Last week I took a 3-day Letterpress workshop at the London College of Communication (previously the London College of Printing). The tutor, Christian, gave us a great overview of typesetting and printing - who knew the process was so labour-intensive! It gave me a whole new appreciation of the pre-digital world, as well as bringing me back to the roots of graphic design.
Scroll down for an overview of the process...
First you decide on the words you want to print. I went with 'Powder days are like dancing with mountains' to commemorate my awesome year off skiing the world. Then you need to go and put these words together. The workshop has drawers and drawers full of moveable type, all the tiny letters in their individual sections, with rows of Garamond, Baskerville, Courrier, 8pt, 12pt, 14pt etc all cast from lead, or carved from wood or plastic.
Once you have all the letters you want, you sandwich them together on a galley tray and run them through the proofing press (the galley press). This is a small easy-to-use press designed to check you have all the letters in the right order. Since you're laying the letters upside-down and back to front, it's no small feat just to print them in the right order! After this I cut out all my printed words and tried out a few ways to arrange them on a page.
One of the things that surprises me most was having to manually add the spaces in for kerning. The spacers were little lead strips of different widths and lengths which you add between the letters. Everything is measured in points and picas (12 pts to 1 pica). Even though I've used these measurements on a computer for years, it was amazing to see them as physical representations of space. Just look at how many tiny metal plates are surrounding the words in the pictures below - a nightmare to fix if they get all jumbled up!!
Once you have all your type together, it's time to build a frame. Again, all the white spaces have to be filled with spacers, until all your text is perfectly flush inside a metal jig. You should be able to lift the jig off the floor without any metal falling out - quite a feat when using such intricately small pieces. I felt it was like doing an enormous jigsaw puzzle where the final picture exists only in your head.
One of the hardest decisions was around which colours to use. There's no quick trial and error like you get on a computer - you had to make a colour decision and stick by your guns. Cleaning the rollers of colour takes about 20 minutes, so if you make a mistake, it's a lot of effort to fix it! I took a deep breath and went for silver and sea green - keeping cold colours for the snow and mountains.
TO THE PRESS!
The last stage of the process is clamping down the frames to the bed of the press so they won't move about and ruin your registration. Once tight, you slap some colour on the rollers, run the press and put one page through it to see what it looks like. Then it's a matter of tapping letters down, or raising them up with bits of paper underneath so they're all exactly the same height. This is a lengthy process involving lots of un-clamping and re-clamping of your work on the press bed, making minute adjustments to correct the registration and print quality. It takes FOREVER! I can't believe people have done this for 400 years and not a computer in sight...!
3 days of hard work later, and my final poster was on the racks and drying. I have about 20 copies, so message me if you'd like to buy one ;) I thought they came out rather well, with the toothed paper giving a powdery effect to the word 'powder' and the mask that I placed over the word 'mountains' giving the effect of a mountain range at the bottom. I deliberately chose a serifed typeface for the word 'dancing' to give it some freedom and movement. I even got the de-boss effect I was looking for when I first got to the course!
With a career ranging from design and publishing to finance, marketing, and snowboard instructing, Cara has a wide range of professional skills and is always looking for new things to inspire her.