Or, the making of a letterpress poster.
One of the things I”ve learned over the last two years is that letterpress doesn”t lend itself to just any old project. You have to have the right combination of the following: The right client, the right aesthetic, the right timing, and the right value. It”s hard to think in terms of price because a hand-made thing is always going to cost more than a digitally made thing, which is why I say “value“… with the right combination of the above factors, the price is not the main issue.
So it was when the good folks that run the Nimblefingers Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Workshop & Festvial approached me to design and print a new poster for this years” events, I saw a great opportunity to provide for them a great value because we could design a poster, but they could use it to market the workshops all year in ads, on the website and wherever. As a musician, I love to work with other musicians, they aren”t always the richest bunch, but they truly get the process of making something from scratch, of doing something different and unique. Right client? check. Good timing? check. Providing value? check. Now the simple (!) process of finding the right aesthetic.
Because the bluegrass and old-time music styles have such a rich history of visual design thanks to great designers, typesetters and printers through the last century in the Southern States, we don”t have to go really far for a starting points. Indeed every letterpress printer alive owes a debt of gratitude to the work of shops like Hatch Show Print in Nashville, TN which has been in operation for well over a century.
The first thing I did was start with a few rough sketches. I had a rough idea that I wanted to use a combination of an illustrative style for some embellishments and hand-drawn types, in combination with wood and metal type for other parts of the poster. This proposes a sort of chicken-vs-egg kind of logistical concern when starting the process… which do you start with? The answer is simple: both.
Knowing what typefaces I have in drawers is a big asset. I can turn them over (roughly) in my brain to find some good starting points, then jot down some quick sketches (like the ones at right) to solidify some of the ideas. Then there comes a point where you have to commit to an idea and that”s when the see-saw between formats begins. In this case I went first to the press. To my mind the “Nimblefingers” part was the crux of the poster, and I wanted it to be large, and bold, and printed with vintage wood type. One face in particular was standing out in my mind: A large classy italic serif with rakish good looks. Because it”s italic, if you stand it
up on its points it angles across the page in a way that breaks free of the grid that normally binds a letterpress printer. It”s a creative “hack” if you will that brings a dynamic feel to the page. Note the creative use (at left) of spacing to keep it steady in the press bed.
After printing a couple of copies, and using those to firm up my sketches, I sent a loose proof to the NimbleFolks to see what they thought. “Looks Great” was the only reply I got. Right client confirmed.
Taking that as a green light to proceed, I started blocking out my sketch full-size, and backwards on a 12 x 18″ piece of battleship linoleum. It”s the mirror image we have to print with, so every idea has to be flipped around for the carving process. For a full-sized poster of any complexity, the drawing and carving can take anywhere from 5 to 10 hours alone. Keep in mind we haven”t even set a single letter of metal type yet, or turned the press over more than a couple of times for a proof of the main type. This part, however, is the part that blends my passion for illustration, hand-cut prints, and music, so we press on.
I carve linoleum and wood with the same tools. I like sharp, smooth edges and the gouges I use good quality ones from Lee Valley. The linoleum is easy to work for these larger commercial projects and gives a great texture and look once it”s done.
After carving the bulk of the elements, I still want a better idea of where I need to add things like subtle shading to make the poster have pop in the right places. To do this, I mount the linoleum on plywood shimmed to the proper height for the press, and hand-apply ink to pull a proof or two. This has the added advantage of leaving black ink on my linoleum so it”s easier to see how the carving affects the small stuff. On the right here is the first proof of the Nimble Fingers poster. You can see the large angled block that I”ve left for the main text. With this proof in hand, I”ll make my final changes to the lino block, and get ready to start integrating the second part of the posters: the hand-set type.
Early on in the process, I”ve put the large “Nimble Fingers” type away in a small drawer we printers call “Galleys”. At this point I slide out my galley and move the type onto the the press bed. For printing posters I use a Vandercook Proofing press, which has a large flat metal bed to lay the type on. The type can be held in place with magnets, blocks of wood called “furniture” or positive pressure from expanding wedges called “quoins”. With a different colour I layer the main type over top of the proofed image above, to make sure my alignment is working.
After some (or many) adjustments, I start adding some of the secondary information like “Festival & Workshop” as well as “24th annual” at the top. These are all hand-picked letter by letter from one of the 250 drawers of type we have at the shop here. Each is selected for size and aesthetics.
With these additions made, a reasonable idea of how the poster is going to look emerges. At this point I might be thinking about colour, but in this case the black/blue just happened to be ink that I had mixed already on the press, but likely won”t be the final colours.
I send this photo over to Nimble Fingers HQ for a discussion about the design, and to figure out some details about what the “small print” will be at the bottom. We also make some decisions about paper weight, colour, and ink choices if the client has any preferences.
With that discussion in my mind, I tuck the hand-set bits away knowing I can figure out the details at the end. The two parts line up. It”s a good day. It doesn”t always work out so well. Now I clamp the plywood-mounted linocut back into the press bed and mix up what I feel will be a great colour for this project: Burn Orange. We decided to print on French Papers Muscletone Madiero Beach, a creamy coloured card stock with some flecks in it. French is one of the papers we stock in a variety of weights and colours. It comes from a 6th Generation family owned paper mill in the USA, which has been powering their plant with their own hydro dam for 100 years. A cool company to be buying product from.
The Burnt Orange compliments the paper nicely, so I throw myself at the task of printing the first 100 copies of the background layer. It takes about an hour and a bit to get through that, after which I have piles of 10-20 posters sitting all around me in the shop like some mad scientist surrounded by his theorems.
These sit overnight to “set”. Letterpress ink doesn”t dry in the traditional sense of the word, meaning the moisture in it doesn”t really evaporate into the air, rather it absorbs into the paper fibers and reacts with the oxygen to “skin” over from contact with the air. I use primarily oil-based ink, because it sets quicker than the rubber-based alternative. Some printers use a soy-based product, but given that (A) a 1-lb tin of oil-based ink is about a year”s supply for the average printer and (B) soy is one of the top GMO food-based products in our world, it seems there is no getting away from some environmental impact, and since that”s practically our ONLY environmental impact as a workspace, I think we”re doing alright. Letterpress inks are also indelible so a poster or label won”t run if it”s wet or in the rain.
Once the ink has set, I dig the main text out of the galley again (remember the chicken-egg thing?) and set it on the press bed. Now I”ll go dig out the “small print” and set that at the bottom of the poster. In this case, we are putting the performer list for the festival, and then the website. Always gotta have the website. The smaller stuff gets finicky, and the pressman often has to make judgment calls about arranging, sorting, and sometimes editing the text at this point because unlike the computer, you just can”t scale it. See all those silver letters at the bottom? Each one of those were picked by hand from a drawer and set side by side. If you get to the end of something like that, and the type you picked doesn”t fit, guess what? Back into the drawers it goes unless you can find a creative solution. In this case, with a bit of massaging, we made it fit. It involved cutting one of the dividing lines and taking out some of the leading (the space between the lines), as well as changing the typeface at the top to move “Sorrento, BC” up there. But in the end, we got it working.
With a final proof for us, and a final jpeg sent to NFHQ, and a hearty “cleared for liftoff” from them, we laid into the final colour, a deep red to stand out over top of the orange, and we call this done. The final step, once the second layer of ink is dry, will be to trim the edges down to give our final margins, and pack and wrap them for shipping.
Well I feel like we”ve rounded out the value of this poster by giving Craig & Julie at Nimble Fingers a great, vintage-inspired aesthetic poster, hand-printed, timely, and judging by their reactions, for the right client. Thanks Nimble Fingers. See you in Sorrento, BC. in August!
Thanks for reading! If you have any more questions about the process, drop on by our downtown Fernie shop, give us a call (778-519-5010) or send me an email (email@example.com) and we”d be glad to have a chat.
In March of 2012, our friends at Tourism Fernie put us in touch with John Lee, who among other writing gigs, travels around BC filming these little videos promoting interesting things to do in our province. John and I had a great time, and some good laughs, putting together a little print. Have a peek at the video.
The video took a while to get edited and launched but it’s now perfectly timed for this winter season.
Thanks again John and Tourism Fernie!
Once you have a bit of type, or old printing equipment, you”ll find that it grows. You”ll leave the shop overnight and the next day two drawers of 36pt. Clarendon Bold have produced a drawer of 12pt. Century Schoolbook.
Okay, there”s a little more to it than that, but there is a “birds and bees” ethos to the way new type comes to the letterpress printers” collection. When you are passionate about a process that is hundreds of years old, and a very, very few people are as taken with the process as you are, you”ll want to care for the equipment. When it comes time, as it does for everyone, and as it will for me one day, to pass the torch on to another generation of printers, we are the kind of people who want to see the equipment go to a good home.
The trick with letterpress equipment is the getting it there.
Being that a drawer of type can hold 30-80lbs. of lead type, and a case of drawers could hold 24 drawers, that means a single case of type can weigh upwards of 800lbs.
One day in April I got an email from a fellow named Pat, who”s family had owned a printing business in Nelson, BC. for 80 years. They had weathered the storm of the transition to photo-typesetting, to digital typesetting, but they did fair well when the restaurant next door burned to the ground. All the sensitive digital equipment was lost, but the durable letterpress equipment in the basement survived perfectly. The insurance company rebuilt the building, a new tenant was found, but what to do with the gear?
Pat, like many of his generation, had grown up surrounded by lead type and Heidlberg windmill presses, but was caught up in the changes that a commercial printer needed to make from the 70″s through the 90″s to stay afloat. As a result he never learned the old trade from his father or grandfather. He had fond memories of his father setting business cards and small jobs for friends, so he wanted to see this gear go to a good home. That”s where we came in. It turns out there are not many places in Western Canada that are still using their metal type.
After a quick visit and a bit of negotiation, a very fair deal was struck and I vowed to return with a trailer and a friend to help load. I didn”t know what was in there, just that it needed to get back into use. This lot had six cases full of mystery type.
And so it was that on a rainy day in early June, my friend and colleague Keith Liggett and I set out for the West Kootenays with his Suburban and a borrowed trailer. I don”t know much about trailers, and maximum weights, and all that, but I”m pretty sure we were overweight for this particular trailer. In retrospect it was pretty ridiculous that we tried, but it seemed okay and once were going it was easier to keep going than to stop and deal with the weight. We just drove slow. Nelson to Fernie is a 5-hour drive when you”re going 70 kms/hr.
At any rate, we made it back safe and sound, and had the dubious task of unloading 100 drawers of type the next morning. Then I had the even more dubious task of somehow assimilating 6 new cases of type into an already pretty full workspace. For the time being all the extra type sat in the middle of the gallery, so it had to be dealt with.
With Katherine”s help (our illustrious intern) we got the drawers sorted (haha… printer”s joke) and arranged. We moved cases back and forth, organized them based on size and style, and miraculously got all 6 new cases into the workspace without losing any walking space or worktops. It was truly a thing to behold, if you”d seen the gallery before the assimilation.
The result of the trip was essentially a doubling of the number of metal typefaces available, with some real winners in there like Huxley Vertical, Umbra Shadow, and Bodoni Extra Black. Thanks to Keith for the company and the safe driving, and a special thanks to Pat McLaughlin of McLaughlin printing for tracking us down, and trusting us with his family”s heritage. We”ll take good care of it, I promise.
Well, I do get to meet some interesting people in this line of work, don’t I?
One of the things that I’ve noticed since opening Clawhammer Press is that there are plenty of people who, like myself, are enamoured with the technology of the past. Not because we are afraid of progress, or technology, but because we see value in the process and results of the old ways. Industry tends towards faster, more efficient, and more precise. So it should be. What we don’t realize is that modern industry and technology churn ahead at breaknecking pace, in its wake is a raft of outdated technology that still has value because of what it gave us in our history, and what it can do that new technology can’t yet (or never will be able to). It takes a keen eye to spot these little gems, and often they are put aside and nearly forgotten about until the artists, philosophical gleaners of the technological era, discover, exploit, and ultimately stabilize these processes.
So yesterday I was minding my own business when a young man ran into the shop, walked right up to me and said “I’m so glad you’re open, do you mind if I take a portrait of you with your gear?”. Contrary to popular belief this doesn’t happen every day. When I seemed agreeable he brought in his camera… a WWII relic with the largest lens I’ve ever seen. Apparently the lens was used for nocturnal aerial recon in the great war, and thus was designed to accept all kinds of light.
With a few minutes of setup and fiddling with dials and knobs, my new friend Ryan of www.ryanandbeth.ca photography popped a large slab of film in the back of the camera, stepped away from it and said “I’m gonna count to 3…”. After a soft shutter he pulled the film out of the back, shook it for a few seconds, and then peeled back the cover exposing a 4″ x 5″ negative and a complete 4 x 5″ print.
According to Ryan, the resolution of the negative is the equivalent of a 243 Megapixel digital camera (they haven’t invented one of those yet, have they?). Not only that, but it develops itself, stops the process, and left me with a lovely print, and the cameraman with a negative for future prints.
With the big lens, the depth of field he was able to achieve was quite astonishing. Objects 2 feet from me were completely blurred (take that, photoshop) straight out of the camera. As you can see in the photos he took, the overall effect was classy, classic, and dramatic in a very nostalgic way.
It was only after taking the photo on the left of me sitting at the desk that we noticed the similarities between it and the photo of my Great Grandfather that I have hung on the wall. It shows him sitting at his carving bench, circa WWII, carving away to natural light. The positioning of our bodies, the lighting, and the “ethos” of the shots was pretty astonishing.
I didn’t get to meet my Great-Grandfather, since he died before I was born, but somehow I think we would have agreed; newer and faster is not always better.
Special thanks to Ryan and Beth for dropping by and leaving me with this great reminder that there are others out there who want to touch something real.
As an artist I am constantly inspired by other artists. I think that passion to create is contagious so being around other artist challenges me to get painting, printing, creating. A couple of artists who also share this view are Micheline Ryckman and Amy Chapoton. Both have worked as artist and professional photographers for a while, and like our family, recently abandoned the “stable” life to pursue a dream. Their blog Ordinary to Extraordinary (OE for short) tries to capture the inspiration in every day. One of the ways they use their gifts is by finding other artists and featuring them on their blog. This is a gift in many ways because they not only are fantastic photographers, but they also have a clear understanding of how to get to the core of what other artists are getting at. This month OE featured Clawhammer Press on their blog as the featured artist, and they have captured the space in a way that I have not been able to. Sometimes that bit of perspective is all it takes.
Please take a minute to go see their site, and have a look at the beautiful photos they have taken of the space their Ordinary to Extraordinary blogsite.