Printing using hand setting (composition) of type and material and a variety of presses.
|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
|Current total no. of leisure makers
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 20th century (circa 1980) through the development of digital type setting and printing by rotary offset lithography, that letterpress became obsolete.
Letterpress has survived thanks to a small number of commercial printers who have retained their letterpress equipment, print workshops and artisan printers.
- Manufacture type (maintain usable supplies / casting / pantograph tracing)
- Setting type on a stick (composition)
- Arrange and layout publication (composing in a form)
- Proof the type (quality control)
- Imposition (setting out pages for printing).
- Preparation of paper (cutting to size)
- Print (feed paper / inking / storage)
- Fold paper / trim to size / stitch
- Compile documents (book binding / stitching etc)
- Replace type into cases/ furniture for re use (dissing)
- Melt down damaged type / re-casting
- Service and maintenance of machinery
- Broadside production
- Billboards / advertising
- Bills of sale / auction listings
- Letter design
- Punch Cutting
- Type Casting (Monotype -metal) / Type manufacture (wood)
- Manufacture of lead ingots for casting
- Line / slug casting (Ludlow / Linotype)
- Flong making / stereotyping / casting
- Stamping / Foil making / Magnesium blocks / polymer plates
- Ink making
- Plate making / engraving (halftone blocks/ zinc, magnesium or copper blocks)
- Paper making / card / grey board / book cloth production / glue
- Form cutting
- Wood engraving
- Press maintenance / engineering
- Roller manufacture / roller re-covering
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Letterpress can’t compete on speed of production and price with digital print. The process of letterpress printing by definition is slow. Large industrial / commercial 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). Magnesium and Polymer plates can be manufactured to speed up the production process (made directly from digital files), but these are very expensive and a lot of purists discount these as diluting the craft.
- 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 & Guilds) to becoming more craft based (less quantity – more short run art based results).
- Equipment and raw materials: A lot of equipment is required to carry out letterpress printing to a professional standard. It is a challenge to maintain the materials, presses and type in working order – servicing and maintaining a printing press is a specialised skill in itself. Due to the lead content of metal letters a large number of colleges have elected to dismantle their letterpress print departments. Coupled with the high value in scrap lead – a number of colleges have elected to sell off complete collections of metal type to bolster finances – in some instances to invest in computers (for design based studies) turning away from analogue processes completely.
- 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 unfortunately unusable. Since the development of mechanical casting machines at the end of the nineteenth century, metal letters are designed to be melted down when damaged and re-cast. A high proportion of type available today will be well beyond its 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 often sold individually – this results in cases being plundered and reducing complete alphabets to work with – cases are currently sold in antiques markets for decoration / wall mounted storage.
- Ageing workforce: The age of the people running type foundries is increasing. There is little or no funding for trainees or apprentices, as a result, skills are being lost. There is also a low level of awareness in young people in a skill that is not in high demand. This could result in casting machines being scrapped or used as non-working museum exhibits. Due to their scale more often, museums do not have the capacity to exhibit them resulting in large numbers of machines being dismantled for scrap.
- 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 (cast iron is very difficult to weld), and are often scrapped.
- Health and Safety: Due to concerns about tetra-ethyl lead in petrol and the use of lead oxide in paint, there are also concerns around the use of lead type. Lead type can be used safely as long as sensible precautions are taken such as washing your hands and not putting type in your mouth.
- Letterpress Workers (LPW) (Milan Italy)
- Association of European Printing Museums
- Nordic Letterpress Association
Craftspeople currently known
- Graham Moss – Incline Press
- Nick Gill – Efra Press
- Richard Lawrence – Oxford Printer
- Phil Able – Hand and Eye
- Tom Boulton – TypeTom
- Kelvin Smith –
- Alan Kitching – Typography Workshop
- Dennis Gould – Anarchy Press
- Dulcie Fulton- Mostly Flat
- Carl Middleton – Studio B
- Pat Randle – Nomad Letterpress
- Paekakariki Press
- Meticulous Ink
- Nick Loring – The Print Project
- Jo Barnfield – House of Jo
- Lune Press
- Rob Kendrew – Paperwallah
Businesses employing two or more makers:
- New North Press
- Whittington Press
- The Letterpress Collective
- Thin Ice Press
- The Smallprint Company
- Blush Letterpress, Flintshire
- Drayson and Stock
- Forme HK
- Robert Smail’s Printing Works – National Trust for Scotland: oldest working commercial letterpress printers in the UK
There are large number of people using small table-top presses, such as Adana, to manufacture small printed items such as greetings cards. These require a relatively basic skill set and are a very good entry level equipment. The current rising cost of such presses is impacting on new learners accessing and using them. Once mastered it can be difficult for learners to progress as there are only a small number of people having a working knowledge and ability to teach letterpress at a higher level.
Workshops teaching people the basic craft skills have blossomed recently (bolstered by interest generated following craft programmes on television [sewing bee / repair shop etc]) and are generating interest in the craft along with a renewed appreciation of the tactile quality of print.
On-line across social media platforms (specifically Instagram) an active dialogue is being propelled, helping to foster an interest in the craft, coupled with support and advice. After the restrictions of Covid 19 were released physical gatherings of letterpress printers (Wayzgoose) have helped bring together disparate groups of practitioners – helping to market the craft to the public
Air B’n’B experiences are a new arena for short residential courses (one currently being developed by Carl Middleton – Studio B, to be listed in 2023).
A number of articles published in Pressing Matters magazine directly relating to letterpress have helped foster new interest in the craft.
Degree and post-graduate study
There is some renewed interest in letterpress with some students choosing to experiment with the technique. There is very little capacity in many Universities to provide a comprehensive letterpress studio and dedicated technicians. Most letterpress facilities have been lost as focus has moved more towards digital design.
There are however some Universities that offer letterpress facilities:
- University of Portsmouth: Printmaking and Letterpress
- Central St Martins: Letterpress Workshop
- Plymouth University: Printing and press studios
- Bath Spa University : Letterpress: Past, present and future
- University of York: Letterpress printing
- Birmingham City University has a research facility dedicated to print history.
Specialist short courses
Bodleian Library: Offers six week courses
Many letterpress printers will offer short courses and ‘have a go’ sessions in letterpress.