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[BKARTS] Introduction to the world of Letterpress Printing

Over on the LETPRESS mailing list (which has a minority, but
nevertheless substantial, overlap with BOOK_ARTS-L) there are regular
questions from newcomers about how to get started with Letterpress
printing. Over time, I have been gradually developing a sort of "welcome
letter" that answers many of the introductory questions. This time when
I posted it, I received several e-mails from members who are also on
both lists, suggesting that I post it here as well. So, here it is, and
I hope that some people find it useful. If you find it out of line,
please let me know; conversely, if you would like to see me re-post it
here (periodically or otherwise), also let me know. Please note that
this is not a FAQ per se, but rather a personal list of some tips and
pointers for getting started in this most wonderful of fields. As
always, suggestions, comments and criticisms are not only welcome, but


by David S. Rose / Five Roses Press / New York, NY

      The best way to get into printing, of course, is to learn with an
experienced teacher, either at a book arts program (like the Center for
Book Arts in New York, or equivalent programs in California, Chicago and
elsewhere). Or apprentice yourself (even unofficially on a part time
basis) to a local letterpress printer in your area. At the same time (or
as a lesser substitute, if the above aren't options) get a good
instruction book on letterpress printing (see below), and dive right in!

     The very first thing to do is to sign up for the LETPRESS mailing
list, the Internet e-mail list of some 700 helpful letterpress printers.
You can search the archives of past messages (one of the really great
letterpress resources) at
http://hermes.csd.unb.ca/archives/letpress.html, and sign up by going to
http://hermes.csd.unb.ca/bin/wa?SUBED1=letpress&A=1. Another excellent
online group, although not quite as letterpress-oriented, is
BOOK_ARTS-L: The listserv for all the book arts. For subscription
information, the Archive, and other related resources and links, see the
Book_Arts-L FAQ at: http://www.philobiblon.com.

     Next stop should definitely be the Briar Press web site, which is a
gold mine of information, and lists all the current suppliers of
letterpress equipment and goodies, as well as a very active Classified
ad page and a ton of reference information. It is located at
http://www.briarpress.org. They have a special section of their Resource
Guide devoted to "Guides and Tutorials" for beginners, which should
prove very helpful.

     If you like reading about current letterpress news in hard copy,
there is a monthly newspaper called The Printer, which reprints a lot of
stuff from the LETPRESS list, and has ads from a wide variety of
letterpress vendors. Subscription information is at
http://www.printerstradingpost.com/htm/the_printer.htm.  There was a
wonderful technical publication called Type & Press, aimed at the
letterpress printer, which is unfortunately no longer published since
the editor passed away last year. However, the Amalgamated Printers
Association, a fantastic group of serious letterpress printers, has
published several articles from past issues. They, and information about
the APA and its annual (open to the public) Wayzgooses, can be found at

     Depending on where you live, there may be a book arts center,
Chappel, club or other organization near you. A good place to find a
list of these is at http://members.aol.com/aapa96/local.html.

     Finally, and probably most important, is to get yourself a solid
instruction manual on basic letterpress printing. There are many, many
books that will teach you everything you'll need to know. While very few
of them are currently in print, they are widely available from many used
book dealers. I happen to collect them as a hobby, and have several
thousand (which I enjoy, although many folks would consider this a
rather weird form of bedtime reading.) Your preferred choices are:


General Printing by Glen U. Cleeton and Charles W. Pitkin.:
Ill: McKnight & McKnight Publishing Company, 1941-1963, 195pp.] Probably
the best all-around introductory book, this manual is profusely
illustrated with detailed and useful photographs. It is the one most
recommended on the Letpress list, and several members actually knew the
authors. Copies of the book are readily available in both paperback and

The Practice of Printing by Ralph W. Polk (in later editions, together
with Edwin W. Polk) [Peoria, Illinois: The Manual Arts Press, 1937-1945;
later editions Charles A. Bennett & Co., 1952-1964, 300+ pp]. The most
ubiquitous letterpress printing manual of the twentieth century, and one
of the better ones. This is the standard, in print for over 40 years,
from which most current letterpress printers first learned, and is an
indispensable reference for the print shop. Although out of print, it is
readily available, in one or another of its many editions, from most
book arts dealers and online sources. In later years, it was distributed
by the Kelsey Co. as the advanced printing manual for their mass-market
presses. By 1971 it was updated to de-emphasize handset type, and was
re-issued as "The Practice of Printing: Letterpress & Offset". If you
are primarily interested in letterpress printing, try to get one of the
earlier editions.

Printing for Pleasure, A Practical Guide for Amateurs by John Ryder
[published in multiple editions from 1955-1977, in England and the US,
by publishers including Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., (1977) and London:
The Bodley Head (1976) The only one still in print from a number of
sources].  A lovely, classy, little (12 mo) book, both pleasing to look
at and inspirational for the novice amateur printer. This introductory
work gives a light overview of the hobby of letterpress printing on both
sides of the Atlantic, covering how to choose a press, type, paper and
ink, as well as planning, design and production. A good place to start
if you are just considering taking up this avocation, and a nice place
to come back to every now and then to remind you why you are still

Platen Press Operation by George J. Mills [Pittsburgh, Carnegie
Institute of Technology, 1953, 150 p. illus.] Arguably even better than
Polk for the particular subject matter it covers, this is the first
choice of letterpress cognoscenti who are printing on platen presses. It
also has the advantage of still being available, in a reprint of the
1959 edition, from NA Graphics (see below.)


Printing For School And Shop; A Textbook for Printers' Apprentices,
Continuation classes, and for General Use in Schools by Frank S. Henry
York: John Wiley & Sons 1917, B&W photos and drwgs 318pp] Updated with
another edition in 1944, this was the original vocational course
textbook which was eventually supplanted for the most part by Polk.
Nevertheless, it provides detailed technical instruction and
illustrations and can still serve as a useful learning tool for today's

Printing, A Practical Introduction to the Graphic Arts by Hartley E.
Jackson [New York; McGraw-Hill, 1957, 8vo., 286 pages]. Organization and
use of the type case, hand setting, use of the platen press, and basic
binding, with short sections on linoleum blocks, silk screen and
photography in this industrial arts text. Not as good as Polk, but more
than acceptable as an apprentice course book.

Graphic Arts by Frederick D. Kagy [Chicago: The Goodheart-Willcox Co.,
Inc., 1961, 8vo, 112 pps.] Another (and probably the last) of the
high-school vocational textbooks designed for once-over-lightly printing
classes included as part of a longer graphic arts program, this short
book gives a simple but well-illustrated introduction to hand
type-setting and platen press printing in about twenty pages. Nowhere
near as comprehensive as many of the others, but certainly better than
learning through trial and error.


The first four will be the easiest to find, and will stand you in good
stead as you start up your press. After you have devoured them, there
are many, many more excellent books available that can guide you into
more detailed explorations of specific areas, such as platen press
printing, hand composition, automatic press operation, layout,
typography, imposition and form make up, etc. For a more complete
version of this brief bibliography, check out

One of the best sources for finding out-of-print and used books is a
nifty site called http://www.BookFinder.com, which will simultaneously
search 1BookStreet.com, A1Books, AlphaCraze.com, Amazon.com, Barnes &
Noble.com, BookCloseOuts.com, ecampus.com, ElephantBooks.com, Powell's
Books, TextbookX, ULSave.com, Advanced Book Exchange, Alibris, Antbo,
Antiqbook, Bibliology, Biblion, BookAvenue.com, Half.com, ILAB,
TomFolio.com, and Used Book Central.


Assuming that you've read a book or two and are ready to jump in and
start printing, the next thing you'll need to do is to get yourself a
press (or at least access to one.) All letterpress printing shares
certain similarities, which will stand you in good stead no matter what
press you use. On the other hand, it is helpful to match the right kind
of press to the particular things you plan to do with it. As a general
overview, a rough categorization of letterpresses in no particular
order, (with illustrations mostly from the indispensable Online Museum
of the Briar Press at http://www.briarpress.org/) might be as follows:

Hand Press
(examples: Hoe, Columbian, Albion)

These are the traditional, floor-standing, hand-operated,
horizontal-bed, platen presses that are directly descended from
Gutenberg's original of 1451. The old wooden presses, a la Gutenberg,
remained basically unchanged for over 350 years, so that Johan could
have walked into Ben Franklin's shop in 1760 and gotten straight to
work. By the mid 19th century and the Industrial Revolution,
improvements in engineering and metallurgy caused an explosion of new
hand press designs, most of which were attempts to improve the weighting
and leverage necessary to put the appropriate pressure on the form. A
few (relatively speaking) of these presses from the 19th century still
exist ($5,000 and up), and today are used by purists for true "hand

Low-end Tabletop Platen
(examples: Kelsey, Baltimorean, Excel)

The opposite end of the spectrum, these inexpensive presses were first
developed at the end of the 19th century for use by hobbyists and small
stationers, and were broadly marketed by The Kelsey Company of Meriden,
CT. Their form changed very little over almost a hundred years, and they
were still being advertised in the back of magazines like Popular
Mechanics as recently as the 1970s. They are plentiful, turn up on eBay
with great regularity ($50-$250 or so, depending on a lot of different
factors) and don't take up a lot of space. This is the way many people
start out, and a Kelsey can turn out decent work, but for more serious
hobby work, or small "professional" jobs, you may want to consider
starting out with a Pilot instead.

High-end Tabletop Platen
(examples: C&P Pilot, Craftsman, Hohner)

The Pilot is the definitive hobbyist press. It was invented around 1885
and manufactured through the 1970's. Craftsman Machinery Company is
still in business and supports their press, although they no longer
manufacture it. The Pilot and its several clones are sturdy, heavy,
desktop presses. Most of them can print larger areas than the smaller
Kelseys, thanks to a long side arm, which provides a lot of leverage for
a good impression. Pilots are also readily available, although somewhat
harder to find than Kelseys ($250-$750 depending on condition) and many
a small hobby shop does excellent work with no other press. Your arm
will get tired, however, if you plan to run hundreds of copies of many

Full-size Platen Job Press
(examples: Chandler & Price, Golding Jobber, Pearl)

The floor-standing, full-size platen press was the workhorse of the
printing job shop for most of the 20th century. Originally developed
shortly after the Civil War, these presses were powered by a
foot-operated treadle, creating a "clamshell" action while the operator
hand-fed the paper. By the early 20th century they were updated to be
turned by powered line-shafts, and later by individual motors. With the
demise of commercial letterpress in the second half of the 20th century,
thousands of these presses were scrapped. Often available today from old
print shops ($0-$500) the biggest challenge and expense is moving these
large, heavy machines. Nevertheless, they serve as the mainstay for
hobbyists who do mostly longer runs of smaller-size jobs.

Automatic Feed Platen Job Press
(examples: Heidelberg, Kluge, C&P with Rice Feeder)

With platen press drives motorized, the next logical step was automating
the paper feeding. This was originally done by companies such as Rice
and Brandtjen & Kluge, who created add-on feeders for popular platen
presses. Eventually, presses were designed from the ground up as
automatic feed units. The dominant press of this type is the Original
Heidelberg--colloquially known as the "Windmill" for its moving
arms--created in postwar Germany. It was the epitome of platen press
design, and is a highly versatile press that can operate almost
unattended, printing 5000 copies an hour of anything from business cards
on onion skin to boxes on cardboard. It is the primary press in use
today for the few remaining commercial letterpress printers

Motorized Flatbed Cylinder Press
(examples: Miehle, ATF Little Giant)

Cylinder presses can rapidly cycle through large sheets of paper on a
continuous basis by automatically feeding the paper onto grippers
attached to a rotating cylinder above a flat form of type that rolls
back and forth underneath. While not as popular in the typical job shop
as a motorized platen such as the Heidelberg Windmill, and somewhat
finicky to operate properly, they nevertheless found a role in handling
large letterpress production runs. A number of old-time letterpress
printers swear by them, and they were frequently used to print runs of
small newspapers and tabloid sheets. They are less available today, and
there is generally less literature available about them compared to
platen presses, however they do turn up now and then ($250-$1500).

Simple Tabletop Proof Press
(examples: SignPress, Sirio, Atlas)

Originally developed as "galley" proof presses to let a compositor take
a quick check of his hand-set type, these small, lightweight units
usually consist of a flat bed and a simple, single roller on a track
above it. The galley of type was set on the bed, inked by hand with a
small roller (a "brayer", pronounced BRIAR), a sheet of paper laid on
top, and the roller pulled across to get an impression. This was a real
improvement over the "proof planer" method, in which the impression is
made by lightly tapping a block of felt-covered wood over the type. In
the 20th century, this sort of press found popular use, usually with
large wood type, in making signs for stores and showcards for theaters
($50-$250, depending on features and size).

Precision Cylinder Proof Press
(examples: Vandercook, Reprex)

Originally an improvement on the simple galley press, the first
Vandercook press was designed in 1908, and gave rise to an increasingly
more sophisticated series of precision presses that lasted into the
offset era. The most popular models, the #4, Universal, and SP series,
were designed for reproduction proofing of metal type to make masters
for photo-offset printing, and for testing ink, paper, color, etc. These
presses are the gold standard for high-quality modern letterpress work,
and are what most "professional" letterpress art printers and private
presses use. Since the Vandercooks were not designed for
production-quantity runs, these large, heavy presses ($1500-$3000) are
best for runs up to the low hundreds of impressions.

So, what this boils down to is something like the following:

If you just want to dip your toe in the letterpress waters without a
substantial expenditure of space, time and money...go for a Kelsey or

If you want to take printing rather seriously and have a few dollars,
but don't have a lot of space...go for a Pilot or equivalent.

If you are thinking about longer runs (hundreds to thousands of copies)
and have space and time, and some money for movers...get a floor C&P or

If you want the highest quality for short runs or large sheets, and have
space and a lot of money...get a Vandercook.

If you want to do very short runs of wood type for things like ephemeral
signs...get a tabletop proof press.

If you want to go into the business of commercial letterpress printing,
foil-stamping, embossing or die-cutting...get a Heidelberg.

If you want to own a museum-quality antique, can spend a fortune and
want to go back to the pure basics...get a hand press.

If you want to print a small newspaper by letterpress (why??) get a
flatbed cylinder.

        Even better than looking at the pictures above, it is possible
to see what all these presses look like in operation.  Veteran
letterpress printer Duane C. Scott and his wife have produced a great
little video about ten of the most common presses, entitled "Ten Presses
and How They Work."  It is 105 minutes long and shows the presses and
comments on them. If you are interested in obtaining one write to Duane
at scotfre@aol.com.

        To purchase a nice, reconditioned press such as a C&P Pilot or
the equivalent (Craftsman, Sigwalt, American, etc.) or even a
Vandercook, in ready-to-go shape, visit the website of Don Black in
Toronto, Canada (known colloquially as Letterpress Heaven North). He is
a dealer in used letterpress equipment with probably the best and most
organized inventory in the world. He always has Pilots in stock, and
some of the presses he has on display can be found at
http://www.donblack.ca/equipment/small-presses.htm. Another excellent
source for presses and other equipment is Dave Churchman, in
Indianapolis (Letterpress Heaven West, no website or email, but full
info in the Briar Press Resource Guide.) On the East Coast of the US is
John Barrett of Letterpress Things in Massachusetts
(Letterpressthing@aol.com), who has a steadily increasing and
well-organized supply of equipment and material. There are also smaller
dealers such as American Graphics, and SOS Linotype (information on them
and others can be found, of course, in the Briar Press Resource Guide.)
On the West Coast, Jim Heagy in San Francisco has an enormous warehouse
with over a thousand cases of type and cuts that are regularly offered
on eBay
        Large, floor-standing platen presses are usually best found
locally (by checking the classifieds at the Briar Press or other online
sites, or your local newspaper) because of the substantial cost to move,
rig and ship them.

     For all of the supplies that you'll need to get your new press up
to speed (ink, rollers, quoins, type, scoring rule, furniture, parts for
Vandercooks and C&Ps, and a myriad of things you never knew you needed),
make a beeline for Fritz Klinke at NA Graphics, God's gift to
letterpress printers. His contact info is at
http://www.printmart.com/ads/970-387-0212.htm. He can also tell you the
date of any specific Vandercook or C&P if you give him the serial
number. Traditional printers' composition rollers for any size press can
be made to order for you by Tarheel Roller & Brayer
(http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/hau6118/myhomepage/) in North Carolina.

     There are a dozen or so remaining type foundries around the world
(although mostly in the US), which are generally maintained as labors of
love by the founders who don't want to see this unique craft fade away.
While there is a plentiful amount of used type available from all the
sources above (Black, Churchman, Barrett, Heagy, etc.) if you can afford
it you will find that nothing on earth beats the pleasure of printing
from newly cast metal type. The patriarch of type founders (the man who
literally wrote the book on the subject, and the only one still casting
on the original ATF Barth foundry casters) is the former linchpin of
American Type Founders, Theo Rehak of the Dale Guild
(http://www.daleguild.com/). The largest in-stock selection is probably
from M&H Type in San Francisco (formerly known as Mackenzie & Harris
(http://www.arionpress.com/mandh/index.htm), and a good source for links
to other founders is at the Hot Metal Home Page


     Finally, when you have questions (as you surely will) or just want
to warm yourself by the fire in the friendly company of fellow printers,
be sure to come back here and contribute actively to this list. We are a
very mixed bag, from a dozen different countries and with a seventy year
age spread and we often digress emotionally into completely unrelated
topics. However, as Ben Franklin (one of the pantheon of patron saints
of printers) said about democracy, "it's the worst form of government
there is...except for all the others."

     Good luck with letterpress printing!

-David S. Rose
 Five Roses Press
 New York, NY

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