EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Jay practices the centuries-old craft of letterpress printing in the basement of his Stittsville home. Jay is one of the co-owners of Gaia Java, and spends time every month using traditional hand presses and lead type to print the coasters, bean bags and pastry bags for the coffee shop. Photographer Barry Gray visited Jay earlier this month to capture the process.
Photographs by Barry Gray with text by Paul Jay.
This technique is called letterpress printing, and is based on the principle developed by Johann Gutenberg around 1450, who combined several inventions: a recipe of vegetable oil-based ink with casting uniform height type characters in a lead-based alloy. He assembled the type into pages that would be printed using pressure created by a modified wine-press.
Letterpress all but died out in the 1960s as first lithography and then digital printing made the process simpler and cheaper. Colleges got rid of their equipment and inventory, and many letterpress machines were scrapped for their metal value.
Over the last 10 years or so letterpress is making a comeback as an artisanal technique, and for example in New York and London there are highly sought-after printers who use these techniques to craft items such as wedding invitations of a highly-individual nature, and for a very elevated price!
Some people are learning the ancillary skills, such as printer Larry Thompson at the Greyweathers Press in Merrickville, who has perfected the art of amazingly detailed wood engravings for letterpress illustrations. Now colleges are trying to buy old equipment again because students are requesting to be trained in the traditional artisanal techniques.
The presses I use (especially the red one in the foreground of most of these photos) were made by a UK company called Adana. They use conventional printers type and rubber rollers to do the inking.
In one photo you see ‘Stittsville Central.ca’ set up in Kabel extra bold font, in a ‘composing stick’ which is what a compositor uses to hold the letters before putting them into the metal frame called the ‘Chase’ in rows ready to print. The chase holds the lines tightly in position.
One of Barry’s pics shows the chase viewed through a magnifying glass, and the type (inked in blue) is seen in rows.
In the background of some of the photos you see wooden cases of the lead type (actually an alloy of lead, tin, antimony etc, since lead on its own would be too soft and wear out quickly). Handling type made of lead is quite safe as long as you don’t put it in your mouth and of course you wash your hands before handling food etc. Any waste type or lead spacing metal is saved to be melted down and recycled (especially since lead is still quite expensive!)
Much of the type I use was made 40-50 years ago. The presses are even older. One of the fonts was cast by a now-defunct typefounder called Stephenson-Blake, who were operating in my home town of Sheffield in the UK. I acquired this font from the estate of a deceased printer off Woodroffe Avenue. It came from Sheffield to Canada by a separate route from me, and we met here!
The font is called ‘Engravers Titling’ and has a nice half-tone (greying) effect in the characters. It is used for the name of musician Vernon Jones (who performed last night at Gaia Java) on the February coasters that I was printing when Barry came over for the photos.
I learned this as a teenager, first starting with a toy press that used rubber type and then eventually buying a small Adana press from an ad in the local newspaper. I did business cards, dance tickets and letterheads for friends and small businesses, and gradually earned enough to buy a bigger press and more type. I have moved it around the world with me from UK to France to Canada, acquiring more in the process!
I only ever got some formal training when I did a course in Kingston a few years ago. Most of my techniques are according to tradition, but some of the self-taught habits would not pass an apprenticeship in a commercial shop!
I have benefitted from advice via correspondence or magazines, for example from the British Printing Society (of which I am still a member) and here in town there is a group of about 20 letterpress printers called “The Ottawa Press Gang” that meets on a bi-monthly basis to share techniques and ideas, and sometimes equipment.
Very early on in my printing “career” I learned that the best print is from a “kiss impression” where there is very little indentation into the paper or card. A deep indentation indicates a careless printer, who has often set the type unevenly and has to press much harder to get it all to print. Nowadays some people seem to like the effect of a ‘deep impression’ because it emphasises the difference between letterpress and laser printers.
The process uses paper, ink, some solvents (eg paint thinners) to clean the ink, and lead for the type. As mentioned the metal type (if looked after carefully) can last decades before needing to be thrown out, at which point recycling for the recovered metal value is important.
Over the years we have all learned to minimise the amount of solvent needed to clean off the ink. For example, when I am done printing, I take the rollers off the press and roll them on waste paper to remove as much ink as possible before using a rag moistened with a dab of solvent to loosen the remaining ink and wipe it off. Gone are the days of solvent baths! A similar approach is used to clean the ink off the type.
The materials I print on for the shop are mostly coffee bags (which are compostable kraft paper lined with PLA corn-based plastics – remove the metal tie and the whole bag goes in the compost) and coasters (they are made in Hamilton from recycled paper pulp, and again can go into the paper recycling when they have soaked up enough coffee spills!)
The energy involved is pretty much entirely human, so quite environmentally-friendly!
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