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Letterpress Workshop

Aug 1, 2012   //   by Melissa Coon   //   Blog, Letterpress  //  No Comments

For well over a year, all I can think about is letterpress!  I finally connected with Gary, a letterpress printer  who teaches workshops from time to time. Now is the perfect time to mention the Ren and Stimpy song, “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” that played through my head when we finally confirmed the workshop date for July 23, 2012.

To paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition:

Letterpress printing is relief printing. It involves locking movable type into the bed of a press, inking it, and rolling or pressing paper against it to form an impression. It was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. In addition to the direct impression of inked movable type onto paper or another receptive surface, letterpress is also the direct impression of inked printmaking blocks such as photo-etched zinc “cuts” (plates), linoleum blocks, wood engravings, etc., using such a press.

Now, I bet you are curious to know why I want to learn letterpress. The truth is I am in the process of designing my own line of stationery, wedding invitations, cards and event announcements.  Instead of coming out of pocket for large print runs with an offset printer, I wanted the flexibility to print ad hoc. Not to mention I am totally addicted to the 15th century printing process, I love the feel of the deep, deep deboss (pressure that is applied to paper like a stamp to leave an impression) in the paper, mixing my own inks and selecting the right paper for every project.

We had to drive three hours to get to the workshop. I acted just like Sophia did on those days we take her to an amusement park. I was literally splitting at the seams with excitement.   Jason took the entire day off to go with me. Would you believe, Jay sat in the same chair for nearly eight hours while I learned all I could about letterpress.   Who has the best husband ever? I do!

Instead of stopping to take notes, I opted to take pictures instead. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?  Here, is what I learned; it is more of a crash course on letterpress.  If you are searching for more details on the process, I suggest reading “A 21-st century guide to the Letterpress Business” by Marty Brown.

Before you can start printing you need an impression otherwise known as a plate or type to print.

I tried my hand at setting type. While I was extremely interested in the art, I knew that setting type by hand was tedious and time consuming. I knew I was going to rely on design applications (Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Quark Xpress)  to create digital layouts that would contain both images and type in digital form. Digital files can be sent to a plate maker like Boxcar  to have the designed layouts converted to a printing plate (more on that later).

Gary asked me to bring a quote to typeset. I choose a favorite of mine.

The Future Belongs To Those Who Believe In the Future of Their Dreams.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Gary already had most of the quote typeset by the time we arrived, but he left the inscription line for me to typeset.

Lucky for me Gary already had a plate already made that I could use.

Locking up the Job

The process begins by locking the job to the chase.  The term “job” is used to reference the form that you are preparing to print (i.e. invitation, business card, etc.).  A chase is an iron frame that holds the type or plate in place when printing.  Place both the plate and the chase on the imposing surface to be “locked up”.  This is known as “imposition”. The ideal surface for imposing is a large, smooth piece of marble or granite.

The print job goes on the imposing surface with the top of the image at the left hand.  Then the chase goes around the plate. The printing plate always goes in the center of the chase to reduce strain on the press.

The remaining space is filled with wood “furniture” pieces and “quoins”. We placed the quoins above the plate and at the left side.  Quoins are small wedges used for tightening or locking-up forms in the chase.

A quoin key is inserted into the holes which turns the quoins and allows the furniture pieces to give. It is easier to use quoins than readjusting the furniture pieces.  Turn the key until enough pressure is applied to hold the forms in the chase and keep them from falling out.  We used a mallet, and a wood planer to tap any furniture pieces that extended above the others.

Once the furniture pieces and the plate are secure, place the chase into the press.

Inking the Press

We placed marble-sized dollops of ink around the edge of the ink disk.

Before turning the press on, make sure the throw-off lever is pushed forward. You do not want to make an impression on the tympan.  Let the press run until the ink is evenly distributed on the ink disk.

We slightly over inked the press; to remove some of the ink we placed one sheet of newsprint on the ink disc. Push the throw-off lever in the forward position to prevent an impression. Turn the flywheel until the press closes.  Hold the corners of the newsprint, so it does not get caught in rollers, repeat process if necessary.

Make Ready

The next steps involved getting the press ready for print; this is referred to as “Make Ready.”  Make ready is the process of making all parts of the form on the press print accurately. First, remove the paper known as a “tympan sheet” from the platen that was left from a previous job.  Tympan paper can get expensive, so we used film paper that Gary came across from a local photography company.  A tympan sheet is a heavy sheet of oiled paper; it reminded me of thick matte photo paper.

Before placing the new sheet on the platen make sure to clear any dust and debris that could affect your impression. Pull each of the tympan bales up and place the sheet underneath them.

Tape the bottom edge of the sheet to the platen to hold it in place (optional), while stretching the sheet tightly toward the top of the platen keep the surface smooth, and clamp the edge of the paper down with the top tympan bale. Lastly, clamp the bottom bale down to secure the side of the paper with the blue painter’s tape.

Lift the top bale to insert pressboard or chipboard underneath the tympan sheet. This process is called “packing”. Packing is used to adjust the depth of the printed impression.  Insert two to three sheets of thin paper between tympan sheet and the pressboard. Re-clamp the bale to secure the tympan sheet. Make your first impression directly on the tympan sheet by pushing the throw-off lever in the back position and turning the flywheel by hand until an impression is made.  When the packing is right, the impression will be faint.  Check your impression and adjust the packing sheets as needed.

The next step is setting the “gauge pins”.

Gauge pins hold the sheets of paper stock in place when you feed the press for printing. Use a precut sheet of paper as your guide to confirm the placement of the pins. Start by placing the paper over the impression that was previously made on the tympan sheet. Draw marks on the right and left edge of the paper directly on the tympan sheet with a pencil/pen. Draw dots at both of the bottom right and left corners then connect the dots with a straight line.

Place two pins across the bottom line and put one on the left side of the impression. The pins will go through the top layer of the tympan sheet.

Try a test print. If the impression is not aligned properly use the pins to adjust the level by raising and lowering the pins. To adjust the impression add and remove packing sheets under the tympan.  When the pins are set in the right place, tape them down with masking tape.

Feeding the Press

Once your packing and gauge pins are set, you can start feeding the press for printing. The paper needs to sit under the gauge pins.  Place the stack of paper on the feed board. If the sheets get stuck together you can use a neat trick called “fanning”. Fanning is a method that makes the paper easier to grasp while you are feeding the press. The paper stock sits in the stack on a slight slant.

After some finessing, I finally made my first impression.  Yay!

We ran all the cards in the stack with the green ink. This was the first impression of a 2 color job (green and black ink).  The text was printed in black ink.  Remove the green ink (first color) off the ink disc and repeat all the steps of the process again for applying the black ink.

The final card looked like this.

I love the feel of the impression the letterpress makes on the cardstock – absolutely beautiful. I could certainly get used to doing this every day.  Well… speaking of that. This trip was not just about attending a workshop.  We wanted to check out the 1918 Chandler & Price (C&P) 10×15 press that Gary was in the process of refurbishing to sell.

I am happy to report we are planning on purchasing the press when it is completed.  Be sure to check back for updates on the progress of our press.

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