Guest post, courtesy of GKBC Creative Media & Publishing
First we had manual letterpresses, then technology advanced and printers came into existence. The poor old letterpress was relegated to dusty attics and, if it was a lucky one, museum collections.
Then came the twenty-first century and suddenly many people found themselves sick of high-tech gadgetry, nostalgic for something a little more old-fashioned and obscure. And so the ‘craft revolution’ was born.
Led by popular craft sites such as Etsy, Mitsy and Folksy, anything vintage or handmade is suddenly back in fashion. We’re seeing a revival of ancient crafts that were once thought to be confined to decades gone by, with people now willing to pay extra to get their hands on items that are ‘traditionally’ made rather than mass-produced.
Image: Edinburgh City of Print
A Truly Unique Gift
There’s something special about hand-produced goods. Perhaps it’s the obvious love and attention to detail that goes into every piece, or perhaps it’s a longing for those slight imperfections hand-crafted items always have and that look so unique in a sea of perfect, mass-produced merchandise.
Whatever it is, letterpress printing is making a comeback.
Want to send someone a birthday card, or a framed print of a favourite quote? It just looks so much more personalized and like you put time and thought into choosing it when it’s a hand-printed design, than something you picked up off the shelf in your local card store.
Image: Cushing Memorial Library
Printing Throughout the Ages
With its current popularity on European and American greetings cards, it’s easy to think that letterpress printing is a Western invention. It was the Chinese however who first developed the method in the 2nd century, with a single, carved wooden block for each and every page.
The Europeans however refined the technique. The Chinese method was labour intensive and inefficient, requiring a new block to be carved for each page to be printed.
It’s quite a wonder really that it took a further twelve and a half centuries for one person – Johannes Gutenberg – to stop and think, “hey, couldn’t we just make letters and re-arrange them each time?”. It was here that moveable type, the father of modern letterpress printing, came into being.
Up until the invention of the modern electronic printer, nothing really changed. Sure, the letter pieces went from fragile ceramic to strong cast iron that could withstand being used again and again, but the vintage letterpresses that you can buy today from the 19th and 20th centuries are really no different to their 15th century counterparts.
Image: Caelie Frampton
Buying a Letterpress Today
Unfortunately, despite the renewed interest in letterpress printing, it can still be very difficult to get your hands on a proper press, mainly due to the fact that many of the old companies producing them are now long gone.
Parts break or get lost that cannot be replaced, and the specialist knowledge required to repair a broken letterpress is no longer readily available. All in all, it is a dying art – but that’s not to say you have to give up the dream of letterpress printing!
There are two types of letterpresses – the large, bulky ones that were commonly used by businesses in another era, and smaller, tabletop styles that people often kept at home.
As a beginner, I’d recommend the smaller option – they’re easier to use, generally cost less than their floor-standing counterparts and it will generally be cheaper to have replacement parts made to order if they’re completely unavailable.
If you’re unsure where to start looking for your first letterpress, check out auction sites such as eBay. It’s not uncommon for vintage and antique letterpresses to have parts missing unfortunately, so be sure to ask the seller if everything is intact and in full, working order – replacement parts will almost certainly be difficult or even impossible to come by!
Image: Kathryn Rotondo
Keeping the Trade Alive
So what does the future hold for letterpress printing? Its heyday has long gone by – laser printing is simply more time and cost efficient for big businesses, and there’s still a huge demand for ‘perfection’.
However, so long as craftspeople keep caring for and fixing their letterpresses, and so long as the general public keep buying their uniquely printed creations, letterpress printing will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Elise Lévêque is a Parisian chick with a passion for all things vintage, be it her trusty Lomo camera or a gorgeous Golding letterpress. She blogs for IDPro who focus on the more modern side of printing, such as ID card printers
and the ID card holders
that go with them.