In letterpress printing, you take letters, sculpted from brass and cast into little lead statues, and assemble them one by one into a line of text. You fill in the lines with spacing – also made of lead – until you have a solid block of type. You then secure this block inside a metal frame and place the whole thing on a printing press. The shapes of the letters, like the tops of mountains, are the highest points of the block. The printing press applies the ink to the letters, and then the paper, transferring the image of the letter to the paper.
This is how ideas were spread, minds delighted and incensed, revolutions proclaimed and peace enshrined for over 500 years, from its invention in the 15th century until the middle of the 20th. The joy of letterpress is not only that it invokes the greatness of history and civilisation, but that it does so by being so simple, ordinary, mechanical an activity. Assembling type is repetitive, almost tedious, as you pick, look, and place the letter in a tray called a composing stick, often discovering that it is the wrong letter (p’s look like q’s when setting type and it is important to mind them). If you finish setting and only then discover the wrong letter, or worse that you’ve left out an entire word, you have to surgically pull the whole thing apart and start over.
And the drudgery doesn’t end there. After all, if your block of type was perfectly flat, your paper perfectly smooth, your ink perfectly consistent, your rollers even, and every one of a hundred other conditions were just right, your output would be faultless. But in letterpress, as in life, none of these things are ever perfect.
And that’s where the skill, the art, and the mystery of it begins to emerge – in your own mind as well as in your hand and eye. You prepare, you test, you discover what’s wrong, you make corrections, you try again to compensate for faults that are largely intangible and undetectable except in their effect on the output – the printed page. You might even be the problem. You’re running the rollers too fast, you’re applying too much ink when really the problem is you haven’t set the rollers high enough.
But eventually you and your machines make peace with one another and you begin to act as one. And out of this union a thing of beauty is born. Letters, whose shapes resonate back to the hands of medieval scribes and Roman columns, on paper as sensual as a bed sheet, with ink as black as coal. And beyond the physical beauty are the words and pictures and what they convey, from simple poems to texts both sacred and profane.
It is all these things – the pain and the delight of them that makes letterpress printing a glory, and why so many printers today have these words (written by Beatrice Warde in 1932) on their wall:
THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE
CROSSROADS OF CIVILISATION
REFUGE OF ALL THE ARTS
AGAINST THE RAVAGES OF TIME
ARMOURY OF FEARLESS TRUTH
AGAINST WHISPERING RUMOUR
INCESSANT TRUMPET OF TRADE
FROM THIS PLACE WORDS MAY FLY ABROAD
NOT TO PERISH ON WAVES OF SOUND
NOT TO VARY WITH THE WRITER’S HAND
BUT FIXED IN TIME HAVING BEEN VERIFIED IN PROOF
FRIEND YOU STAND ON SACRED GROUND
First published in Make Believe: A Journal About Craft And Creativity