Written by Tier Morrow
In the 1800’s, letterpress printing was an educational opportunity for tradesmen to both learn the English language and the skillsets of the craft.
During his time in a printshop, the printing apprentice would learn “all aspects of type, typography, decorative borders, rule-cutting, imposition of pages, papers and the preparation, mixing and transference of ink to type, the working of the various presses, proofreading and correcting, and all print-functioning procedures that create effective ways to run a workshop” according to the findings of David Jury, an award winning graphic designer and head of the master’s program in art and design at Colchester Institute in England.
There were two different positions that an apprentice could hold in a shop: the compositor which set type in order, and the printer’s devil who removed the printed sheets of paper and hanged them to dry. Each job had its own importance that taught the apprentice a necessary skill to fulfill their work.
Print shops created well-rounded citizens that were more educated than most of the population because of the job’s requirements in language and common sense.
Letterpress may seem like a dying art today, because of other technological opportunities, but the ancient process can help people better understand and appreciate everything their laptop does, gain patience and attention to detail, and feel a sense of peace while working with their hands. There is something special about the trade that helps all printers appreciate what they have and what they can create through it.
“You learn to measure down to an eighth of an inch…”
Letterpress continues to teach printers patience and attention to detail as it requires fine measurements and time to build chases that produce acceptable products.
“As a printer, you have to know how to measure down to an eighth of a point which is tiny,” said Sky Shipley, the founder of Skyline Type Foundry in Arizona, one of the largest type producers in the U.S. “Printing requires precision because your products reflect you and the time you decided to put into the set-up.”
Shipley first worked in his father’s printshop, and in 2004 he was introduced to his first casting machine. Now, he specializes in 19th century revival text that ships all over the world.
Both from being in an operating press room and working with 100-year-old font styles, Shipley said he has learned more about quality control than he would have anywhere else.
“You have to do better in order for it to be good enough,” said Shipley. “As a printer, when you look at a letter or a printed page, you take the time to analyze it and ask if there is anything that could be tweaked to make it better. You never settle for mediocre. Printing teaches the patience to strive for the best.”
“The presses people use were built to last centuries…”:
A letterpress printer not only needs patience to print, they need patience to learn the mechanics of the ancient machinery.
“The presses that people use were built to last centuries,” said Roger Tappy, an Indiana letterpress printer who works for a company buying and selling print equipment. “They designed the machine once, and never changed the design. They may have made a few minor adjustments, but overall, the build stayed the same for as long as presses were made. Nowadays, you don’t see equipment like that. I mean look at cell phones; they are constantly changing.”
Tappy opened his own print shop in the early 1990s in his father’s basement while he was in high school and continued it while he was in college.
Today, he buys printing equipment from those who do not see a need for it anymore and sells it to those who are attempting to fix presses that have been stranded.
Because of the job he has now, Tappy has seen many printers struggle to find the parts they need because press mechanics seemed to just die off like a toy no one wanted to produce anymore.
With these constraints, many learn manual dexterity skills along with problem-solving skills to work around the roadblocks.
“When it comes to letterpress printing, you have to work within the constraints that you are given whether you are trying to fix mechanical issues or issues with a final piece,” Tappy said. “You have to learn to think ahead about the different problems that could arise and about the different outcomes that could happen with each decision you make. In my opinion, there is nowhere else that you will find the same time and space challenges like you do in letterpress. Letterpress forces you to think differently about everything.”
“The basic knowledge of printing comes from the bond one create with a press…”:
Beyond the educational purposes of letterpress, a printer gains a sense of peace as they work with their hands to create beautiful works of art.
“Everyone has multiple ways that they learn; one being tacit learning which is body knowledge that is gained through repetition,” said Erin Beckloff, a professor at Miami University in Oxford who started a letterpress program for students. “The basic knowledge of printing comes from the bond that one create with a press. You learn its rhythms that teach you when something is ‘off.’ You gain skills for detail and an understanding of the mechanics after you bond with your press.”
Beckloff said that through her research she has found that humans have always had a need to make things with their hands. It’s how language and knowledge was traded in the first place.
She conducted a study during one of her printing workshops because she was curious about the emotional effect that letterpress had on people.
Everyone participating took a survey about how they felt before and after they had printed. Before 51 percent felt a negative emotion like anxiety, overwhelm, or stress, but afterward 81 percent felt positive emotions like satisfaction, calmness, and joy.
“I watched as people’s moods visual changed as they began working,” Beckloff said. “I could tell that working with the old materials and creating something with their bare hands had a huge effect on people. At the end, a lot of them talked about how much they enjoyed creating a product from beginning to end and how satisfied they felt with how it turned out. Printing is peaceful.”
“The most beautiful things in life come from the dirtiest places…”:
Dark, dirty, no air-conditioning with dead pigeons littering the floor.
The large Chicago Warehouse was nothing special to look at, but dozens upon dozens of type cases covered every square inch.
“I have traveled back to that warehouse 20 times or more,” said Dave Peat, an Indiana hobbyist printer for 76 years. “I thought there would be other places like it, but there never have been in all my years of searching. It was the dirtiest place I have ever seen, but my most beautiful typefaces have come from there. It is one of the best places on earth.”
Peat began printing in 1938 with his family making their holiday cards together, but it was not until 1945 when he found a typebook that his interest was sparked.
He has found that letterpress printing is one of the dirtiest hobbies one can have from greasing the press to inking the disk, but from the dirty jobs comes beautiful products and life lessons.
“There is no other hobby like letterpress printing,” Peat said. “It’s the only one I know where you get the euphoria of searching out the parts, restoring them, and then putting them to use. I have had many hobbies in my life, but this is the only one I have stuck to.”
As letterpress once helped apprentices, Peat owes a lot of his skills to letterpress because he only had the chance to go to grade school as a boy. He learned printing on his own by experimenting with his hands and the machines. From it, he has learned better English, accuracy, dexterity, and problem-solving skills.
“Letterpress will always be a trade because you can’t learn it from a book. You have to work with your hands and do it in order to master it,” said Peat. “I have learned so much from letterpress, but it has never felt like work to me. It has always been pleasurable to set a chase and turning a blank sheet of paper into something beautiful. Letterpress has given me some of my closest friends as well. There isn’t any aspect of printing that doesn’t benefit the printer or teach them in some way.”
This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It’s not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.