One person’s redundant technology is another’s hobby

As an OCA tutor I spend a lot of time waiting for parcels to arrive in the post. The small heavy package that arrived last week was not a student assignment but a brand new metal casting of Rockwell 30pt. Like a growing band of typography and letterpress enthusiasts I have recently purchased my own printing press on which I can typeset and hand print small-scale designs. The language of this form of printing will be familiar to anybody who’s selected a font or increased leading on a computer or mixed up their P’s & Q’s (very easy to do seeing that all the letters are back to front).

Rockwell 30pt

However, my Rockwell metal type and Adana printing press is essentially redundant technology that has been superseded by the computer. It’s fiddly and time-consuming to typeset everything by hand, messy to print and they stopped making the Adana over 10 years ago. So why do it?

Given the endless possibilities of digital design, it’s a very good question to ask, but perhaps its limits are part of its charm – it can do less, it takes more time and consequently demands more of you as a designer. There’s also something very satisfying about designing something slowly and getting your hands dirty in the process. Perhaps these are some of the essential qualities of a hobby – the focus is as much on the process as the outcome – the longer the process the more time you can spend it your shed tinkering about.

But I think there’s more to it than that. The recent demise of Polaroid film has seen resurgence in its use, with increasingly high prices being paid for old stock. Call it nostalgic but perhaps it’s only when we see technology becoming redundant that we start to reassess its value as a tool.

Discharge: Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing Poster, The Print Project

For other enthusiasts see: http://kelsey-letterpress.blogspot.com/ , http://theprintproject.co.uk/ & http://britishletterpress.co.uk/

18 Comments

  1. CliveW 14 July 2011 at 8:04 am

    I used to work with a designer who developed iconic brands and corporate identities; he used to involve ‘hot metal’ whenever he could for its unique qualities.

    Reply
  2. Jane Horton 14 July 2011 at 9:32 am

    I was invited to see a friend’s printing press a couple of years ago. He had a large three roomed cellar in which every wall was packed with shelves and shelves of type. It was a wonderland. It seemed every font under the sun was there. He’s made it a life’s work collecting his underground press and spends many happy hours creating gem like manually arranged prints.

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  3. roberta 14 July 2011 at 6:33 pm

    Christian said: “There’s also something very satisfying about designing something slowly and getting your hands dirty in the process”.

    Absolutely! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I enjoyed reading about your enthusiasm for the original metal fonts and the old-fashioned press.

    Reply
  4. Gareth 15 July 2011 at 11:13 am

    Now I know I am getting old, as I remember seeing the Guardian printed using letterpress. Each page was a tray of type and etched photographs and the speed at which this happened had to be seen to be believed. Once it had been laid out and fully checked two things then happened that I used to think were absolutely fascinating. First, a sheet of high quality paper was used to produce a print. with far better definition than a newsprint version, the print was then faxed from London to Manchester. This process required the print to be attached to a drum in a machine which was easily the size of a normal desk and about twice as high.

    The next bit was just as strange to my eyes. A thick sheet of paper mache was laid over the flat tray of type and pressed to make a mould. This was then pressed into a curved support and lead used to cast one half of the drum which was used to print the paper. I could never quite believe that this bit of the process worked. The delicacy of the paper mache and heat and weight of the lead seemed irreconcilable.

    It was a process that appeared magical and I now look back on it with the same feelings that I had as a boy watching prints emerging in developing trays. Digital technologies have brought huge advances, but at the loss of that sense of wonder.

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  5. Peter Haveland 15 July 2011 at 12:09 pm

    When I first moved to my present location some 30 years ago, I went to the printer in the nearest town for business cards and letterheads. He was using a beautiful platen press just like this one. He had three fonts as I recall and did his apprenticeship on that press printing the town newspaper. He was in his late seventies or early eighties at the time and retired and sold up when he reached ninety I think. Hey, ho…nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!!!

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    1. Christian 15 July 2011 at 1:06 pm

      That’s a Columbian printing press. I had the pleasure of using one last year, needless to say a beautiful experience! I hope the printer got a good price for it when he sold up, they’re rarely on the market and when they do appear they cost a fortune.

      Reply
  6. anned 15 July 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Reading this has made me wonder if my etching press will print letterpress on it. I think it might be possible as I think letterpress is basically a relief process that works by pressure? I’ve discovered I can print old newspaper illustration plates on my etching press and I’m guessing in the olden days (!) that type and illustrations would be set and printed together on whatever press was used. Where do you get type from – ebay?

    I do love printing – by a complete accident my first job was balloon printing which was done on a complex system of rollers, drums and vats of ink. After a lot of trouble setting it up, everything would rotate offsetting the final image/text onto a rotating drum so that the image could be rolled onto a blown up balloon. It was very labour intensive as each balloon had to be printed by hand. (and it wasn’t all that long ago really!)

    Reply
    1. christian 17 July 2011 at 12:35 pm

      It depends if your etching press has a roller bed or acts by pressing down on your plates? The trouble with rollers and letter press is the height required to get the type through the rollers. Pressing is a safer option. Balloons, yoghurt pots and all manner of odd shaped objects are still printed by silkscreen.

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  7. Frank 17 July 2011 at 9:39 am

    The title is not just about printing though.

    How about the people who still build and run steam engines or local railways, or hand weaving, or dare I suggest it photographers who still use film?

    Maybe the same basis applies, taking time, thinking about the process, getting your hands dirty …

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  8. Tony 22 July 2011 at 3:17 pm

    I envy you that. I’ve just finished an intro to printing at Leicester Print Workshop and have signed up to do a course on Letterpress there in October. Maybe start saving for my own press now.

    Of course, if you want to marry Letterpress with high tech, take a look at the iPad LetterMPress app (http://www.lettermpress.com/): very cool.

    Reply
    1. christian 22 July 2011 at 3:56 pm

      I can see the App being a lot less messy and time consuming than the real thing but it does allow you to letterpress on the train, etc!

      I was interesting to hear that you’ve been doing a letterpress workshop in Leicester, do you think it’s something the OCA should start looking at? We already have printmaking courses, do you think it’s a good idea to add letterpress?

      Reply
      1. Tony 22 July 2011 at 4:53 pm

        I did originally sign up to the OCA printing course but it was at the time I was desperately trying to avoid being laid off and then negotiating redundancy & early retirement so defaulted on the course. It was a lot easier, I think, doing the course under hands-on instruction at LPW but only allowed the creation of one piece for drypoint, linocut, etching etc.

        How would you manage to do letterpress by post? It sounds an interesting idea but I cannot imagine how it’d work.

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      2. Tony 22 July 2011 at 4:55 pm

        BTW, anyone in East Midlands interested in learning Letterpress, the LPW course is on Sunday 16th Oct (http://goo.gl/sbGXB).

        Reply
  9. Margaret 22 July 2011 at 9:44 pm

    I’m not honestly really old (or maybe I am?) but I saw the papier mache process at my home town newspaper. The paper was still set up by hand when I worked there later while I was in high school. My brother had a couple of presses that he used. We both worked around in graphics and printing for a bit. Blanket wash is still a memory trigger smell for me, sometimes I get it when I’m at oil painting workshops…….

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  10. Graham Agnew 29 November 2011 at 11:35 am

    Most commendable to be promoting hot metal but please tell me that ‘Open College of the ATRS’ is deliberate!

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    1. Paul 29 November 2011 at 12:01 pm

      Well spotted Graham!

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    2. Christian 29 November 2011 at 1:43 pm

      I was wondering when somebody would spot it. Working in reverse is one of the difficulties of working with hot metal type and of course the reliance on spellcheckers nowadays means that we’re waiting for prompts to correct our spelling. I was hoping the miss-spelling would also prompt a discussion about how somethings have become much easier with new technologies.

      Reply
      1. Graham Agnew 29 November 2011 at 1:50 pm

        Yes Captain Mainwaring! Having the good fortune to have attended art college when Letraset was the new technology I do spot these things!

        Reply

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