In January of 2010, I was halfway through my final year of college and was fighting a losing battle with a fairly serious bout of senioritis. While pouring through the course catalogue in search of classes that would help me fill out my Winter Quarter schedule while still allowing me to take four-day weekends, I stumbled onto a class called Elements of Printing. Intrigued, I signed up, and spent the rest of the year learning how to operate antique hand-operated printing presses.
I quickly learned that letterpress printing is messy, time-consuming, back-breaking work that demands obsessive attention to detail and the patience of a saint. But I loved it. In the height of the digital age, I found that the labor involved in the printing process and the inherent imperfection of the final product felt simultaneously classically old and refreshingly new.
I became so enamored of the letterpress printing process that I have pursued it outside of a school context. For a few weeks now, I have been apprenticing at Sweet Letter Press under the direction of illustrator and print-master extraordinaire Matthew Winheld and graphic designer Elizabeth Eastman.
[Sarah Francis does a good job of demonstrating the series of tedious steps one must complete before triumphantly pulling a print off of the press in this short video.]
But despite my newfound love for hand-printing, I was surprised to learn that the popularity of letterpress has undergone a significant resurgence in recent years. Given the demanding, sometimes punishing nature of the printing process (combined with the fact that most printing presses still in existence are hundreds of years old and in need of constant maintenance) it just didn’t seem like it could be a commercially viable industry.
And yet, there are an increasing number of people who have eschewed the more available, more efficient, and more affordable printing methods like offset and digital printing in favor of letterpress as the answer to their printing needs.
I turned to Brad O’Sullivan, the proprietor of Smokeproof Press in Boulder, for justification of this discrepancy.
According to Brad, the key to letterpress’s commercial appeal is its three-dimensionality:
“Today when we have so many different printing options available to us—offset printing, digital printing, laser printing or inkjet printing, silkscreen, intaglio—the thing that sets letterpress printing apart from all those others is its ability to leave an impression in the paper.”
I have discovered that my initial impulse when I first saw a piece of letterpressed paper was fairly similar to the reaction that most people have: I wanted to touch it. I had to run my fingers across the print and feel the depth of the impression left by the press. Letterpress makes a printed image both a visual and a tactile experience.
And I think it is this moment of interaction between person and paper that is the commercial attraction of letterpress printing.
Let’s take the example of business cards: How many business cards do you think the average person is handed every year? My guess is lots. And most of the time, we give them an obligatory glance before losing them in our purses or wallets and forgetting about them altogether.
But a letterpress card invites further investigation. It has texture that almost demands to be touched and examined. So by splurging on a set of hand-printed letterpress business cards, we are actually buying an extended interaction between the card (and the information on it) and the potential client.
It has been over 500 years since the invention of the printing press, and while it has evolved and adapted over its many years, letterpress is alive and well. Today’s version of letterpress printing might not have been what Gutenberg had in mind, but it’s pretty awesome, nonetheless.
Chloe Chatenever lives in Boulder, CO where she is interning with elephantjournal.com and Sweet Letter Press. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz where she earned her Bachelor’s in Modern Literary Studies. She likes to spend her free time traveling, singing in her car, and playing board games. She also thinks penguins are pretty cool.