Skills still make an impression

By Jez Abbott, Monday 09 October 2017

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It’s apt that halfway through his interview with PrintWeek Patrick Roe spots an old Field-Marshall tractor trundling past his office window. Once a farm staple in the 1940s, these days such machines are a rare sight.

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Roe: "People have come to value even more the beauty of a physical object made by hand"

Like the Field-Marshall, there’s plenty of printing technology around that has been superseded but still performs the task it was designed for. One of them is the letterpress process – a technology that dominated print for hundreds of years – for which Roe feels more than nostalgic warmth.

But whereas a modern tractor can do the Field-Marshall’s job much faster and more efficiently, the style of letterpress printing is harder to replicate and it still resists replacement, occupying a functional – albeit niche – corner of the print room. To this day letterpress continues to supply a demand for a relief printing process that has waned but never died.

Roe’s focus swings from the window to his office at The Logan Press in Finedon, Northants. A small firm, it is nevertheless one of the largest commercial letterpress printers in Europe and is seeing renewed interest in the process and other craft skills such as hand binding.

The challenge

Meeting that demand, and thriving using techniques considered outmoded in most modern print shops, however, is hard. The equipment is dated, letterpress-skilled printers difficult to come by and, like most niche services, the potential for business growth is limited.

Letterpress uses raised metal type and engravings to imprint words and designs on to a page, But as well as carefully blending ink, pressure and paper, contemporary letterpress printing involves vast amounts of one other crucial ingredient: skill.

And this takes time to acquire. Roe’s initiation began in a Durham grammar school in the early 1970s, where he worked a Cropper Charlton benchtop handpress, along with an Albion press and founts of Stephenson Blake type, as a teenager.

He studied at the London College of Printing in the mid 1970s and he plied his craft on an Arab treadle platen – a model that enjoyed its heyday between the 1880s and 1930s – before moving to Gloucester to specialise in trade letterpress printing, design and blockmaking.

By the mid-noughties Roe was working in a listed barn in the Cotswolds with his business partner Frances Fineran. Things were moving fast, but one challenge remained constant: finding printers with such specialist skills has never been easy and some of Roe’s staff today are in their 70s.

“We advertised for letterpress printers, which highlighted an irony: at the time: many large printing companies were making people redundant and printers were becoming handymen, drivers and gardeners. Yet we still found it hard to find people with relevant skills.”

Roe was undeterred because he could see letterpress printing on an upward curve: “There was and remains a big resurgence in letterpress because people can see and feel the impression. This is the critical quality: anyone with a computer and printer can produce a reasonable looking greetings or wedding card, but you cannot reproduce letterpress print or its timeless feel and quality.”

The method

Still, the problem of recruitment persisted. Then in 2007, The Fine Book Bindery in Wellingborough went out of business. Roe moved to the site and took on key staff from the firm including Maurice Edwards, Malc Edwards, Kevin Allen, Bet Roberts and Mandy Headland. Mark Peachey meanwhile left Shepherds Bookbinders in London to join Roe in the East Midlands.

There followed a steady accumulation of equipment. One piece, a four-tonne Heidelberg cylinder, cost around £6,000 and had to be completely dismantled to remove from the first floor of a Grade-II listed house in Marlborough. Delicacy was the hallmark of other machines such as hot foilers used for laying 22-carat gold on the vellum cases of books for clients that include the Folio Society.

“We started working for greetings cards publishers who wanted letterpress and I advertised again for a printer. Once again we found someone who had been forced out of printing but was keen to get back. Bob Coulson was working for a sex toy company called Rocks-Off and was somewhat relieved and delighted to get back into letterpress printing.”

Brian Watkin was another seasoned printer determined to stay in the trade who had not only served his apprenticeship on a Heidelberg cylinder but remembered his first project; a four-colour print job for Meccano. He was, according to Roe, “letterpress through and through”.

He adds: “It was perfect timing. I had just been offered the job of printing the colour plates for a centenary edition of The Book of Sark from the original 100-year-old copper halftone plates. A normal print job would have cost less than £1,000 but this was nearer £12,000 because we had to use the original plates and there was a lot of movement. We had to print one-up to get the register.”

Logan Press now has 15 staff and three buildings, one of which is used for printing and binding and houses a Heidelberg cylinder, four Heidelberg platens and hot foilers. Other kit includes a proofing press, imagesetter and photopolymer platemaker. Another building is used for storage while the third is for restoring old Arab and Albion presses.

The result

The bulk of Logan Press’ output is for leading greetings card companies, amounting to around 100,000 impressions a week. Being a trade printer does away with the need to market itself to consumers: “The clients do the sales and marketing, we do the printing.”

That said, word has moved beyond trade circles. The Fine Book Bindery, still a part of The Logan Press, was recently featured in a coffee-table book by Bloomsbury called Crafted in Britain: The Survival of Britain’s Traditional Industries. Last year Roe demonstrated letterpress printing on BBC 2’s Full Steam Ahead programme in an episode which included the printing of newspapers.

And a couple of years earlier he and a few colleagues transported a Cropper Minerva treadle platen to Shepperton film studios to take centre stage in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, ably supported by Jude Law and Robert Downey Junior.

The growing profile of letterpress has had other, more local, spin offs. Former Chapter Press employee and letterpress newbie Gary Massingham joined and now runs the platens and hot-foil kit. A former kickboxing champion, Hollie Taylor, is being trained up, while other new recruits include Cher Dodson, Gilly Williams and apprentice Tom Purton.

Purton’s recruitment highlights a skills issue more pressing for Roe’s business than others. A sizeable part of his workforce is nearing, and in some cases beyond, retirement age. Purton must learn fast what some of his colleagues picked up over decades because the skills pool is dwindling. Kevin Allen died of dementia this July and Roe, himself, recently had a small heart attack.

“It was just as well Sarah Cutler applied for work, as I was not really looking for apprentices at that moment. But I could see she would be a fantastic asset, and so it proved. Within a few months I had a little heart attack and had to take time off. 21-year-old Sarah took this in her stride and is now running the show. I am able to take more enjoyment in letterpress printing and hand binding.”

He also aims to focus more on restoring presses. Though Logan Press has spare capacity, it has little room for more kit, so when production equipment is quiet, Roe’s team can take up the slack by focusing on restoration and then shipping presses all over the world.

But his letterpress machines are rarely quiet. Typical jobs include printing The Letterpress Shakespeare from hot metal and binding 1,000 illustrated copies of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories with a Folio Society publisher’s price of £445 each. 

Roe insists letterpress printing and Logan Press will continue to thrive in the modern print world, partly because of that modern world.

“Letterpress has been growing and growing and I have little doubt it will continue to grow. I think this is partly a reaction to today’s digital age, with many things – including books – reduced to pixels. People have come to value even more the beauty of a physical object made by hand.” 


VITAL STATISTICS

Book Printers/The Logan Press

Location Finedon, Northamtonshire

Inspection host Director, Patrick Roe

Size Turnover: £500,000; staff: 15 

Established 2007

Products Greetings cards, wedding stationery, invitations, small-run and limited-edition books, dust jackets and posters

Kit Four Heidelberg T-platens, one Heidelberg KSBA cylinder, Mackay and JT Marshall hot foilers, EBA and Wohlenberg guillotines, Counterslip proofing press, Agfa Accuset imagesetter, Nyloprint photopolymer platemaker, Muller Martini hand-fed book sewing machine, Hampson Bettridge & Co rounding and backing machine

Inspection focus Thriving in a niche


TOP TIPS

Get the right people who can combine not just their own experience and skills, but a true enthusiasm for your niche.

Choose kit wisely, says Roe: “The Heidelberg cylinder is perhaps the most important bit of letterpress kit - it is what sets apart the men from the boys. A lot of people have platens, but the cylinder is the ultimate letterpress machine in my view, and that of many other people.”

Be open to new ways of doing things especially in such a traditional process as letterpress, which can benefit from modern technology playing a supporting role.

Attract the right customer, says Roe: “We are so lucky our customers share our passion for letterpress and get on well with each other.”

Tailor marketing to your customer by attending industry events and trade shows, writing articles for publications or, in the case of Logan Press target your unique niche at TV shows.

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