Nimble Fingers at Work

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.

early sketchesBecause 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

wood type
15 line Contact Bold Italic. I”ve never seen this typeface in another wood type collection. It”s unique and many of the pieces had never been inked before they landed in my hands.

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.

Hand-drawing the early proofs onto lionleum.

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.

After a solid afternoon and evening of carving…

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 ( and we”d be glad to have a chat.


9 thoughts on “Nimble Fingers at Work

  1. Bryan Bradfield says:

    This is a wonderful description of the creative artistic side of your passion/business. I’ve visited Hatch Show Print in Nashville (the tourist portion only) after seeing reproductions in the Ryman auditorium. How do you believe that your process differs from the historic Hatch Show Print process? Would Hatch have put as much thought into appropriate font? Would Hatch have interacted with the customer in a similar fashion to your approval process with your customer? Or did they just splash stuff together and create a traditional look accidentally?
    Finally, I think that it is appropriate that Craig & Julie contracted with a musician to create a new/old vision of their enterprise. Congratulations to all.

    1. Clawdaddy says:

      Bryan, thanks for your thoughtful questions. I haven’t been to Hatch Show Print (yet), but from what I know, they do create posters in a thoughtful way. They have the advantage of having 100+ years of collecting type, images, and clout to have artistic latitude. I can’t speak for how they interact with the customer, but I know the people that run Hatch are highly regarded in the letterpress industry, and care about Hatch and its history. I enjoyed working with Craig and Julie as I do with most musicians, so if you ever need a poster for something…

  2. Kerri Holmes says:

    Amazing artwork Mike. Your skill in carving lino is pretty fine! I’d be so scared to mess up and have all the effort turn on me. This poster is an illustration of stamina, precision, and creative value.

  3. Dave says:

    I love the letter press. True Type, not “truetype”, if ya know what I mean…

    Will you be doing case-stickers with the nimble fingers artwork this year? EVEYBODY wants to put one on thier instrument case. I sure do!

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