Moveable Type’s Kyle Durrie (see “Moveable Type: Why Kyle Durrie decided to take letterpress printing on the road“) was in Halifax September 22nd-25th, 2011. During her extended weekend here, she held artist talks and demos, and one workshop; I was lucky enough to get a space in her letterpress workshop and had an amazing learning experience.
To begin the workshop, Kyle introduced us to the various instruments required for printing with letterpress machines, and then workshop participants were invited to create and print their own small project such as a business card or calling card.
The first and most essential part of letterpress is the moveable type, which are the characters you one prints with: letters, designs, shapes, etc. The reason these characters are called moveable type is because they are individual pieces that are moved around to make words or designs. Type is available in lead or in wood. The majority of wood type that one finds today are antiques. Most of the type that is produced today is made with lead, but there are a few businesses in North America that focus on making old-fashioned wood type such as Virgin Wood Type Manufacturing Company in Rochester, New York.
When working with small type, it is essential to have a composing stick, which is a metal holder in which to place your type. A composing stick allows you to place your type in sequence in without dropping or losing small pieces. The type is backwards and needs to be placed upside down in the composing stick.
Tweezers, as I learned, are also an essential tool when working with very small type. Composing your words and design can be very time-consuming, and it requires patience and a steady hand.
For spacing in between type, you need to use leading, which are plain lead blocks of various sizes that you can place in between letters, words, and shapes, etc., depending on your design to create spaces. These leading spacers are shorter than type so that they do not become inked.
Once you’ve prepared your type in the composing stick, you want to place your design on a flat surface in the centre of your printing press chase. The chase is the frame within which you can print according to the size of your printing press.
Once your design is finished, you need to fill the space between your design and the edge of the chase. For this you need to use wooden furniture, which are wooden spacing blocks that come in various sizes, and quoins, which are metal extendable blocks that, once moved with a key, will tighten and lock your design and furniture into place within the chase.
Before the quoins are tightened, it is a good idea to gently tap the type to make sure that each level with each other. If the type is not all level, the design will not be evenly printed. The reason this should be done gently and before the quoins are tightened is because lead is a very soft metal that can easily be damaged or nicked. Wood type is also subject to damage if it is not used with care.
Once the quoins are tightened and the design is secure, lift the chase off the flat surface and check for shifting or movement by pressing against the design. If there is any movement then your chase is not tight enough and you need to make an adjustment after (once again) leveling your type.
If you are using a platen tabletop press (Kyle has a Golding Official #3 Platen Press from 1873), ink the press by scraping a small amount of ink in the shape of an ‘x’ onto the ink disk, which is the round platform at the top of the press. Then pull the handle to ink the rollers. Keep doing this for about one or two minutes because, as the handle is pulled, the ink disk turns in order to evenly distribute the ink. Once the ink has been evenly distributed on the rollers and on the ink disk, you are then ready to print.
When your chase is ready and your press is inked, place the chase into the the appropriate spot on the press. When using a platen press, make sure that the gauge pins (the small pieces that hold your paper in place) do not touch the design to avoid causing any damage to the type. Place your paper in the grippers and then pull the handle.
If you are printing with a tabletop sign press rather than a platen press, you need to place your chase on the press before you ink. You then ink your type with the desired colour by hand using a small paint roller. Sign presses allow the inking of multiple colours at the same time whereas a platen press only allows one colour to be printed at a time.
The first print you make is always a tester. If your design doesn’t print clearly or evenly then it is time to troubleshoot. Are the gauge pins touching the type at all when you press? Did you tap the chase lightly before tightening the quoins? Is your ink evenly distributed? Are you pulling on the handle hard enough? Is your design placed where you want it on the paper (if not, adjust where the gauge pins hold the paper). Once you made any necessary changes or adjustments and your design is printing to your satisfaction, then happy printing! The set up is the most time-consuming aspect of letterpress printing, but once everything is set up the printing itself is quite simple and quick.
Kyle’s Moveable Type workshop was both fun and educational, and working with the materials hands-on only solidified my love of letterpress printing. I would like to thank her for her instruction as well as her patience in answering all of my many questions.
This is what I made on Kyle’s Golding Official platen press during her workshop. I used lead type and black ink.
For more information about Moveable Type or to see if she has a stop scheduled in a location near you, please visit her website.