Weekend Workshop Spreads the Letterpress Bug

Last week I had the pleasure of teaching another workshop at Asheville BookWorks. This time it was LP1, our introductory course for letterpress printing. I had three students, two of which had been given this course as a gift, one of which had postponed her move to Michigan so that she could take it. Way to raise the bar for me!

My three students were enthusiastic, curious, and serious troopers. We started small--with greeting cards--to give them a taste of typesetting with metal type. After setting each line letter by letter, upside down, and learning how to correct any spelling and spacing errors, they pulled their first prints.

We talked about "kissing" and "biting." Yes, these are real printers' terms. Yes, it matters. (If, that is, you want your pricey metal type to last long enough to get your money's worth. As my friend says, "If you want to bite the paper, make a polymer plate." She has a point.)

For you seasoned printers, skip ahead one paragraph. For anyone who is confused right now, a "kiss" is a light impression on the paper. In the days of yore (and arguably still today among fine printers), any printer worth her salt strove for this light impression that was barely noticeable as such. A "bite" is when the type or image leaves a deep impression in the paper. You can feel the impression on the back side, and often see the indentation. With the popularity of letterpress printing today, a lot of people equate the bite with the mark of "handmade." It's often quite difficult today to discern good letterpress printing of text from digital output--which is arguably why the bite has gained popularity. It screams "I hand printed this!" but fine printers would also say it screams "amateur." But I'm not trying to start a raging debate here. To each her own. 

So we learned to kiss and not bite (because that kind of printing demonstrates you have the knowledge and the chops, and we are striving for a high bar here and not what is most popular on Etsy. And I am of the school that says "learn to do it properly first, and then break the rules with purpose"). These tough ladies were not swayed by the time it took to set metal type. And so on Day Two they set enough to print broadsides and quote their favorite songs and such:


We layered metal type with wood type, played with the transparency of the inks, practiced registration. My students continued to choose projects that presented them with all the challenges that come with typesetting: their lock-ups became more complicated as they chose justified margins and combined typefaces. Quote of the day: "This involves a lot more math than I expected." Indeed. Get your pica rulers ready, folks.



Make-ready is not for the faint of heart. As one student observed, "This explains why hand-printed things are more expensive." When I said that make-ready can sometimes take up more than twice the time your actual print run takes, they seemed to understand immediately. They were printing 10-25 copies of pieces they spent an 1-2 hours setting up. The actual printing might take them a half an hour or less. The make-ready and typesetting could take them half a day. 



On Day Three, it was time to cut loose a little. I introduced them to the "split roll," (aka "rainbow roll") and they added one more level of color variation to their plans for broadside domination. 


And the result? Success! Happy printers. Lovely typographic specimens. I was impressed with the amount of ground we covered in three days. Each student left with four finished pieces, ranging from business cards to greeting cards to broadsides. It's been a long time since I printed nothing but type, but this weekend, these ladies got me excited about typography again. They made me want to dig through the type cabinets and do a few type-centered projects of my own. And seeing new folks excited about letterpress? That makes for one lovely weekend. 


To check out this and other workshops happening this spring and summer at Asheville BookWorks, check out the ABW calendar and course list. The next Letterpress I course will be March 7-9.