I was recently very privileged to be in the last group of students to study letterpress in Central Saint Martin’s Southampton Row building. Privileged to be learning a skill that played such an important part in history, privileged to using hard to find and beautiful type and printing presses and privileged to be in that wonderful building for one last time. (Although I must say, the new building does sound exciting from what I’ve read.)
A lot of the skill in letterpress is in setting the type, and for this patience is required. You start with a composing stick, set to your printing width using something cast to ensure it’s accurate. You then place a thin strip of lead in the bottom. This is what the letters sit on and provides the space between lines of type, hence the term ‘leading’. Then the letters go in, back-to-front and up-side-down, with a ‘mid’ space between each word. Anything that is going to be printed, i.e. the letters, are ‘type-high'; 0.918in or 23.32mm, because this is the height that gets inked. Spaces are lower so they don’t get inked.
Once all the letters for a line are in place, the next job is to fill that line with spaces until you get a ‘sliding fit’ where you can move it, but it won’t fall out. This part is very tricky if you lack experience, because you have to try every combination of the different size spaces until you get that sliding fit. Spaces come in six sizes; em space or quad or 60, en space, which is 1/2 em or 30, thick; 1/3 em or 20, mid space; 1/4 em or 15, thin space; 1/5 em or em and a 4 em quad, which is 4 x em.
It amazed me how much more time you spend on the white space than on what actually ends up being printed. Once you have your sliding fit, another lead goes on top of this line of text and you repeat the process until you have all your type in place.
Next you carefully pick up the type between your thumb and index finger, holding the sides in place with your second finger. You then slide (picking it up risks letters falling out) it into a tray called a ‘galley’ surrounded by bakerlite sticks because these have been cast and are therefore accurately sized. It’s crucial that everything you’re working with is accurately flat or accurately sized so the type stays in place throughout the process.
And then the galley is placed onto the printing press and the type is carefully slid off the galley onto the printing press itself.
Then, more white space… the type is lined up with the centre of the press and secured in place by being surrounded with lots of bakerlite sticks and at the outside edges, quoins (latin for wedges), which are tightened to provide a tight fit. Then using a piece of wood and a mallet, the type is ‘planed’ to ensure it is all absolutely flat to provide a flat printing surface at exactly 0.918 in.
Then, you’re ready to print! Rubber-based ink is used, because it takes longer to dry which gives you more time. It’s dabbed onto the top roller and with the switch in ‘trip’ position, the handle is turned to ink up all the rollers, and then to roll the ink over the type.
Okay, so now you’re ready to print. The paper is lined up with the centre of the press, and therefore the centre of the type, and tucked under ‘grippers’ to hold it in place. The switch is flicked to ‘print’ and you’re away. The rollers re-ink themselves as they print, so you can print consecutive copies until you run out of ink.
Using a similar process, we also used larger wooden type blocks and more colours…
And finally we had a go at using a desktop Adana press, because this is the sort of press you’d be most likely to use at home…
Many thanks to our course tutor, the talented and passionate Helen Ingham for sharing her skills and knowledge and to my fellow students for their company and for agreeing to images of their work appearing in this post.
Further reading for the especially geeky: