Putting old kit to new uses keeps artisan skills alive

Nick Loaring, owner of The Print Project in Shipley, is an honest man. When asked about letterpress and the workshops he runs for the public, teaching the print laity how to wield type, he responds with not the most standard of sales pitches.

“Some days you win and some days you take a beating,” he says. “You have to give students achievable outcomes for the time available, otherwise it can descend into absolute chaos within minutes. 

“I’ve been in print for over 20 years now, and I still feel like I am learning something new everyday. When I finally become an expert it’ll probably be the day I drop dead.”

His tongue is ever so slightly in his cheek, of course, but letterpress is indeed difficult. It’s that difficulty, though – that element of being made privy to the secrets of a dark art – that is a key driver in ensuring letterpress workshops are thriving. In a world of instant-gratification and an over-processed aesthetic, letterpress stands out as a challenge worth taking on. 

The boom seems to have started at the height of austerity, around 2010. 

“The workshops at St Brides have been running for about six years,” says Michael Clayton, journeyman compositor at the St Bride Foundation. “Letterpress was gaining in popularity and seeing as the building was full of equipment, it would have been an injustice not to have offered the equipment and expertise available to students.”

“I’ve been running workshops since 2011,” agrees Loaring. “They came about due to constant pestering from a myriad of keen and curious print fanatics. 

“Five years on from the first foray into teaching it I’ve taught hundreds of people what it takes to print using the letterpress process at events, festivals and educational establishments. People really have a thirst for it and that doesn’t seem to be on the wane in any way.”

The clientele is predictably diverse. As with many ‘crafts’, you tend to get a mix of the would-be professional, the professional amateur, the interested observer, the retired, the print fanatics and those who need the knowledge for their career. 

That last group, one grizzled veteran graphic designer says, is where the core market should be. Off the record he says no one gets taught typography properly anymore because of the desktop publishing revolution and that designers have lost the art of understanding type because the mechanics had gone out if it. 

“I agree 100%,” says Loaring. “So many colleges and universities have ditched their letterpress departments in the great switch over to ‘digital’, which has meant budding designers really miss out on this key stage in their understanding of how typography works. Or they have a letterpress department but no one knows how to use any of the stuff as they don’t have any technicians  to help the students.

“I get loads of graphic designers coming on my courses who don’t know what a pica is, call a sort a glyph and completely lose it when they get hold of some wood type and set it all the wrong way round, with upside down Ss and Ns and then freak out when it takes ages to letterspace (track) a word with 2pt leads!

“But they are so bored of being stuck behind a Mac. They need to get ‘hands on’ and find a creative spark and letterpress is a brilliant way of doing that as it’s about limitations – you are forced to work with what you have and you have to make it work.”

Broad customer base

Richard Lawrence, a master letterpress printer now based in Oxford, says there are plenty of other interested parties for workshops, too. 

“I started teaching at St Bride Foundation with design students. I also taught for a year at Bath Spa University, again with design students. Then at St Bride for amateurs. Also for the London Rare Books School on two or three occasions (book historians). I now teach at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.”

He says this diverse audience means you have to offer several different types of kit to meet the client objective. 

“The kit depends on what the people want to learn,” he explains. “For literature students who want or need to know what the effect of printing in the handpress era has on the books they study, they obviously need to experience hand-setting type and using a handpress. Artists wanting to print linocuts need to consider using a handpress or proof press, such as a Vandercook. Occasionally I have a student wanting to learn to operate a Heidelberg platen to undertake jobbing work, for wedding stationery, greetings cards, etc.”

He says that generally it is safest and most instructive to use ‘simple’ presses that are hand-operated. He cites Albions, Vandercooks, Adanas among this group. 

At St Brides, students use three-hand presses, dating from the early 19th century, and three-proofing presses of the mid 20th century. The collection at St Brides is huge, however (see box). 

Loaring, meanwhile, has a Heidelberg Platen 10x15in, a Korrex Nuremberg 38x50cm, a Farley proofing press, a Vandercook proofing press and a Ludlow Model M Typograph.

“For the most part workshops revolve around setting type, inking it up and printing it on the flat bed proofing presses,” he explains. “Two of them are of very simple construction which means they are easy to use and are great for banging out prints. They are also very easy to move around in a small car or van for events across the UK. Having said that they are still really heavy.” 

Tech challenges

Loaring also teaches at the West Yorkshire Print Workshop and studio co-ordinator Kate Desforges says getting to grips with all this kit can be extremely challenging for students 

“The technical aspects of typesetting can be a bit daunting for beginners. It can also be quite slow to get to grips with. But it is also really satisfying and rewarding, and just requires a bit of tenacity.”

Indeed, letterpress is not easy to teach as it requires a knowledge of where the common challenges occur – and how to get around them – and a good idea of the processes that are going to be best suited to the group being taught. 

“Hand setting individual lead characters, highlights dexterity, or lack of it,” says Clayton. “Because of working in negative, you work with the characters upside down, but still from left to right. We start teaching handsetting using an 18pt type, which is easier to handle than smaller sizes.”

“Technical complications usually arise with customers or learners who don’t understand the restrictions,” adds Lawrence. “Letterpress is not a good way to reproduce photographs; fine type reversed out of solids is very difficult; ‘deep impression’ upsets the texture of card it is used on. Sometimes the time required for hand-setting or the sheer volume of type needed will mean someone is attempting something overambitious. Very long print runs on hand-operated machinery is slow and physically demanding.”

Both Clayton and Lawrence say you have to find ways of getting students to focus on what is achievable and methods of teaching that simplify the process. Loaring agrees.

“Everyone is different: some take to it like a duck to water, some find it completely mind blowing and others find it frustrating. But that’s to be expected with anything new and unfamiliar and it’s our job to make sure our workshop attendees get a great insight into the process and some prints that will knock their socks off in the time available to them,” he says. 

Clayton gives an example of a typical lesson to demonstrate how a student can be walked through the process.

“The process needs to be basic,” he explains. “When working with wood or lead, there is little scope for shape. When the student first starts, I explain the letterpress method and then go through the handsetting process before getting the student to practice the procedure. The text set would then be prepared for printing.”

Lawrence adds that workshop tutors have to watch out for common mistakes  

“Poor ink choices made on dubious ‘green’ reasoning and, ditto, paper choices can ruin ambitions,” he explains. “Inks based on linseed oil and decent-quality paper will achieve good results more easily than water-based or rubber-based inks on any old paper.”

Sometimes, though, the person doing the teaching can make things harder than necessary. Lawrence cites a few common mistakes those running the workshops can make: “I always advise people to buy the biggest and heaviest machine they can manage,” he says. “Adanas were and remain machines for small-scale hobby printing. Vandercooks are really meant to be low-volume high-accuracy proof presses not production machines.

“Type is also expensive to buy and outlets such as eBay encourage shoddy material to change hands for excessive prices.”

The challenges are clearly multiple, and so setting up a letterpress workshop is far from easy. But as Desforges says, the demand is there to be met and it is up to both tutor and tutee to make it work. “After all, it can be as technical as you want to make it,” she says. 


The Print Project, Shipley, West Yorkshire

West Yorkshire Print Workshop, Huddersfield

St Bride Foundation, London

Richard Lawrence, Oxford


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