THE REVIEWER, printed in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is the last newspaper in Canada to be produced the "old fashioned" way, using hot lead composition and printed on a hand-fed 1898 two-revolution Miehle flatbed cylinder press.

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For the Love of Books

A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This month take an in-depth look at the process of letterpress printing.
With virtually unlimited fonts and an infinite amount of control over typography [kerning to within .01 em, for example], why would anyone bother setting type by hand and pulling sheets from a letterpress one at a time?

"Part of art-making is to jump into a stream that is ongoing," says Florida printmaker and book artist Mary Segal. "With letterpress printing, you become part of the stream of craftspeople who have been doing this for centuries."

The craft of letterpress has been practiced since Gutenburg was credited with developing moveable type in the middle of the 15th century. And while some mechanical innovations occurred in the 20th century, the process remains basically the same.

Individuals letters--or frequently-occurring combinations of letters, called ligatures--are cast in metal. These letters and punctuation marks for each line are selected from their storage case and set in a composing stick. Spacing is added and then the setline is transferred into the chase, a frame that holds all the lines of type for one page. When complete, the chase is moved to the press where the type is inked, paper inserted one sheet at a time and pressed onto the type, resulting in both an inked impression and a slight embossing, the characteristic mark of letterpress printing.

Because there are only so many of each letter in a font [the collection of all the type characters in a particular face and size], the pages must be printed one by one, then the chase is broken down, the type distributed back into its case, and the next page set.

Therefore, letterpress tends to be done in small editions and, because of the labor intensity, is more costly than offset printing. Most letterpress printing is now done for special occasions--wedding announcements, for example--or for books of poetry and gift books. Although no statistics are available, the majority of letterpress printing in this country is probably being done by enthusiasts for the sheer pleasure of the process.

Artists and publishers of fine books prefer the letterpress process because it offers them complete control of the entire process. Some even make their own paper.

Gloria Stuart, the actress who played the 101-year-old Rose in the movie Titanic, took up letterpress printing in 1985. "I think it's very interesting--and important--for the reader to turn pages and feel the paper before he gets to any text," she said. "Paper, type, all the aspects of printing affect the reader." Stuart's greatest pleasure as a printer is "seeing something I designed come off the press as I envisioned it."

As our world becomes more virtual, manifesting in states of being and non-being, many find that the physicality of letterpress printing grounds them. The equipment is mechanical, not electronic and, as Bill Ricker, board member of The Museum of Printing in North Andover, MA says, "The pieces look like they do what they do; I can get my hands on them."

Letterpress printing is physically demanding, both in small movements and large. Hands are continually picking up and manipulating real objects, not electronic blips. There is constant movement across the floor, from type cabinet to chase to stone to press. There is lifting and hauling [a chase set for a broadside can weigh up to 100 pounds]. There are the exacting calibrations of the pressure on the press and of alignments being set by hand to precise fractions of an inch. There is the rhythmic placement of the paper on the platen, the turning of the wheel, the removal of the printed paper.

"Letterpress gives us the sensory input that is missing from computer technology," says Mary Segal. "It's not just the finished product itself: the sensuousness of fine paper and that slightly raised feel of the printing. It's the entire process of handling type and paper, of moving your body."

For Pam Smith, museum specialist and curator of the printing history collection at the Museum of New Mexico - Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, letterpress printing is a sculptural process. "I hadn't thought of it in those terms until I took a clay sculpting class and did bas relief. It was so much a part of my hands, then it came to me: that's what relief type is. When you are working with metal and letterpress it's a three dimensional process. After you assemble everything you then impress the raised surface letters, which creates a movement into paper, another sculptural aspect."

Letterpress creates a slowed-down pace in a speeded-up world. The only way to set type by hand is slowly and deliberately. Because physical type slugs and the associated equipment are finite, only one or two pages can be set at a time. The paper is placed carefully on press one sheet at a time.

I love the ease with which I can command PageMaker to do my bidding, then walk away and brew a cup of coffee while my DeskJet printer spits out my pages. But I have a deeper sense of satisfaction when I have brought a page, a series of pages, an entire book into existence solely-and literally-through the effort of my own hand and body.

Finally, there's the pleasure of the final product itself. As Gloria Stuart defines fine printing, it's "beautifully spaced and arranged type, clearly printed on beautiful paper and handsomely bound."

C. J. Metschke is a Florida-based writer who studies and experiments with artist books. Contact her by email.