Letterpress: My New/Old Obsession May 26 2022

Like a lot of folks, I had some time to fill during the early days of quarantine. I've been a sourdough baker since before it was cool, so that was not really an option. Instead, I decided to learn to letterpress.

Detail of my "Wine Bottle Taxonomy" Letterpress Print

Above: My "Wine Bottle Taxonomy" print, inked by hand and printed with a deep impression on a 1927 Vandercook Proof Press.

What is Letterpress?

Succinctly, it's the kind of printing that Johannes Gutenberg did. Ink is applied to a piece of type – also known as a "letter" – and then pressed into a piece of paper. If you compose a whole bunch of letters into individual words, sentences, paragraphs ... after a few days, you have a page. In a week, you might have a few pages, and after a year or ten, you have a Bible. In Gutenberg's day, they didn't have Tiger King, so this kind of tedious activity filled the space between their plague outbreaks.

"Modern" Letterpress

Over the years, technological advancements have sped the process of letterpress up: improved type composition tools such as the Linotype machine, photopolymer print plates, self-inking mechanisms, and electric motors, to name just a few.

But the basics of pressing type into page, one color at a time, remain the same, hundreds of years later. This simple, physical, mechanical and tactile quality is what makes letterpress so charming to me.

My First Press

I studied printmaking in college at the University of Iowa, using mainly etching presses with carved wooden blocks that I inked by hand, with a glorified paint roller called a "brayer."

When I decided to get back into that kind of printing, that's basically what I started with: a  simple, hand-cranked and hand-inked 1927 proof press made by the Vandercook company. I bought mine on eBay from a helpful gentleman in California, which is a good place to look if you know what to look for. I didn't, but thankfully, I got very lucky with a knowledgeable seller who made sure I had the parts I needed to actually use the thing. Proof presses were designed to be used in busy print shops as a kind of prototyping press. Once you had your words and pictures locked up in a forme, you could use a proof press to quickly ink up and print a copy or two to share with your customer or coworkers, spotting any errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar before they made it to the production presses that printed much faster. Seeing an error in a printed piece is bad, but much worse when you see it reproduced a thousand times!

Some proof presses are self-inking, but my Vandercook (a "No. 1," fittingly) is not. In those first days of printing, I had to re-ink my artwork after every print, which got pretty old pretty quick! At my absolute fastest, I could reliably produce one decent-quality print every two minutes or so. Not so bad when the print had one color (as with my Wine Bottle Taxonomy print), but when a print had two or more colors (like my Essential Gin Cocktails print), a finished print might take me more like 4-5 minutes to print, or roughly 12 per hour. That's not very many!

On the plus side, this press has a print area of 14x20 inches (35 x 51 cm), which allowed me to start out with some good-sized prints right away, using a fairly small machine (it weighs around 250 pounds (115 kg) and is mechanically very simple.

My Second Press

I decided to upgrade to a platen press just a few months after acquiring the proof press, when I saw a good one come up on Craigslist. A box truck rented, I loaded an 1880's Golding Jobber with the help of my friend Nat and no small quantity of audible grunts (and a few gasps as it almost tipped over once or thrice). This press is also "gluten-powered," but the press' action is kept in motion by means of a foot treadle, leaving your hands to feed paper into the press' jaws (or "platen") in a kind of motion that feels like playing guitar, drums and accordion all at once. The main advantage of this press is its ink rollers, which cycle over the plate automagically, greatly speeding up the printing process. With this press, I was able to print much more quickly - perhaps 15 one-color prints per minute. Its only real disadvantage – other than building leg muscle mass asymmetrically – is its small print area: 8 x 12 inches. Too small for my larger prints, but just right for business cards, small prints like my Coffee Multiplication Table, and of course, my new Flight Decks.

My Third Press

I didn't set out to be a letterpress museum, but I seem to be acquiring printing presses almost as fast as I create new tasting journals! After a year of hand-inking my larger cocktail recipe prints, I decided I needed to upgrade to something self-inking with a large print area. That meant a BIG jump up in terms of weight when I added a 2100 lb (950 kg) 12x18 Chandler & Price to the mix. It's also too big to power with even my well-trained legs, so while it still requires a quick hand to feed the press, the action is driven by means of a 1 horsepower motor.

At some point, I'll probably run out of space, or have to do some horse ... err, press trading! I can imagine a world in which I trade my third press for something with an automatic paper-feeder, but for now, I'm just keeping a watch on my fingers and taking time to enjoy the smell of fresh ink, the feel of paper in my hands, and the satisfaction of a full print rack at the end of the day.