The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Letterpress

 

Printing using hand setting (composition) of type and material and a variety of presses.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category
Historic area of significance Origins: Germany – (Mainz) ref: Johannes Gutenberg’s original invention of movable type.

UK: London (Fleet Street) and most UK Cities having printing districts and thinly in the countryside of England, Scotland and Wales – with most small towns have one or two letterpress printers.

Area currently practised A number of presses and workshops in London with a scattering of presses in the home counties and dotted about across the UK.
Origin in the UK 15th century
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
101-200  (see other information)
Current no. of trainees 1-5
Current total no. serious amateur makers
51-100
Current total no. of leisure makers
101-200
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

Letterpress printing was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. Letterpress printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the 20th century, when offset printing was developed, which largely supplanted its role in printing books and newspapers, but letterpress has survived thanks to small presses and artisan printers.

Prior to letterpress written information was published and distributed only by the wealthy – using monks to transcribe literature / religious texts by hand.

It was only in the late 19th century (circa 1980) through the development of digital type setting that letterpress became obsolete.

Letterpress has survived thanks to a small number of print workshops and artisan printers.

 

Techniques

  • Manufacture type (maintain usable supplies / casting)
  • Setting type on a stick (composition)
  • Arrange and layout publication (in a chase)
  • Proof the type (quality control)
  • Pagination (setting out for printing).
  • Preparation of paper (cutting to size etc)
  • Print (feed paper / inking)
  • Fold paper / trim to size
  • Compile documents (book binding / stitching etc)
  • Replace type / furniture for re use (dissing)
  • Melt down damaged type

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

  • Letter design
  • Punch Cutting
  • Type Casting (metal) / Type manufacture (wood)
  • Manufacture of lead ingots for casting
  • Line / slug casting (Monotype / Linotype)
  • Flong making / Casting
  • Stamping / Foil making
  • Ink making
  • Plate making / engraving (halftone blocks / magnesium blocks / polymer)
  • Paper making
  • Bookbinding
  • Form cutting
  • Wood engraving
  • Press maintenance / engineering

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: Letterpress can’t compete on price with digital print. The process of letterpress printing is slow, large spaces are needed to accommodate the equipment – whereas digital printing (its modern competitor) is fast and less space is needed for equipment (less commercial rent / faster turn-a-round / less waist / higher profits).
  • Lack of suitable premises: Cast iron presses / Composing stones / Furniture racks / Galley racks / Type cabinets etc. are heavy and take up large areas – this dictates the position (primarily ground floor) and scale of workshop spaces. Again, impacting on profitability and often resulting in printers working in converted garages / home studios; primarily driven by affordability.
  • Skills issues: Letterpress printing (and the teaching / training of interested parties) has moved from being a skilled trade (City & Guild) to becoming more craft based (less quantity – more short run art based results).
  • Equipment and raw materials: There is lot of equipment required for letterpress printing. It is a challenge to keep the materials, presses and type together and in working order.
  • Equipment and raw materials: The materials needed to print (the letters themselves) are inherently fragile (cast from lead or manufacture from wood) – they wear out, when dropped become damaged and unusable. Metal letters are designed to be meted down when damages and re-cast. A high proportion of letters in use will be well beyond their envisaged life span. Replacement letters are becoming rarer to find with only a small number of foundries still in operation in the UK. Replacements (where they can be found) are expensive. Wood letters have become a valuable resource on Ebay and are sold individually – this results in cases being plundered and reducing complete alphabets to work with, and cases sold in antiques markets for wall mounted storage.
  • Ageing workforce: The age of the people running the foundries is increasing. There is little or no funding for trainees / apprentices.
  • Skills issues: There are few people with the skills to repair and service presses. Most printing presses are manufactured from cast iron – very strong in compression but weak in tension. When presses are damaged, they are very difficult to repair, and are often scrapped.

 

Support organisations

  • St Brides Foundation
  • Oxford Guild of Printers
  • British Printing Society
  • Printing Historical Society

International:

  • Letterpress Workers (LPW) (Milan Italy)
  • Association of European Printing Museums

 

Craftspeople currently known

Individual makers:

Businesses employing two or more makers:

Other information

Status: There are large number of people using small presses, such as the Adana press, to make small items such as greetings cards. These require a relatively basic skill set and only a small number of people have a working knowledge and ability to letterpress at a higher level.

Workshops teaching people the craft skills have blossomed lately and are keeping the industry going along with a renewed appreciation of the tactile results.

 

References