Learning the fine art of letterpress

Attending an art workshop makes me feel like a kid in a candy store. I am always thrilled to learn more about an art form, so I was super-excited to be attending one that was in the realm of printmaking.

I was one of eight students who gathered on February 9 to learn about creating art with a letterpress. The workshop was hosted by Bluerock Gallery in Black Diamond, and was taught by Michael Hepher of Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery.  Michael takes the pursuit of his craft seriously, and his passion for letterpress is contagious.

LINDA COTE-Michael Hepher

He came to this old-style printing method in an unexpected way. He first worked for a blacksmith and loved the tactile nature of crafting with metal. But, his love of art pushed him towards a career in graphic design. One day, he asked his local printer if he could try his hand at setting letterpress type “a few times” because he was curious about the roots of graphic arts. For this graphic designer and artist, something clicked. He soon found himself the custodian of an old press, spending many spare hours in his garage learning about the mechanics of the press, the process of hand-setting type and printing artwork using a method that was perfected in Western Europe more than 500 years ago.

LINDA COTE-Tabletop LetterpressToday he runs Clawhammer, a letterpress shop and gallery in Fernie, BC with his wife Anie and one staff person. They have several vintage presses, and about 250 drawers of various sizes of letterpress type, both metal and wood.

When asked where they source their beautiful letters, Michael responded that online auctions are the way to go. He is not a fan of buying them on Ebay or Etsy. It’s the most expensive way to acquire type, he says, but also because these sites feature mostly “picked” pieces of singular letters.

LINDA COTE-Wood letter type“You should never split up a type family and sell it,” he said. “These letters belong together. It’s wrong to break them apart. It would be like selling one piece of a triptych painting.” He pauses and grimaces briefly, showing how much he cares about the craft behind his work. He continues his introduction and brief history of letterpress. He shares fascinating facts, funny stories, and sets the stage beautifully for what’s to come. We’re as enthusiastic about this art form as he is.

For the workshop, we were asked to choose between printing a small calling card (business card size), a greeting card or a small poster.

LINDA COTE-Letterpress stick

For those of us creating small cards, we set our type in a composing stick, starting with the top line on the bottom of the stick. It’s tricky because you are creating in reverse — reading right to left but also with backwards letters — and some of the metal fonts are very tiny. We were using 18- and 30-point type sizes, and some letters could really stump your brain. Is it a “u” or an “n”? The “p” and “q” also look remarkably similar (Michael quipped that could be the origin of the saying, “Mind your p’s and q’s”). The brain struggles to read the letters the right way so this part of the process takes a lot of left-brain patience.

LINDA COTE-My type stick

I set a small saying that was 10 words long (above, less than halfway through) and it took me about an hour. Michael claims you get faster, but I can only imagine how hard it would have been to set entire pages of newspaper text this way before the invention of offset printing in the early 20th century.

Once we had the type in the stick finished, we placed it on a flat surface and put a rectangular “chase” around it. We’d shore up the sides with wooden and metal forms to hold it tightly in place so the whole chase could be “locked up” and transferred to the small Adana 8″x5″ tabletop press.

LINDA COTE-Michael Lock Up

LINDA COTE-Tamping Lock Up

LINDA COTE-Linda Locking Up

The lock up is done with a key in a special “quoin” or expanding wedge that widens to put increasing pressure between the chase and the stack of metal letters.

Next, you tap lightly on top with the side of the quoin and a block of wood (above) to ensure your type sits on a level surface. This will hold the composed message in the chase so tight that you can walk it over to the press, and insert it without the letters falling out.

Below, Michael demonstrates a locked up form of type, ready for the press. LINDA COTE-Lock Up-Michael

Next, with the chase inserted into the tabletop press, we run a test impression to check the image density and alignment with the stock we would use. Here, Bluerock Gallery owner Karen Gimbel works with Michael on her calling card.

LINDA COTE-Karen and Michael prep

After an initial impression, Karen checks her proof to see if it’s good to go for more impressions.

LINDA COTE-Karen proofing

Below is the chase of my card after it was printed, while the letters still have the black ink on them.

LINDA COTE-Type Lock Up

I chose to print a saying by Persian poet Rumi on a greeting card (just in time for Valentine’s Day!).

LINDA COTE-Rumi Card

For others who produced a poster, they worked on a larger (but less complex) flat tabletop press. Using the larger wood type, these letters are held in place on the bed with magnets and wooden reglets (strips).

LINDA COTE-Lock Up Poster

LINDA COTE-Routes Lock UP

The letters are inked with a brayer/roller (much like I do for relief printing) before the paper is placed on top of the letter form, and the roller passes overtop to make the impression.

LINDA COTE-Routes Sandra inks

Workshop cohort, Sandra Wiebe, is shown above hand-inking her poster with letters for her business Routes Media.

LINDA COTE-Routes Posters

It was great to see all the different creations using just a few drawers of type, and two ink colors. It’s amazing what eight people can do in a four-hour period with a good instructor.

LINDA COTE-Letterpress Prints

Here is a small sample of the creations that rolled off both presses.

LINDA COTE-Letterpress PrintsAnd, just because I personally find it so beautiful, one more photo of one of Clawhammer’s drawer full of wooden type.

LINDA COTE-Letterpress DrawerTo find out more about Michael and the work that Clawhammer produces, visit their website.

Bluerock Gallery in Black Diamond serves as a destination for artists, art lovers and those who love to explore. Bluerock is mostly an art gallery, but sometimes they run workshops, artist demonstrations and events. They always have a stunning variety of art on display. Check out their website, or visit their gallery in person.

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4 responses to “Learning the fine art of letterpress

  1. Very impressive sequence of events, looks like so much fun. One day I may head out to Bluerock.

  2. I met Michael at a craft fair before Christmas and asked him a few questions about letterpress. He was friendly and helpful, and I imagine a workshop with him would be terrific. Looks like you had a great time – sorry I wasn’t there! I actually bought several of his posters – great humour well presented.

    • Aw, that’s too bad Terri you couldn’t come. It was a small group, and the spots went really quick. And, yes, Michael was great. We had a lot of fun, and all finished a small project … pretty good for 4 hours! I love his work, too. If I hear of other courses, I will let you know!

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