Type High

For my birthday this year, my mom and my wife teamed up to get me a letterpress printing class at the Visual Arts Center here in Richmond. I was incredibly excited because I’ve seen so many documentaries and actual printing press shops over the years but have never taken part in the process and I wanted to get my hands dirty. And, as you know, I’m all about my “project-per-month” approach to life these days.

I was under the tutelage of Natalie Kay, the same instructor who taught the calligraphy class I took a year or so ago. She did what a really great teacher is supposed to do:

  • Teach you the basics
  • Get you started
  • Turn you loose and gently guide you when you need guidance

And so my four week class was really more of a “studio immersive.” Which, for me, was a dream, because being too rigorous is not my style. I wanna jump in and start swimming.

Natalie helping me lock up my big poster.

I had a few projects I wanted to do for certain:

  1. My wife’s favorite lyric from her current favorite song
  2. A list of our family’s “House Rules”
  3. Some relatively motivational stuff
  4. Some fun coasters
  5. About 7,000 other ideas I didn’t get the time to execute

Now, you might be thinking “those poor 7,000 ideas,” but really, it’s okay. It’s okay because, as Natalie said multiple times, “you can always take another session and I’ll let you work on whatever you like.”

That means finding the time, however. Which I could, theoretically, but it’s time away from home and/or work and I’d need to account for that.

Which leads me to what makes letterpress so interesting and challenging and exciting: it’s all about constraints.

Working with what you have

I’m used to working on websites and applications. When I want something on the screen to be a certain color, I tweak it in the SASS file. When the screen is too narrow, I widen it. When the file is too big, I compress it.

Moveable type gave birth to letterpress, and eventually to typewriting and hot metal printing and word processing and right down to the HTML you’re reading right now. Past is prologue. We still use a lot of the terms common to letterpress printing (“leading” or “line-height,” “kerning,” “margin,” etc.) in web design. Heck, the block editor WP is using now feels just like you’re setting a galley. But the one thing we web people enjoy that letterpress printers don’t? Freedom. We can integrate just about any font face at about any size we deem appropriate. You can make your pages as wide as the screen and as long as the Bible and nobody’s allowed to stop you (well, they could in theory, but are unlikely to do so in practice).

With letterpress, you have plenty of freedom to make choices…but you’re also constrained in several ways:

  • The width and thickness of your paper has to be compatible with the width of the press and your galley.
  • The type you choose for your piece might not have every letter you need to complete it. Be sure you know that before you start locking things up.
  • You only have so much ink to work with. If the color’s off, you have to mix it by hand and test it until you get the color you want. Hate your color? Get a whole new brayer and clean your forme and start over.
  • If something is off, you don’t get to nudge it with a cursor; you get your hands in there and pick out the little letters and shuffle them around until they’re just so. If you want more spacing, you shim in some copper or brass strips or bits of lead.
  • All type is “type-high”, 0.9186 inches. If it’s too short, it won’t print along with the rest of the lettering and you’ll have to pad the back with a small slip of paper. Too tall and the roller will jam and you’ll have to break everything down.
  • The shop at the Visual Arts Center is a communal shop. Most of what they have was donated, so what you have is what you have. You can’t just magically grab any font you want, you have to work with their stock.

You have to think your way through every step. You can’t just switch things on a dime. And once you’re rolling, you can keep rolling, but don’t forget you have to keep inking and reloading paper and measure, measure, measure.

I want to start bringing some of this rigor into my online work. Hell, I’d settle for doing more thinking when I load the dishwasher. When I was working on all my various pieces I was feeling a euphoric kind of high, a mixture of the joy of making something and the intense focus of taking the proper steps to see it through.

I really loved learning the process: picking my type, setting it and locking it up, setting the “furniture” (basically, accounting for whitespace and making sure the letters don’t wiggle), inking, proofing adjusting, printing…it seems so magical and it feels rewarding because you really had to puzzle on it and study it like a problem. And the results are gorgeous (if I may brag on myself a bit). I can definitely see myself doing this semi-annually so I can get some of those other 7,000 ideas out into the world, one roll of the press at a time.

(Also, a brief shout-out to Tiffany and Carey, my class mates, who were so creative and fun to be around. Hi, ladies!)