How a letterpress innovator is making new impressions

By Simon Eccles, Monday 18 December 2017

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"Post-digital letterpress.” Erik Spiekermann is always good with an apt phrase that works just as well in English as his native German.


Spiekermann: “We print the old-fashioned way, but clients want a bit more impression these days... So we dial up the pressure”

He coined this one to describe the way he is combining leading-edge digital typography and laser platemaking with a very traditional letterpress and hand-bound production process. 

Earlier this month, deliveries started of the first copies of Change is Good, a novel by Louis Rosetto about the growth of dot com companies and online culture in the late 1990s. Rosetto was a co-founder and editor of Wired, a technology magazine noted for its distinctive design. He is a friend of Spiekermann’s and he asked him to produce the very special first edition, financed through a thoroughly modern Kickstarter campaign.

This is the first major use of Spiekermann’s post digital letterpress concept, created in his p98a studio in Berlin. The book has 448 pages and measures 165x245mm. It’s case-bound with a black-on-black cover and fits into a red slip case.

The Kickstarter was very successful: it raised $182,021 (£135,800) by 17 September, with 1,348 backers. The first 1,000 backers got a signed copy of the book with their names listed inside. The first few ‘early birds’ to pledge payments paid just $48; later backers were asked for a sliding scale up to $148. 

In October, Spiekermann started production of the first 2,500 copies of the book: 1,600 were sent to Kickstarter backers, 500 to a US retailer and the rest are for storage and later sale. 

Hand-crafted letterpress books are still common enough not to count as news. What Spiekermann has done, however, is to take his long experience in digital type design and adapt it to work with a customised UV laser imagesetter. This exposes steel-backed photopolymer letterpress plates directly, rather than using contact film or the black mask ablation method. 

Rosetto calls it “the reinvention of the best way to print words on paper”. In the Kickstarter video he says: “I asked Erik to help create Change is Good. He’s created just an incredibly beautiful piece of art. In so many ways it’s just the best possible way to read, and one of the best books you can get in the beginning of the 21st century!”

Starting work as a hand compositor in 1960s West Berlin, Spiekermann collected old cases of metal type and turned to designing his own fonts. In 1979 he was one of the founders of MetaDesign, a type design house that thrived in the 1980s and 90s when the desktop publishing revolution fuelled a massive growth in demand for new digital typeface designs, and digitising old ones. Among others, Spiekermann created the popular ITC Officina Sans and Officina Serif. He pounded the design conference circuits, where his sense of humour and easy command of English made him a popular speaker – Spiekermann indeed. 

He lived in the UK in the 1970s, where he moved his collection of old type and presses. Unfortunately these were destroyed in a warehouse fire and he did not really return to letterpress until 2013 and his current p98a venture in Berlin. He took over another nearby studio that had gone bankrupt. This owned a Heidelberg flatbed cylinder press. “It’s a 1952 model, 54x74cm and never rebuilt to my knowledge,” says Spiekermann. “Rollers are new and a few electrical parts had to be replaced.” He also has a smaller hand operated proofing press that was used for some of the earlier books. 

On a flatbed cylinder press the relief (raised image) plates lie flat and face up on a solid bed that moves back and forth, first under inking rollers and then an impression cylinder that feeds the paper sheets through in contact. Spiekermann’s press bed is large enough to print the Change is Good pages eight-up, for 16pp sections. Case binding was done by the Müller bindery in Liepzig. 

He isn’t using letterpress just because he’s an enthusiast, he says, but because it gives a better appearance to the pages. “We print the old-fashioned way, but clients want a bit more impression these days, so that they can actually identify the prints as letterpress. So we dial up pressure as much as possible without spoiling the verso side. That effect matters. The indentation creates a white halo at its edges and those are perceptible. It’s the difference between a printed veneer and real wood!” 

For type design and adjustment he uses the long-established FontLab and Glyphs programs. “The Change is Good book is set in FF Franziska with headline in my own FF Real and a few other faces,” he says. 

Although letterpress enthusiasts have tended to regard hot metal in general and Monotype in particular as the epitome of type quality, Spiekermann disagrees: “Monotype has a maximum of 18 units for each character and most of its qualities were vastly exaggerated by nostalgia. The same for Linotype. And that’s apart from practical issues such as no data capture, large space needed for storage, the weight of formes, noise, dirt and lead pollution.” 

Originally he tried using the Nyloprint polymer letterpress plates made by Flint in Germany (acquired from the original producer BASF in 2005). Now he uses Toray Torelief DHX4 steel-backed water-washout plates, made in Japan and supplied by Dantex in Europe. 

The steel backing is used with a magnetic base on the bed of the press: this holds the plates securely at the necessary type height, but allows quick changes for each signature. “Plates are in and out in a minute,” Spiekermann says. 

Photopolymer letterpress plates are nothing new, but most people produce them by exposing them through a negative film mask made on a film imagesetter. Why did Spiekermann choose the direct laser exposure route? This is rare even in flexography, where digital polymer plates mostly use LAM (laser-ablated mask) where a black coating on the plate is burned off by a laser to reveal polymer that is subsequently hardened by exposure to UV.

The need for direct UV laser exposure is mostly because of the unusually large 540x740mm format of his press, Spiekermann says. This is equivalent to B2. “Flexo plates tend to be composites of many smaller pieces, whereas we need one continuous plate. We wanted to cut out film for four reasons. A, it’s expensive – a large plate costs us about €60 and a negative that size is €100 in addition. B, there are quality issues to try and get the same density of negative across 30 large sheets. C, it means added work – the negatives have to be spotted then mounted. D, availability – there’s hardly any output capacity left in Germany. There is a lot more for the hobby market in the USA, but they cannot make film that large. They mostly have Linotronic filmsetters up to about A3.”

The UV laser exposure unit was built by Laser Systems Hannover (LSH). The company makes manual and automatic feed laser units, mainly intended for flexography. Its mid-sized model, as used by Spiekermann, takes plates up to 635x762mm.

“The process has existed for some time, but nobody had built a laser to the full width of 74cm that we could afford,” says Spiekermann. “Lüscher makes a very precise internal drum unit for approximately €200,000 but ours only cost €60,000, plus the secondary exposure unit for another €60,000. After exposure by the laser, the plates are treated like any polymer: secondary exposure to harden the surface again and then washing and drying.”

Each plate takes about 20 to 45 minutes for the laser exposure he says, depending on the image content, and then another 20 minutes for the secondary hardening exposure. “But that is all automatic and can be left alone.”

So, is ‘post digital letterpress’ just a labour of love, or does he see some wider commercial use? “It started as proof of concept,” he says. “We had the old presses and wanted to use them commercially. Now we can. If anybody wants the quality of letterpress printing without the cost and lack of typographic quality of metal type, we now have a process that makes it feasible. We already have enquiries for making plates from the UK and Italy, and we haven’t even announced it!” 

Letterpress in the 21st century

Direct exposure systems for polymer plates are comparatively rare. As Spiekermann mentions, Lüscher in Switzerland makes very high quality laser imagers, including versatile hybrid models with thermal lasers for litho plates and UV for flexo/letterpress. These are sold in the UK by L&M, today’s descendent of the original Linotype & Machinery company that pioneered hot metal mechanical typesetting in the 1880s. 

Another direct system is still made by Basysprint in Ypres, Belgium, a company owned by digital press maker Xeikon (itself owned by Flint, which makes Nyloprint plates). Its UV platesetters were developed for ‘conventional’ (non-laser-sensitive) litho plates, plus anything else that is UV-sensitive including polymer relief plates. Today’s sales are said to be very low, mainly because thermal laser litho plates dominate the market, while the laser-ablated mask method dominates digital flexo. 

Nobody still makes new letterpress flatbed-cylinder presses like Spiekermann’s 1952 Heidelberg, but Wakefield based Letterpress Services still does a thriving business in buying old ones and rebuilding them to high standards. Managing director Chris Bottomley says the cylinder presses he finds have mainly been  converted for cutting & creasing or foiling, but the ones that have retained their inking roller systems (so can still print) are in  particular high demand after refurbishing. 

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