Technologies of Text • Spring 2017

Labs 4 & 5: Letterpress

Over the next two weeks you will be working in groups of 4 to plan, practice, and exeute a small letterpress project using a Book Beetle desktop letterpress (, which is based on a classic screw design such as the one used by Gutenberg or, later, the one at the heart of the English Common Press, the most prevalent printer for much of the handpress period (and the one used by folks like Benjamin Franklin). Ours is much smaller than theirs, of course, and so we can only print sheets up to 8.5×11″ in size. Given that many of you have never printed before, however, this will be plenty to occupy you!

We will detail safety for working with type and other letterpress essentials in class, but as a brief reminder:

  1. This will be dirty work. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. If you have an apron or smock consider bringing it to wear. If you have longer hair tie it back while working.
  2. Wash your hands before and after working with type, ink, &c.
  3. Don’t put type in your mouth: hopefully that’s obvious! More practically, don’t rub your hands in your mouth, eyes, or nose directly from handling type, ink, &c.

Here is the basic outline of our four sessions:

Day 1: Planning Your Project

Printing on a letterpress requires significantly more preparation than printing from a computer. Every aspect of letterpress printing is material: including the spaces! On this first day, I will overview the entire process so you have an idea of what you’re even planning.

Then, you will divide into crews of 4 and begin planning what you want to compose and print. To ensure you experience the full joy of the printing shop, your creation should:

  1. Include at least 30 words. I strongly encourage you to create a larger block of text, but if you do so be sure to pick one of the fuller fonts. You don’t want to get out of sorts, do you?
  2. Include at least one image from my woodcuts drawer.
  3. Include at least two distinct text blocks. Don’t bunch everything together in a single paragraph.

Day 2: Composing

Setting type—particularly for new compositors—can be a challenge. For our second letterpress day, I will demonstrate that process for you and then ask you to practice setting several blocks apiece. You should not expect to begin composing the actual lines of type you will use in your project, though you might use these planned lines to practice.

It will likely take you some time to get accustomed to precisely how you will need to align everything for your actual project (remember, including the spaces). Each member of your group should practice, and when you are not actually composing you should be observing those who are and discussing the process. This guide to setting type by hand is enormously useful if you need a reference.

Please be mindful of your cases and place type back in its appointed spot. I will give you all diagrams of the California job case layout to consult. Pay close attention, however, and remember that the type appears backwards. Note where the nicks are in the type, and mind your p’s and q’s!

As you are practicing your composition, I will come to each group to briefly discuss your planned printing project. In this way I can hopefully head off ideas that will be difficult to execute in the span of this class.

Day 3: Setting the Forms

With practice composing under our belts, on day three we will begin the production process. You should compose all the type blocks for your project, transfer them to your group’s galley, and tie them up to store until you are ready to print on Day 4. If your images will be locked up with your type, they should be included in the type block. If your images will be locked up separately, they should be left on your group’s galley nonetheless.

Day 4: Pulling the Press

This will be the big day! I will first demonstrate how type is locked into a chase using furniture and quoins. You will then take turns transfering your type from your group’s galley to a chase. You will lock up your type (and possibly separate images), ink your design, and print. Throughout you should take turns so that each member of your team can experience the different stages of the printing process. Note: it will likely take several pulls of the press (perhaps as many as 10-15) before you get a good image. Your type needs to build an even layer of ink before it will print clearly.

Handy Type Case Chart