master printer (title)?

I was wondering about the use of the term “Master Printer” and to what extent a person doing letterpress can adopt it? I know that the Tamarind Institute offers a degree in this area. I’m also aware of several people with no formal printmaking education who are using this term. I don’t think the printmaking world has any monopolistic right to include or exclude anyone regarding this title. Is a very competent and experienced person able to simply put it on his vitae?

Thank you for your help,

Craig Malmrose
Trade Union Press

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I’ll stick my neck out and give my opinion.

In ealier times there was a whole system for training printers and compositors. One started at the bottom and worked their way up through a fairly well-defined methodology. It usually took many years to work your way up, and one of the terms I recall was “journeyman.”

I would assume that somewhere at the top of the heap was the title “master printer” and that it was duly earned over a long period of time with a disciplined development of specific skill sets.

I sometimes literally cringe when I hear certain people describe themselves as “master printers” when in reality they know just barely enough to be dangerous. The ultimate audacity simply amazes me.

Here in the UK, in the 40s the title was used normally by the person that owned the firm (most print shops were small) and who was a member of the BFMP (British Federation of Master Printers). How relevant the title is today and what criteria needs to be met I do not know.

With all due respect to those who are Master Printers indeed, it would appear that the title carries the same hazzards as titles like Phd. One once said while introducing himself last year before giving his presentation, on his lifes work with ultrasound, that his father told him, while he was persuing the degree, that it (Phd) stood for “piled higher and deeper”. This particular fellow truely appeared to have surmounted heavy odds to have achieved the title and also was quite humble. His father was a farmer, from a small northern NH town.
Unlike the above people mentioned, Mrs Clinton seems to lay claim to anything that will fit behind her name, use your own judgement.

With all due respect to those who are Master Printers indeed, it would appear that the title carries the same hazzards as titles like Phd. One once said while introducing himself last year before giving his presentation, on his lifes work with ultrasound, that his father told him, while he was persuing the degree, that it (Phd) stood for “piled higher and deeper”. This particular fellow truely appeared to have surmounted heavy odds to have achieved the title and also was quite humble. His father was a farmer, from a small northern NH town.
Unlike the above people mentioned, Mrs Clinton seems to lay claim to anything that will fit behind her name, use your own judgement.

Anyone can claim any degree of expertise they want. It’s the customer determining veracity of such claim.( Much as the voters will come this November.) There’s a world of difference between producing one line title card upon a 3x5 Kelsey and running 16,000 newspapers, 12 pages full broadsheet, on a flatbed Miehle Pony. I’ve doubts many have ever seen an Elrod let alone pulled twin 1pt. And stereo casting is not throwing a record player across the room, nor is a chalk plate for doing schoolwork. As for computer-generated imagery, well, is that even to be considered ‘printing’? If so, then Bill Gates is a ‘Master Printer’. :o)


I tend to think that good taste would prevent one from adopting the title “Master Printer” for one’s self. IF it were to be bestowed upon you by some impartial organization, such as a College of Printing or a Trade Guild, then it might be acceptable. Unfortunately, I don’t know that any such organizations still exist in the US….. so I can’t see any usage of the title being acceptable here.

As far as Tamarind goes, their use of the term “Master Printer” is looked upon with snickers and rolled eyes in the printmaking community. They are not “on a higher plane of existence” as they tend to think.

Here’s the way I see it: IF you are truly a Master Printer, then your work will show it and you won’t need to put it on your business card. If you are not a Master, then putting it on your card would be more of a pretentious joke than anything else….. and you will lose a lot of respect from your peers. ( It sort of reminds me of trashy gals who wear short shorts with “Classy” written across the backside. )

The comments I have read on this subject have brightened my day and have brought a smile to my face. The sound of those elrods … the smells of vitaflux drifting through the composing room … the sight of those compositors putting an ad together so that it will “lift”. The knowledge of spelling, punctuation, so many rules that make printing a craft - marking up type to fit … serving an apprenticeship that is steeped in tradition. Master printer … they are almost all gone!

Thank you all very much for your thoughtful contributions. These have broadened my view of this subject. The question remains: If one were to seek this title, where would one go? I linger on the words provided by Halfpenny Press. This is a title better bestowed than self-inflicted.
As a commercial industry, letterpress printing died in the late 60s. The typographical unions are history. And the relationship between the apprentice and journeyman is now defunct. The hierarchical stratification that once provided titles such as these no longer exist. Who will now bestow a title like this one?
I could never kow-tow to the printmaking academies for such a name. Intaglio and lithography have no relationship to the honorable realm of relief, specifically letterpress. My studies over 25 years have shown that I could teach these “masters” far more about letterpress than I could ever learn. And so, I go, with my knowledge in hand, seeking the ones who can offer the title to which I aspire.

Thank you all!


It is not the title that is of real importance, but rather the knowledge and experience that it represents. I have no doubt that many of the printers here could teach volumes to some self-proclaimed “Masters”…. but it doesn’t matter, since in the end it is only the finished work that really counts.

I have enjoyed many years in the printing industry. I aspire to be a master printer, but alas I can not even be a journeyman, apprentice, nor devil. Why not? hmmm could it be that those are perhaps union terms? In reality I will never know it all; so that is why I’ll never be a Master.

I agree with the previous posters that the title of “Master Printer” is something that should be earned rather than bestowed upon oneself. I also think that it’s true that the title does not hold the same sort of meaning that it used to back in the day, whether it be in letterpress or lithography or whatever.

However, I do take exception to winking cat’s assertion that the Tamarind Institute’s use of the term “Master Printer” is somehow laughable. As a participant in Tamarind’s printer training program I can confirm that the training is every bit as rigorous and mind-bogglingly painful as it is rumored to be. The one or two who make it through the second year and are bestowed the title of “Tamarind Master Printer” have definitely earned it. As for the Tamarind printers thinking they are on “a higher plane of existence”… I’d invite you to come to Albuquerque and spend a few hours with the printers here. You’ll mostly find a bunch of goofy college-aged kids who definitely know that they have a lot to learn.

I know the stereotypes about Tamarind, and maybe they were true back in the 60’s and 70’s, but I’m afraid things just aren’t like they used to be.

Gosh. Two whole years ( I assume two school terms of six months each?) to claim “Master Printer” status. Makes the drudgery of the apprenticeship program of yore positively draconian. But then, when much of today’s graphic skill is built into the equipment perhaps that accounts for the shortened timeframe. However, one could also offer that the title: “Master Mouser”, would be the better 21st century descript.

Porkchop… no offense was intended with my comments. I know the studio well. I have had personal, first-hand experience there, and many years of interaction with both Tamarind “Masters” and the Fine Art community that purchases/collects/profits from their work. I respect many of their people. My disagreement with them as an Institution is that some of their faculty try to assert that their vision of printmaking, and their technique of Stone Lithography is somehow “more artistic” or technically superior to other forms of printmaking. By using the term “Master” they are trying to codify their superiority…. which is an assertion that is not supported by everyone.

I do fully understand the rigors of their program, and respect it greatly. A graduate from their training does indeed posess a great deal of technical knowledge about Stone Lithography….. but that does not make them a Master Printer, it makes them a Journeyman Stone Lithographer at best. Two years is a START, not a Mastery.

In the end, it is the quality of the finished print that really matters, not the title, accolades, or pedigree of the person who printed it.

The term “master printer” has different meanings in letterpress (or any form of commercial printing) and in printmaking. In the commercial context it simply means an employing printer, one who is master of others, not one who has mastered the craft. It is not a progression from apprentice to journeyman to master printer as some assume, unless a journeyman starts his own shop and hires printers, as many did.
As used in printmaking, a master printer seems to be the equivalent of a journeyman; that is, one who has gone through training and is skilled and employable. The “master printer” printmakers I’ve met all had MFAs, were employed in printmaking businesses, and had years of working experience, and there was no reason to snigger about the title. But perhaps it’s up to the boss when that title is bestowed.
However, many people are using the term now when talking about letterpress without understanding its historical meaning, and confusing the printing and printmaking contexts.
I can’t agree entirely with the statement that commercial letterpress died in the 1960s, though the apprenticeship system did die then, and manufacturers deserted us. The letterpress trade has continued at a reduced scale, ignored by the rest of the printing industry. I know many printers and presses that were working then and are still working now.

We normally reserve this saying for the new printing franchise startups but I can’t resist.

“Two weeks ago I couldn’t even spell Master Printor. Now I are one!”


Certainly no need for apology. You’ve captured the argument neatly.

it is sad for an aspiring (not yet hired) wanting to become a professor, that being overlooked for a faculyt printmaking job even though you are a master printer sucks. the hired person has a phd… and little print training.. but they have a phd…

Going back to the basic terms: a “journeyman” was a printer who was sufficiently trained to be considered capable of doing a “day’s work” without supervision. A journeyman could move from job to job and from shop to shop and take up work without the need for further training. To be a “master printer” you had to own the equipment that allowed you take on “apprentices” and train them. This presumed having a suficient level of skill on the equipment.

For our studio’s purposes, Master Printer implies that you are capable of planning and printing jobs without supervision or assistance for our clients.

In terms of training, one could become a “Master” after:

1) 12 years of professional (job) printing experience, OR
2) 9 years of experience + B.F.A. in Printmaking, OR
3) 7 years of experience + M.F.A. in Printmaking.

Declaring yourself a master is somewhat of a risky endeavor; I think it implies that you’re ready to stand by your abilities without fear of criticism from fellow printers.

James Beard
Vrooooom Press

I have (attached) and was told by a Master Printer that they are meaningless as they are not from USA.

image: Meister.gif


The European and American printing trades had different systems of training, and the vocabulary that went with them. In the American printing trade, master refers to ownership (as in The Master Printers of America, the former owner’s trade association). In the European system, master does indeed refer to mastery of craft, completion of a masterwork, and receipt of the master certificate, such the Meisterbrief above. But the term has no historical validity in the US as it is being used above. Commercial letterpress printing has nothing to do with printmaking or with art school degrees.

The certificates shown aren’t that clear for viewing but I have seen similar and those were essentially handed out upon completion of a course or workshop or similar. Not something done in the US. I haven’t seen the term Master Printer used unless it was something handed over via a job listing. I had one of those once, and it was more than a little embarrassing.

It’s a meaningless term. It might have had more worth when William Morris and the fall out from his contribution made more sense than they would in this day and age. Anyone who flaunts a bunch of certificates declaring they are a master printer… something wrong there. If you have mastered the trade or craft, your work will show it. There is no other proof.


I can send a better image to whoever want’s it. In short -
Back than - in Europe in general- you entered a Trade, served an Apprenticeship and received a Gesellenbrief.( Eng. Journeymens Certificate).
(Cap in french= certification appellation professionnel).
That gave you employment in the Trade. If you wanted, you had to show several years worked in the Trade and than attend a Master school. Only with a Master Certificate in the Trade could you actually own a shop or have the right to educate an apprentice.

You wanted to own a shop there you set type, print on a press and bind it, that was 3 different Trades and as such required 3 different Master degrees to be able to do it in one shop.

The title “Master Printer” goes back to the days of the guilds and is now considered to be archaic and out of use.. You could not claim it, it had to be earned and bestowed by the Guild. After working your way through the apprenticeship program you could earn the position of Journeyman Printer. This meant that you could travel to any print-shop in the country ( hence the term “journeyman”) and that the shop would know that you were qualified and accepted to work in the trade. To earn the title “Master Printer”, you were required to submit to the Guild a “Masterpiece”, an extensive work that involved all aspects of the trade and demonstrated that you had indeed “mastered” the trade and were worthy of the title. All work had to be done by you alone and must be of the highest quality both in design and execution. The standards were set very high and the title was not given out lightly. In those far-off days, a Master Printer title was required before you could establish a shop that employed journeymen and trained apprentices. After all, you were representing the Guild and the consequences for failing to comply were severe.

Not that far-off, there are still 46 Trades on the Roll for most of Europe where a Master Degree is required before opening Shop. I did my last one in 1989 in Germany and 246 Trades where regulated to that Fact than.

Wow, I didn’t know that it was still a requirement for that many trades in Europe. I realize that a Master Degree is essentially the same thing, but I was referring to the actual title “Master Printer”. While some people may still choose to use it, it’s more of an affectation than an actual title these days. And of course in the United States, anyone with money to lose can open up a shop and hire anyone they please.

It seems to me that printers and printmakers often cannot define their positions or job descriptions. The word print has too many meanings to be specific.

Would a “master” printer have to be a master in all areas of print? giclee, laser, lithography, offset, letterpress, intaglio, woodcut, automated screen printing, serigraphy, monotyping, and japanese moko hangu?

Would a “master” printer, just be able to print, or should he also be able to complete all parts of the process? For example, a master letterpress printer would have to be able to create wood type and cast lead type, expose and process poly plates, set type, proof read, grind ink, mix pantone colors, print on a proof press, a table top, a hand fed press, and a run an automated feeder. I’m sure I am leaving out important jobs, but you get the idea.

Before a title could be confirmed on anyone, it would need to specify what was being mastered.

master of silkscreen wash-up :)
Justin Miller

IN the Trade all jobs were separated, eg: Type:
the Type cutter was different from the Type designer, the mat cutter was different from the type cutter, the type caster was different from the person fonting. So, why now throwing it all in one pot? If one would spend a few moments googling these questions or key points, a lot would already be explained. Europe in general in 2002 abandoned the Master degree (Meisterbrief) in certain Trades as the Trades by themselves were no longer viable. I was one of the last person to receive a Meisterbrief in Schriftsatz and Buchdruck. Typesetting and Letterpress, we called it a Schweizerdegen. Does this mean I’m not a Master ?

Any legal Titel in the Trades was a protected Titel and highly coveted, hard to get and it was exactly defined what you had to do to make it, the Fail rates were in average at 50 %. I studied Washi in Japan and it is a brutally hard structured system, not unlike the guild system in Europe.

None of this exist in US. So attending a number of courses and receiving a Master degree (Not College or University level) is measured on what standard?
With the amount of Certificates earned in a weekend awash in the system, does any of it has any importance at all?

If at the end of the Day none of what one has produced can stand up on it’s on merits, all the fancy paperwork on the wall is meaningless.

I am no master printer in any sense, but I might like to say something I have heard and come to understand: Only the humble deserve great titles.