pounds of type have been callously discarded as “old and useless”, the reality is that to a Letterpress artist each one can be like finding an Indian Head Penny. Also like sorting change, your fingertips take on a grayish cast after handling the type, slugs, leads and spacers all required to set your project. My hands are dirty and I am happy.
The metal hand-held tray where I arrange the type is called a Composing Stick, marked in picas, the typographers unit of measurement. The type is centered (or justified) in the composing stick using spacers, blank lead pieces of varying widths that when stacked against the type to the proper justification holds everything together tightly. I am assembling a metal puzzle that when locked up on the press bed will render something beautiful, at least useful, or both. Leads are thin lead bars, also measured in picas, used to separate the lines of words. Thicker bars are slugs, framing it all together neatly at top and bottom.
I now hold in my hand a word, in the truest most physical sense. (Actually, a phrase: Thank You.) Holding a message in my hand I am struck with the metaphysics of what I am about to do: This lead type, waiting to be retrieved to convey a message to implore, touch or inform, will be coated with ink and pressed with tons of pressure into paper thus transferring the words. Someday soon I will mail that Thank You card, thanking someone for a dinner, a gift, or a kind word. Their eyes will see the letters, their brain will know the words, and their heart will feel the sentiment. The type, although long redistributed back into its case at GCAE, lives on in spirit inside that person.
The workshop is scheduled for only 3 hours, so I’m grateful that Mitch rearranges my composing stick, picking through the varying sizes of spacers with speed and muscle-memory, so that my type will be centered and locked tight. Fixing the type to the press bed is a similar hunt-and-peck, using “furniture” (wooden rectangles) to block in the set type and “cammed quoins” to shim everything even tighter so nothing moves on the bed. Yes, Letterpress requires a lot of equipment…and I haven’t even gotten to the press.
A Vandercook No. 3 proof press weighs about 1,000 pounds and has six separate cylinders responsible for tasks such as moving the paper through the press, accepting ink into the press and distributing ink to the type. (shout out to GCAE book arts for fact check!). It is literally a well-oiled machine. This one is motorized to keep in motion the rollers that collaborate to do the inking; a hand crank turns the drum which guides the paper through the press, over the type, and back out. A computer is a fascinating modern machine, but there are no moving parts inside my laptop to give me any notion of how it works. The Vandercook, while ancient, is alive.
Prepared with thick cyan-blue ink scraped out of a tin from under a dried “skin”, the rollers are sizzling. Press a foot pedal to lift the pins that will hold down the edge of my paper against the drum, release the pedal, and turn the crank. Running this press is a minor exercise and, like the equipment at my gym, there is a rhythm to doing it correctly to get the desired result. Turn the crank with one hand, hold the paper with the other while it winds around the drum (letting go before a finger slips into the path of something unforgiving), and keep turning while traveling fluidly alongside the drum, one more left-foot-over-right and the print emerges. I step on its feet a few times, but after 5 or 6 turns the Vandercook and I dance. It is calming, mesmerizing, both to do and to watch.
Mastery of Letterpress is found within the skills of many disciplines: art, chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, architectural engineering and a touch of feng shui. In addition to all the wonderful messages one could print with all that type, there is camaraderie among printers and a homey-ness to the print shop, a place of hard work and deep affection.
Hands dirty, thirsty, and inexplicably 4½ hours into a 3 hour workshop, I have designed, set type and printed 20 cards. On the reverse of the paper is the sensual impression of the letters; I want to do it again. Mitch casually mentions the upcoming 8 week Lovin’ Letterpress class.
Thank You (Printed in the USA)
Excellent descriptions/imagery… makes me want to try it myself!
Best post yet, T.
Thanks Grace! It was a fantastic day. You most definitely should try it at your local letterpress shop. Or, GCAE isn’t very far away. 😉