My Adventures in Letterpress Printing

By LaurenMarie

As many of you know I’m taking a letter press printing class! So far it’s a lot of fun, but we haven’t even gotten to the printing part yet. The first week we watched the instructor print some cards. We saw how the C&P inked itself (it’s automatic and runs on a motor) and then watched as she set up the job. The second week is when we finally got to do some hands on work! Yay!

Letterpress Setting Type

So the first step as with any project is to do thumbnail sketches and figure out what you want to do. The instructor encouraged us to stay out of the computer because setting type in the computer is so different than setting type by hand; nothing can be achieved by a simple tap of some keys!

I decided on two greeting cards, but for practice I’m also composing two sentences, which is what I’m doing in this shot. Yeah, it sounds simple, but it’s not! So here I am picking my type (Garamond Italic 24pt!) out of a California Job case. A case of type can weigh anywhere from 30 lbs – 60 lbs, so I have the drawer pulled out underneath it too (though you can’t see it here) to keep the case from becoming pied, or spilt, which is not fun to put back together. This case was a dirty case, not because of all the grime on it, but because there were letters in it that were from a different font and because some of the letters, though from the right font, were in the wrong places.

In letterpress printing, a font is all the characters, numerals and punctuation from a single size of a single typeface. As I mentioned, this font I’m working with is Garamond Italic 24pt, which is actually not as big as you might think. Font sizes seem smaller when working with metal type. 6 point, for example, is microscopic! For letters that small, you have to memorize the layout of the case because you’ll never be able to tell what the letter is by looking at it.

I labeled my composing stick, too, it’s that long black-ish thing below my knee. You set type in the composing stick from right to left! You still start out your words or sentence with the same first letter as normal, but you have to compose it from right to left so that when it is flipped over and printed, it reads properly. It’s a little disorienting, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

Letterpress Spacing

After I collected all my letters, I had to fill in the rest of the line with spacing, both between the words and to wedge everything together in the rest of the line. This is the spacing counter (as in area, not the counter of a letter).

There are several kinds of spacing available. Most are made out of lead (like the leading!) and then there are smaller spaces that are made out of copper (1 point worth of space) and brass (2 points worth of space). These small spaces are used to add positing kerning or tracking, but more often used to make sure your line of type is extremely tight so that nothing moves. If anything moves, there’s a risk it will fall out or shift while you print. You fill in the line with quads—which are always distinguishable because they are square (see below)—and then em quads, which come in various ems worth of sizes like the 2-em quad (twice as wide as the 1 em) and 3-em quad (three times as wide). These are distinguished from the 3-em space, which is actually 1/3 the size of the 1 em quad. A 2-em space (1/2 an em space) is actually an en space. They are called “ems” because 1 em is approximately the width of the letter m in a font, so ems change size depending on the font size. I think I’m getting a bit technical, though. On with the fun!

Letterpress Composing Stick

Here you can see the composing stick up close (click the picture to enlarge). This are the text from my two cards. There is one that says “Cheers” in Tiffany Shaded 18 pt and it’s between some decorative brackets. The other one is a generic card that says “Happy Day!” in 20th Century Bold 18 pt. The little sun icon on the top is 36 pt and it’s not locked in with the spacing yet. Now you can see the brass (2 pts, yellow) spacing and the copper (1 pt, brown) spacing. That copper spacing is tiny!!

As you can see, I was totally stoked at the idea of real leading (inter-line spacing that is made out of the metal lead). It’s fascinating to me to learn why things were named the way they were and leading is a really awesome example.

Oh, and if you hope to work with letterpresses, you’d better learn how to measure with points and picas.

If you’re interested, Boxcar press has some great BITS (Boxcar Institute Training Series) videos and a fun letterpress music video! It won’t take but maybe a half hour to watch all the videos.