Saturday, August 15, 2009

Prices Right, Popeye Arm and the Making of Letterpress

Most have heard of letterpress. It floats around with wedding, baptism, or other profound life events. I always imagined ancient pieces of paper with scrolling lines and antique fonts pronouncing "Sir Henry" taking the hand of "Madame Gertrude..." Okay, a little dramatic.

Or maybe it was associated with grey haired men, hunching over the newspaper- trying to get it ready for the next day.
Yet, at this point my imagination had nothing- a grey cloud prohibiting me from figuring out how men of those days got a news story from a notebook to a newspaper. In fact, I could even say that I hadn't considered the process. (It was all akin to that little elf that sits in the refrigerator turning the light off when we close the door) I think this might be the case for most.

How does letterpress work? What is the process?
Well, it starts with the sketchbook. Even if I am "just setting type" I still bring out the good ol' pen and paper. The design, the layout, is the all important. Without a plan, I have nothing.
After sketching, what then? If it is a graphic image- I have one of two choices. One; carve it myself on a lino block or a wood block. Or two; head to the computer and draw it there. Once that is complete I send off the digital file to one of a few companies that magically produces a plate of magnesium on a wood block that goes into the printer.
If the image is not graphic, I can simply set the type selecting it from the hundreds of pounds of metal type we have acquired. And each little letter is lifted out of the case by hand and set in it's correct (or incorrect position- my loving husband kindly reminds me when like a moron I yet again set things backwards!!!)position. Setting type is a physical experience. You place it there- it is there. Like I have said before- there is no delete or insert key. Everything has to be moved over or taken out- ONE PIECE AT A TIME.

(That is part of the beauty- it takes thoughtful time)
Okay- so now we have the image/type we want to print, what next? When a printer is smart ( or knows that they have a tendency to junk things up) they proof it. Checkin' it twice, gonna make sure.... Sorry.

Proofing...- well you print it and you check it.

Sounds simple, right.
Hmm, printing is a craft, a skill, and art. And it is manual labor when you are operating an antique press.

Printing a chandler and price is physical and active. Each piece of paper is fed to the press- before it closes "pressing" it's image into the paper. As the press open, the roller s run over the ink plate and come back down to reink the image/type.
Ah the beauty of it. The sound of it- really the sound of it. Mr. Henry (that is our beloved press) has his definite grunts and groans, whooshes and swirls, metal gliding on metal, gears smoothly turning... Cast iron in motion- wow... (I think you can tell I am fairly inlove with the process)

Okay- confession time.
Our press came with a variable speed motor. Meaning it can go fast or a little faster. When you watch it running, it doesn't seem too fast. But when you step up to it - uh yeah. I am not that fast yet, or coordinated. Other presses have a treadle allowing you to control the speed with your foot. Those are great, controlling speed is much easier. And safer, if you need to stop you take your foot off. (Now, there isn't a break- and the press is still gonna close...on your hand if you are not careful)
So anyway- motor too fast, no treadle. What do I do then? Imagine -- Prices Right. On one side there is a fly wheel- a large wheel- and yes I turn that like I am playing "The Prices Right." (I spin the wheel trying to get that dollar...) Hundreds of times a night. I am gonna look like a one armed popeye. (When my husband is in the shop, he does his fair share of spinning, maybe he enjoys it but I think it's just his good nature to help me out...)
(Don't' worry, a treadle is in the future- and when I go to the gym I only lift with my right arm) If you wonder how big it is, scroll down to the press pictures and locate the largest piece on it, the largest cast iron piece. The largest, heaviest piece. So as you can see- it is work. It's physical (and can be exhausting and I'm a runner) I have asked my engineer if he can come up with a formula to figure out how much force/energy it takes to to operate Mr. Henry by hand. I'll let everyone know- more chocolate for me?
There's a lot going on. And I didn't even discuss cutting the paper or mixing ink.
But when a piece is done it feels good to know that we had our hands on every process. Every part, every original image and handset work.

Have I started to harp yet?

The process is laborious and time consuming but extremely wondrous.

Having always been obsessed with making things- it is satisfying.

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