Letter Press Introduction

Our introduction to letterpress was very interesting. Up until this point we had mainly focused on the most modern and up to date typographic processes, largely creating our work digitally through state of the art software such the Adobe Suite. It was a joy to get hands on with a mechanical word press and learn how it used to be done.


Our first task was to take a sturdy metal frame and set out our selected quotes in lead type. Holding our letters in place was a real challenge. I was astonished by the choices available to me in terms of leading and spacing. Each word and each line had to be spaced manually by either lead blocks or wooden brackets. My sentence was not a large one, but I was forced to think on my feet when I realised my chosen typeface was short on some letter-forms.I decided that my last word could be changed to a new typeface as it could be considered the emphasis of the sentence . I therefore chose a larger, bolder type-face to set it out in. This whole process was very arduous and time consuming, but once I had secured by type with lead blocks and spacers. I had the completed work in my hand.

The weighty, manual nature of the tools and the lead letters was very novel, I enjoyed having created a tangible item that felt permanent. Now that I’d created my frame, I could print to my hearts content as many times as I liked. This was a rather messy process of trial and error.

With my first attempts I had to objectives in mind. Firstly to see exactly what my print would look like on a printed page. To my surprised I had a bold black line dividing my print. I realised this was due to one of my wooden spacers being ‘text height’. Being the same height as the type meant it received ink and made contact with the page. The effect was good, however, it made my work stand out and gave further emphasis to the word’ everywhere’.

My other intention with this first round of printing was to view the effect of using different paper types. It appeared that thicker paper gave a better quality emboss but lead to minor blurring. While thin paper gave less emboss but greater clarity of lettering. Now that I’d got to grips with the printing process I decided to start experimenting, orm essing around more accurately.

My first experiments were to test the quality of prints made with red ink. The results were similar, however I was very pleased with the crisp effect of deep red on clean white paper. I then decided to double print a page, changing the orientation as I did so. Although the to the legibility suffered somewhat, the result was better than expected. The bold line I’d accidentally included lent a clarity  to the image and gave it the appearance of a ribbon around a present.

My final experiment originated in another mishap. I’d attempted to print on thin tracing type paper. However I’d used the machine that was lacking a restraint for the paper, this restraint prevents the paper from being lifted out of place by the sticky ink. With such lightweight paper, when I engaged the press, the paper was drawn up onto the ink surface and covered in ink. I decided to make the best of this by wiping away the ink from my lead type and re-printing the same sheet in hopes of getting a negative effect by drawing ink from the area of the letter-forms. This worked to an extent but was only partially visible unless held up to a light.

We had been advised to place a thicker sheet of paper behind thin ones we hoped to print in order to prevent the ink leaking through onto the machine and making a mess. I did as I was instructed and placed a sheet of thick paper behind my tracing paper. The fully red tracing paper however acted as a contact sheet like the black sheet you get in a check book and printed created an impression on the other. This gave the rear sheet a blurry, speckled effect which I liked and decided to on to, partly because I liked the effect and partly because of how it came about.

I very much enjoyed my session of letterpress, the whole process is very therapeutic and precise. And you get a depth to the print that isn’t achievable through computer printing. I am eager to make further use of this process as I progress through my course.



Author: David Rothwell

I am a Graphic Communication student at Cardiff Metropolitan School of Art and Design If you like any of my work, have feedback (good or bad) or would like to get in touch, please do

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