Sun City Anthem Magazine — January, 2016
Preserving the Letterpress Arts
Preserving the Letterpress Arts
& Traditional Craftsmanship
by Lawrence Peterson
Situated in Sun City Anthem is a small private Letterpress/Museum. The project started in California five years ago when this author settled into full retirement and found himself wondering what to do with all his free time. The author learned that a neighbor had a broken Letterpress along with some type fonts in cases. The first test impressions from the 1887 Golding Pearl treadle were captivating, and the restoration of the press and type cabinets began in earnest. The first four months were spent stripping and cleaning the press, which had been idle for 10 years, getting welding repairs done, and cleaning and varnishing the type cases. Approaching the project with 35 years of printing and publishing experience was an asset, but Letterpress proved to be a somewhat different beast. The period of time when this small hand fed press would have been most popular was prior to the advent of available commercial typesetting machines. Hand set type was still the main method of typesetting. Because of this the decision was made to make the “shop” match that early period in appearance and to name it Nine-18-Thousandths Press: .918 inches being the standardized height of letterpress type in the USA. The paper cutter is from 1848 and many of the ancillary press materials date from the late 1800’s as well. The only modern piece of equipment is a Hammond Glide Saw from the 1940’s.
A lot has changed since this 1887 Golding Pearl #3 was manufactured in Boston and found its way to Los Angeles. The printing industry in those days employed hundreds of thousands of people. This particular press would have originally been run by young men who were paid by the piece; primarily envelopes, business cards, business forms and so forth. During the early 1900’s, as technology evolved, the press entered private hands and became a working artist’s tool and has remained so through various owners. The press was given free to haul away and the rest of the collection has grown significantly since then. Think of it like being given a free 1950’s Chevy that barely runs and pouring five years and a lot of funds into the restoration. The press now resides in the golf cart bay of our garage and is accompanied by over 13,000 pounds of metal type fonts, ornaments, borders, and other press related materials.
“I couldn’t wait tables worth a damn in college and fell into a job as a pressman’s helper.” Born with “ink in my blood,” the paternal grandfather was the publisher of the first newspaper west of the Mississippi while the maternal grandparents were publishers of educational text books in the pre-Civil War south. This Peterson worked all his life in the field, starting out when large computers were just beginning to be the mode of typesetting, using paper punch tape, and eliminating the venerable Linotype. As technology evolved away from camera halftones, film page production, and metal printing plates to the new direct from computer technologies keeping up with, and ahead of, the game required 70 hour weeks at the very least. During the final years in the industry increasing technological innovation eliminated more and more of the printing and pre-press industry. The iPad’s introduction in 2010 may spell the death of the printed book but the belief is that Letterpress as an art form will remain strong. In retirement the return to the classical 550 year old technology presents a more relaxing pace. And, after dealing with multiple clients and managing million dollar publication schedules, one is also glad to say one does no commercial work and has no “clients.” This fact doesn’t prevent the press from occasionally printing as a favor for a friend, but by and large the focus on the press is “wall poetry” and the preservation of the Letterpress craft.
The author, and partner Gene Gates, moved to Sun City Anthem last year; hauling the press and the tons of materials with them. Gates also has a printing background from having worked at The Washingtonian newspaper (Hoquiam, Washington) in his high school years. Both are active members of the Letterpress community and Peterson serves on the Board of the Amalgamated Printer’s Association; a venerable group of Letterpress craftsman. “The camaraderie and helpfulness of the letterpress community has been astounding,” says one of their associates. “Having started without any knowledge of Letterpress techniques, the community is ever eager to provide information, equipment (if still available) and encouragement on letterpress topics,” he adds. The partners acknowledge that becoming a “geek” for such an antiquated art was not a conscious effort — it simply became a passion which took over their lives. Be warned: Letterpress is impossible to resist, especially for those born with ink in their blood. The enthusiasm to preserve the craft increases with every antique type font discovered and every new poem off the press. Even with over 300 type faces available there is always the desire to have more variety. Often the desired type face is in short supply of certain characters and requires a partial printing before re-distribution to the case and setting of the next page and then trying to print again with the ink density as the first part. All part of the fun!
Setting type by hand requires a steady fixed focus. Once one has learned the layout of the individual characters in the type case the process becomes a kind of meditation of the mind; a synergy of the hands, eyes, and brain. The selection of type faces is a subject which should be given careful thought. Beautiful typography calls for cultivated judgment to discern and decide upon the finer relations in the selection of typefaces; the choice of borders in which lurk a silent meaning; ornaments which fit the theme; and the intelligent distribution of white space. While spacing is the keystone of design, one must not lose sight of the importance of good proportion and pleasing arrangement. The typographer must compare and choose continually, envision and analyze the work from every angle, and ultimately select which is best. Excellent typography invariably has an individuality of its own.
After five years the Nine-18-Thousandths Press proprietors Peterson and Gates feel they are finally beginning to be able to produce journeyman quality letterpress work. There is an endless list of ideas of things to be printed and, as long as their health holds up, their hope is to be able to continue to devote much of the remaining days to the press. One of the biggest current concerns is who to pass the press along to in the next generation; a concern which consumes the thoughts of many in the letterpress community.
For more information you may contact Lawrence Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.