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How letterpress printing has changed

When I started my apprenticeship in 1971 at City College Print Department, George Street, Norwich adjoining the Art School, letterpress printing was on the wain.

The curriculum for printing apprentices was wide and varied. I studied alongside apprentices from well known local large printing companies including Jarrolds, Clays, Cox and Wyman and Mansfields. Many of these companies had offset litho well established as the major part of their printing process. Film typesetting was also en-vogue. To me, from a small letterpress company in Diss, this was a different world.

Having started my career as a Saturday boy  working for my uncle and grandfather, I learnt the basics of letterpress printing and case layout by being given the job of cleaning and distributing poster type as the typefaces were larger and easier to see and handle.  By 1971 the company had purchased a Linotype hot metal machine for casting lines of 8pt text for fixture cards and draw tickets, greatly reducing the time spent standing in front of a typecase.

As part of the compositing curriculum at George Street some practice hand compositing was required, I was quite surprised to see out of the 20 or so apprentices in my class I was only one of three that had ever held a setting stick, the other two being machine minders working on letterpress flat bed machines printing shoe boxes.

It is pleasing to see the resurgence in Letterpress that is now being carried out in the traditional manner but with a modern twist.

During my early years at Francis Cupiss Ltd., when required to print on the Auto Vicobold, Wharfedale or one of our ‘modern’ Heidleberg 10 x 15 platens, I would take my printed proofs (pulls) up to my uncle’s office where he would carefully proof read the pull and apply readers marks to any characters that may need replacing. He would instruct me where the pull was in need of make ready, the object of the exercise being to achieve a flat level consistent print (much like the new fangled offset litho) with no obvious signs of impression on the back of the sheet.

How things have changed (the modern twist) I would have been severly reprimanded if I presented a copy printed with the heavy impression preferred today by the majority of our letterpress customers/enthusiasts. The modern idea of inking lightly to show texture on wooden type goes against the grain so to speak,  in the past I would spend ages picking characters from a poster, liberally glueing the back and applying a cut-to-size make ready, anything from tissue/45gsm paper up to thin card to achieve an even finish.

Though the modern heavy impression twist is hugely popular there still exists a hardcore of traditional letterpress enthuiasts who still prefer a flat result but with the advantage of the letterpress creating characters with a sharp crisp edge.