14th December 2015
‘Progress is alright only it goes on too long’ is a sentiment probably shared by many who have experienced the huge changes in the printing industry over the last few years.
There are however an increasing band of printers who have chosen not to be taken over by technology and who have held to older methods of production such as letterpress. These printers are far from backward looking: they may use traditional technology, but are geared to satisfy current markets and often work in conjunction with contemporary techniques. Many of the printers are new arrivals to the industry, but all are united by an obvious passion for the process.
Letterpress is appreciated for its tactile qualities, the three-dimensional aspect that the indentation gives a product. Type is real, not virtual, and letterpress is seen as a solid process in an industry that has become increasingly digital. It is regarded as a special, human process, and clients who choose letterpress are generally knowledgeable about the process and specific in their requirements. They become more involved in the production than other customers and frequently like to see the job on press.
Letterpress is seen to have many advantages. It is a versatile system that handles short runs more practically than litho and more economically than quick print shops. Letterpress can cope with stock of 800 gsm, can often be used to crease, cut, score and perforate as well as put ink on paper: not a flexibility you get with litho! There is also an instantaneous quality to letterpress: the compositor is always working to finished size, a proof can be taken immediately the job is set, and corrections made on the spot. And there are some typefaces that just look better when printed letterpress rather than litho. Letterpress equipment is generally cheap to buy and is usually got from other printers who cease trading. With no temperamental electronics, letterpress machines were built to last and seldom go wrong. When they do go wrong, however, some spare parts can still be got from Heidelberg, Adana and Monotype, but generally a competent engineer can manufacture what is needed, or redundant presses cannibalised for ‘bits’.
The number of businesses and individuals printing letterpress in the UK is on the increase and the Printing Trades Directory lists nearly 300 commercial letterpress printers in the UK: 229 flatbed; 44 platen; 18 rotary and 6 letterpress printers. In addition to these trade presses there are many hundred private presses and individuals who are printing either as amateurs or for profit: the range of work they are producing is vast, and all have found a niche market.
Nigel Rowlence is the MD of the London-based Wren Press, a family owned business offering a range of print services from design to finished product. It is skilled in the processes of hand engraved plates, embossing, letterpress, thermography and offset litho. Hand finishing is a large part of its work that includes painted and gilt edges to cards, tissue lined envelopes and hand-tied bows for wedding stationery. Letterpress printed social stationery is its niche market and it is the only stationer within Central London to undertake all the processes in-house without having to subcontract to other printers. The Press has printed for the Queen and the Prince of Wales for 12 years and has a royal warrant. It aims at the upper end of the market and has printed both Madonna and Jamie Oliver’s wedding stationery. Despite its illustrious clientele the Press started 20 years ago in a modest Kings Road basement with a tabletop Adana. Its present letterpress plant still includes the original Adana but has been extended with the addition of two 1960s Heidelberg platens [10” x 15” and 13” x 18”]. Although it has a range of Stephenson Blake and Mould type, most of the work is computer generated, after which a film negative is made and exposed on to photopolymer and a plastic plate is produced for printing letterpress. About 15% of the volume of its work is letterpress.
Dominic and Matthew Naylor run FormeLondon, one of the UK’s largest commercial letterpress printers. Established in the 1980s as family run trade-photosetting house, its founder became interested in moveable type as a hobby and turned his pastime in to a business. Based in Hemel Hempstead it is now a busy printers employing 8-10 people and running a letterpress department comprising a Heidelberg cylinder press, 2 Heidelberg platens, 3 Swiss Vag hand presses, and a number of Arab and book presses. In the composing room there are two Monotype keyboards and two Monotype casters but it is the many hundreds of racks of interesting wood and founders’ types that dominate the factory. FormeLondon also offer computer typesetting and offset litho facilities and the volume of its work is fairly well divided between the letterpress and litho departments. The letterpress customers’ range from individuals needing social stationery, publishers’ wanting to produce catalogues with a difference, and advertising agencies looking for unusual typefaces to use on campaigns. FormeLondon types have been used on recent advertisements for Le Crusset and the Government has also used its types on a series of road tax adverts. In addition to its commercial work, FormeLondon produces its own highly successful range of greetings cards that it sells direct to exclusive outlets in the UK and Europe.
The Incline Press, Oldham, is a successful private press started in 1990 by Graham Moss and Kathy Whelan to print labels for paper wrappers and spine labels to be used in book-repair. Its initial set-up comprised an Adana platen press and a foolscap folio Arab treadle press, but as its work has expanded the two original presses have been replaced by an Auto-vic and an 1890 Wharfdale Press manufactured by Dawson and Son of Otley. In addition it has a 1906 Crown-folio Arab treadle press made by Josiah Warde of Halifax and a 1900 Harrild guillotine made by Harrild & Son of London. Its composing room has 220 cases of English and European founders’ types and ornaments and also a little Monotype. In 1993 the Press received its first publishing project when a chance meeting with the artist Peter Carter inspired a reproduction of Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village. Carter illustrated the poem and provided the funds for large fount of Baskerville type from John Eickhoff's Acorntype Foundry. The Press has not looked back since and now has over 30 books to its credit all of which are deliberately designed craft objects. The Press works closely with its clients to select the most appropriate typefaces, illustrations and the paper for their text. At the Incline Press every aspect of making a book comes under consideration and all its books are composed, printed and bound by hand.
The Debonair Press in Royston, Hertfordshire is the one-woman business of Deborah Akers. Akers is one of a growing band of solo printers who come to printing from a different angle. Originally a bank employee, Akers left to set up her printing business in the mid 1980s equipped with an Adana 85, a small amount of type, and an instruction manual! Wholly self-taught, her first job was to print a friend’s party invitation and from there the work just kept coming: raffle tickets, business cards, dance tickets, wedding stationery. When the volume of work and Akers’ skill increased the Adana was supplemented with a Vandercook proofing press, a treadle press [both 13’ x 11”], an Adana TP48 and a selection of founders’ type including Bembo, Octavia, Joanna, Caslon and Univers. Clients are generally local rather than national, and the attraction of the Debonair Press is the individual and personal service it is able to offer its clients. It is also flexible enough that it can handle short runs of 50-100 at competitive prices. Akers also has a successful greetings cards range: Christmas, Valentines and occasional cards are all designed, produced and printed in units of 2000 and sold by the Debonair Press to insatiable customers such as Liberty, Conran and John Lewis.
Susanna Edwards is hard to define. She is a London-based artist-illustrator-designer-printer with a growing reputation who uses letterpress as her preferred medium. Working with a Victoria platen, a Vandercook proofing press and a wealth of wood and metal type, Edwards creates her original and innovative typographic designs by passing and turning the sheet through the press several times and printing on the reverse while covering the original impression with tissue to create a mirror image. The print is then scanned and manipulated digitally and, because of the number of copies required, the final product is generally printed by offset litho. Edwards enjoys the traditional hands-on method of operating and her work crosses over in to other areas of graphic design such as photography, publishing, web design and audio visual projects. Her integration of craft based media with new digital media provides a refreshing alternative to some of the more transient design work that is being produced by designers today. Vintage publishers have used her distinctive work on their book jackets, and have commissioned her designs for their recent Italo Calvino series of books. The Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Zwemmers Media Bookstore have all sold her limited edition postcard sets that were printed letterpress.
Letterpress in Britain appears to be flourishing. With customers seeking something a bit different from the norm, and a new generation of younger printers experimenting with old techniques, it seems likely that letterpress is here to stay.