The Magic That Is Letterpress

Some of you digital age kids ;) may not recognize what the images in our introductory post are, so maybe there’s some ’splaining to do. The top image are wood type letters; the bottom one shows metal type. They are used in letterpress, a dwindling printing technique that nevertheless still counts many fervent admirers.


“Letterpress puts a bite into the paper; there’s a three-dimensional quality that no other printing method can equal.”

But what better way to demonstrate what exactly letterpress is than by simply showing the printing presses and the people operating them in action? Because, as John Kristensen, proprietor of Firefly Press from Somerville, Massachusetts, testifies, “Ultimately it is the process. What the the printer loves is the doing of it.” Below is a wonderful short film by Chuck Kraemer, who filmed John Kristensen and his apprentice at work.


Video from Elsa Dorfman found via I Love Typography

The video is a touching testimony to a vanishing art. But as John Kristensen expresses, “It will die – eventually – because people will no longer remember how to do it. It’s OK. I’m only responsible for my watch. I’m thankful every day that I get to do this.” Moving stuff.

And for the font spotters among you, the video features cameos by Garamont/Garamond No. 3, Cochin, Bodoni, Bembo, Michelangelo, Bulmer, and Perpetua, amongst others, and assorted borders and ornaments.

See the video in full resolution on Vimeo.

header image Small letterpress shop in Pt. Reyes Station, California, August 2003.
© J. Lurie-Terrell

8 Comments:

  1. Yves wrote: “a dwindling printing technique”. At St Bride’s they’re convinced letterpress is undergoing something of a revival:

    http://stbride.org/events/letterpress

    A very nice line-up of speakers.

    About the video: a “touching testimony” it may be, it is also somewhat pompous and heavyhanded — but maybe that’s just me.

    Posted by Sander Pinkse on Sep. 10, 2008
  2. I think it might have to do with being very involved and serious about their craft. Don’t forget many think letterpress is going the way of the dinosaurs. I sure hope not, and so doesn’t P22/Jim Rimmer. ;)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Sep. 10, 2008
  3. Excellent video. Thanks for posting. The only thing I don’t like about it is the attitude towards computers. John makes it seem like there is something wrong with doing typography on computers. I disagree. I’ve worked on computers all my life and I still appreciate the art of the letterpress. I acutally just recently had my sons baptism invites letter-pressed. It’s a gorgeous process.

    Posted by Antonio on Sep. 10, 2008
  4. I understand what you mean when you say you don’t like his attitude towards computers. Being one of the “digital age kids” myself (hence the wink ;) I have grown accustomed to this kind of remarks. What John was saying gave me the impression that – more than disapproving of computers – he is rather intimidated by them and simply wouldn’t know how to handle them; hence the “too many options” and the “no rules”. I don’t think he was being overly negative about them.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Sep. 10, 2008
  5. Lovely short film. I’m a student at Artevelde (Mariakerke), and our lector has shown us the ancient process of letterpress briefly, but seeing it in action makes it far more intriguing. Thanks for this!

    Posted by Thomas Vanhuyse on Sep. 11, 2008
  6. I found it very beautiful. And I disagree, there will be always someone doing it, like many other old ways. Past and present can coexist, I would suggest for those fearing disappearence, to do a video of the full letterpress process. That way it will last for ever. Beauty is eternal.

    Posted by Raúl López on Nov. 14, 2008
  7. I grew up on letterpress, literally; it was the family passion. If you’re interested in knowing more about letterpress as a hobby, here’s a thriving organization of amateur printers:
    http://www.aapainfo.org/

    Posted by Pamela Wesson on Jan. 26, 2009
  8. I remember going into a country printshop in a small town in Manitoba, and seeing an old Linotype in operation. The noise! I have been in a few print shops since, and have an appreciation for what the old methods entailed. I am retired today, and the press I worked with didn’t print on paper- it needed 4,000 pounds per square inch of hydraulic pressure on the ram, and could drive a 2″ square punch through a tenth of an inch of stainless steel. Computer controlled, it could punch up to 300 strokes per minute. I have used punches that are as fine as the milling cutters used for making metal type, or big enough to cut reinforcing rings for concrete casting, or moulds for pouring concrete. Parts varied from damper valves for 30″ diameter air ducts for spray painting booths, and liners for heat treating furnaces to clips 1/2 the size of my little finger nail for electronic equipment. I have made artwork for making offset plates, and have nibbled at the edges of the printing industry by doing the “typesetting” (if you can call it that) with a computer, and printing small runs (a few dozen copies) on a colour laser printer. I think every trade and craft has its place, and none should be allowed to die out. One of my hobbies is a dying skill – there are fewer and fewer of us that send Morse over the radio with a hand key, and the radio “hams” are the only ones that can do it any more. The wonders of technology have changed a lot of things over the years – I have been in electronics for over half a century and have seen it all. Been there, seen that. To close, this is a wonderful documentary. I also saw the tribute to Mr. Rimmer.

    Posted by Gerald Sherman on Jul. 26, 2010

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