The Art of Letterpress

Two years ago, I was in a basic printshop class in the Bishop Center on campus. The major printshop, where most of the intaglio etching, woodblock carving, and lithography happen, is connected to a smaller, more tightly arranged room. The room is full of giant presses, book weights that were taller than I was, and a giant, shiny paper guillotine. I went into the room, on an errand most likely, and was immediately interested in one girl’s struggle with a giant press. I looked closer at what she was churning out, and saw these beautiful embossed words in a small, Italic font being printed without ink onto thick paper. The metal letters on the press intrigued me, and I asked if she could stop the press so I could look closer.

Two years later, I entered the advanced printmaking class, and finally got to learn the art of these small lead letters. I love the bruising that happens on the back of really thick paper, and I was curious to see my own words set in lead. With the help of book-arts Wonderwoman, Professor Laurie Sloan, I began the process.

1.) The most terrifying thing about letterpress, I soon realized, was that once my words were set, there was little to nothing I could do to edit them. I love poetry, and I love writing poetry, but I edit fiercely and often. I feverishly edited the first poem I wanted to set, and learned my first lesson: poetry is never, ever finished, but sometimes it has to be.

2.) After minor editing freak-outs, I started to learn the California job box. That was the standard setup in the days when lead type was actually used for newspapers and the like, and it was surprisingly easy to get a grasp on. We don’t often think about the setup of our computer keyboards, but for some reason each letter seems to belong; I started to feel the same way about the California box. Here’s a picture:

Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 8.36.43 PM



It looks intimidating– trust me, I know– but with a trusty guide beside me, I started setting the type into a small metal tray.

Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 8.37.52 PM

(My BFF, the California job box guide–


3.) My next lesson was one in planning. When setting lead type, the end goal is a block of text that can exert equal pressure on all sides. For example:

Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 8.40.30 PM



You can see the spacers toward the right end of the block. Without proper planning, it’s easy to create a miniscule jagged edge from line to line, which you have to fix once you slide your text block into the bed of the press. As I set my fourth and fifth poems, I started to plan better– it became a sort of game, or puzzle, but I learned which spacers fit best together, and which ones to avoid entirely.


The next and (almost!) final step is to slide the text block onto the press bed without knocking the whole thing over. Since I was using ten-point Baskerville (that is TINY, folks), it was super easy to make a wrong move and knock an entire line, or five, over. There are various techniques for this, which I won’t go into here, but I’ll show you the final product:
Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 8.47.47 PM

(I grabbed this photo from Flywheel Press, but you get the idea.


The next step is to put ink on those rollers you can see there, which spin and cover themselves in the ink. Then, you take your paper and attach it to the little tiny clamps at the top of the press. There’s a handle on the side closest to us in the image; once you roll that handle forward, two things happen: the inked-up rollers will move forward over your text block, and the paper will roll over a cylinder and be pressed into the just-inked lead type. Here’s a Youtube video of that part of the process:

Confused? I was too. But the results of this arduous, confusing, exhilarating project are worth it. The thick Lettra (cotton) paper I was using took to the hard metal type. The bruising, or the slight raised area on the back page of an embossment, was gorgeous. I especially loved the imperfections that happened when one letter slid just a hair too far below the others in the same line. Am I upset that I can no longer edit the poems? I suppose. But the image of my words embossed into paper is absolutely worth it.

when i seepoems

(My finished letterpress pieces.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.