Letterpress Printing as a Hobby

[Originally posted to rec.crafts.misc, but maintained periodically since.]

There is an active Letterpress underground or renaissance in England and to a lesser degree here in the US. (Possibly more printers here, but spread over a greater landmass at lower density, so less apparent activity.)

I enjoy letterpress printing as a break from using computers. The pieces look like they do what they do; I can get my hands on them. I mostly print stationary and greeting cards for my own family, but many hobby printers are more book-arts artisans, doing literary or artistic keepsakes for circulation among their friends and fellow printers or for-sale through literary/artistic outlets. With a small tabletop press and a limited range of type, one can print in a studio apartment, but given the toxicity of lead-oxide, it is not advisable. A large dry basement is preferable: dry to avoid both rust and the "efflorescing" rot of humidity pulling the tin from the lead-alloy type (that's where those pits in the Colonial types are from: seaport presses with imported type).

Availability of equipment

Some letterpress presses are still in commercial operation for specialty operations: imprinting, stamping, die-cutting, numbering, etc. The presses most desirable for these operations (e.g. the Heidelberg Windmill and Chandler & Price New-style platens) are hard to find for amateur use (unless in poor condition), although a sudden relocation may make one temporarily available for salvage.

Believe it or not, spare parts are still available "new". There are firms such as N.A.Graphics, formerly of Cincinnati, ( PO Box 467, Silverton, CO 81433, Phone: 970-387-01212, FAX: 970-387-0127 Fritz Klinke ), that have bought up failing dealers' inventories. N.A.Graphics bought the inventory from Kelsey and the whole business including trademark from Vandercook, and stock parts for other presses too.

Letterpress Things, Chicopee MA (John Barrett) is an east-coast supplier of used and "new old stock" presses parts and supplies.http://www.letterpressthings.com/html/about.htm (413) 222-9029 [FAX (413) 732-2146] letterpressthing@aol.com.

Presses and other tools of the trade are best found through the grapevine (and The Printer). Prices asked vary widely, but can sometimes be found close to home. If the printer's widow's realtor has already sold the house, they may pay you to haul it all out, if you take it all; but some people remember clearly what they paid for it, and want to realize a profit in spite of any use they may have gained from it, whether demand will support their asking price or not. Local availability here seems cyclic; we have alternate shortages of presses and shortages of people to salvage free presses before the scrap metal man gets there. (As a museum official, I can not give advise on prices, so please don't ask. Check The Printer's classifieds)


There are many sources of Type still available.

There is also a lot of ATF type (American Type Founders, recently totally defunct) still out there as shelf-ware new in original wrappers; N.A.Graphics (Fritz Klinke nagraph@FRONTIER.NET) has a lot of it, and there's more scattered around. You find a few fonts in wraps at every closed press. Finding matching caps & lowercase & figures in sufficient quantity and ranges to be useful is a problem, though; when someone finds a big enough hoard to offer useful ranges, the price goes up!

Stephensen & Blake, heirs to Wm.Caslon & Sons, still has the originals, and sometimes will sell castings. They've run out of stock of a few sizes of true Caslon, and will not restock until they're sufficiently backorders ... the curse of zero-based inventory management! but they exist. The Spanish branch of Bauer still sells their excellent Bodoni, which an acquaintance recently picked up on vacation (expressly scheduled).

There are small boutique foundries doing luxury castings of both real foundry type and more commonly slightly stiffened Monotype for handsetting; especially popular in the States are English Monotype matrices cast on American Monotype casters. (M&H Type, Quaker City, the Dale Guild, Harold Berliner, Out of Sorts all spring to mind, although the latter is I fear out of business and rumor has H.B. serious back-ordered. And most local areas have one or three small presses with Monotype machines who are willing to do comp jobs that can be distributed after a short run; some even will cast fonts.) Just to confuse matters, the association and convention of small foundries is also called ATF, American Typecasters Fellowship.

The big news in type is that what may be the last new type face in commercial metal-type has been released: Hermann Zapf finally finished his long (30 years?) awaited Civilité; Harold Berliner has (exclusive?) firmin to cast it in America (on Monotype casters I fear) at only moderately exorbitant prices. (Caps, LC, swashes & alternates will add up to $250 plus shipping, if memory serves.) There is another new metal face in production; Dan Carr of Golgonzoola Type Foundry in Ashuelot N.H. is doing his new face in both Mac-Type-1 and Monotype, using hand-carved punches, but he's not in the business of selling metal type by the font, he sells it by the composition job.


On the roller question: you can frequently buy cast rollers from traditional suppliers of letterpress, and the #25 price sounds quite good. Here in the US, many companies which do Offset rollers can wind sheet rubber onto any size of roller core, cure/vulcanize, and trim to fit on a lathe, which avoids finding an exactly matching mold for casting but has higher labo[u]r charges. There are a few services left who will cast rollers of either traditional "composition" (glue/sugar) or modern plastic on your cores (or sell you cores). Some people follow the advice in old manuals and cast their own composition rollers, but I find wound rubber and cast nitrile to work well enough to avoid that bother, and the bother of worrying about matching the weather. (You need different mixes of glue/sugar in the roller to have the right stiffness in different temperatures and humidities: or else!)


The newsletter with all the advertisements for hobby & craft letterpress for both sides of the Atlantic is The Printer, Box 1402, Findlay OHIO, 45840 USA. $30/year, 12 issues, with free want advert upon subscription if you ask for it. UK, contact Claire Bolton, The Alembic Press, members.aol.com/alembicprs, telephone 0865-730381.

The UK agent, Ms. Bolton, has a UK letterpress resource guide, which is available for sale by the Alembic Press, if memory serves correct. (Various progress announcements have appeared in The Printer, but the issue in front of me doesn't.)

For the UK readers: British Printing Society, www.bpsnet.org.uk, 66 St. Swithins Road, Whitstable, Kent, CT5 2HZ, England, wishes Americans to donate duplicate manuals of US machines to their collection, thus presumably they have lots on UK machines already?

For US Readers: the Letterpress Guild of New England publishes a short resource guide and address list with annotated bibliography, free with membership; : P.O. Box 380788 Cambridge, MA 02238-0788 , ?$20?. Or Email contact Leslie Evans, The SeaDog Press. Their "Wants and for sale" list ?is? maintained by John Barrett, Letterpress Services, 85 Phelon Ave, West Springfield, MA 01089-3459 Phone: 413-732-0399, FAX 413-732-2146 -- request a Listing form; listings are free to members, listings for "free" stuff should be free to all? There is another club in St. Louis, and probably one in Ohio, since that is where most of the support businesses are.

There are several Amateur Press Associations as well, to which several hundred amateur presses submit a like-sized pile of their work to be redistributed in "bundles" to all members; they advertise for membership in The Printer. One is on-line: American Amateur Press Association or AAPA.


There are significant printing museums in Germany and California and a new one in Texas; there are numerous smaller museums and exhibits within larger historical recreation villages or industrial history museums: Belgium, Old Washington Historic [Arkansas] State Park, Williamsburg VA, Sturbridge MA, Mystic CT., Washington state, Washington DC (Smithsonian). Eventually, we hope to have a major one here in Boston/Massachusetts/ New England. The Friends of the Museum of Printing, Inc. produces a newsletter and has many tons of collected presses, type, etc. (400 Tons at last count, ranging from the classic Washington Handpress to a 35 Ton rotary web stereotype press from a defunct newspaper, and antique foundry type to die for.) Patronage-level support muchly appreciated as well. (For $4Million, I'll get your name over the door (0.5 :-))

University Library of Manchester, John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Forthcoming exhibitions True to Type (30 September - 25 November [probably 1995?]) "Born over five hundred years ago, the craft of fine printing is enjoying a lively revival. Introducing
letter press printing and the works of small presses, this Crafts Council..." [from an index]

On-line stuff

For a bibliography on books on Type: see comp.fonts FAQ files. (or try the list of all FAQs).

Smithsonian's Printing and Graphics Gallery's web page is short but nice. [Link fixed: they moved it! Has phone # for demo times.]

I'm quite fond of my own web pages for The Friends of the Museum of Printing, including the partially illustrated inventory of the collection, to which I've added a bit of tour-guide history.

The is an active mailing list for letter-press practitioners called "letpress" available on listserv@unb.ca, put "subscribe letpress" and "help" in the body of your message; the archives are available by server, and may be on FTP at either unb.ca or at the comp.fonts faq site. The Book-Arts-L list covers Letterpress and Binding and other related arts, including "livres d'artiste". (There are other lists and newsgroups for book collectors, librarians, rare-book librarians, and book-sellers; even one "books in my basement" for self-publishers. TBD, I'll add a link to the master list of newsgroups and mailing lists...)

A nice explanation of Letterpress printing for laymen is on the web.

Other on-line letter-press resource areas include the American Amateur Press Association or AAPA; The Letterpress Pages; and the website of Serif Magazine: The New Magazine of Type and Typography, a real dead-tree-ware magazine which covers both metal type and digital type, very nicely produced by one of the folks from comp.fonts.

I also have online My Printing History and Letterpress Bookmarks. [probably out of date?]

HTML 2.0 Checked. [My Home Page] [Museum of Printing] Comments to me at wdr@world.std.com .