Why this passion for letterpress?

As an octogenarian, with half a century of letterpress expertise I wonder why you are all so passionate about letterpress. It’s a dying craft; time consuming, uneconomic process requring huge amounts of space for equipment, which in this digital age is completely unnecessary.
I have some 4000 fonts on my computer, which I can set in anything from 6 to 200pt plus. Imagine the outlay and room required to house that lot!
I can set a page of text, and if I do not like the result I can change it in a second. No dissing the original and then resetting the lot. Output to a laser or inkjet printer, no worries about oil or rubber based inks, no wash-ups required, no problems with skids or wipes through incorrect roller settings.
I can keep the jobs set on file on the hard disc which measures about 5 inches square and about 2 inches deep, and not great formes holding valuable material, and needing space to store.
Let’s face it; letterpress belongs to the early part of the 20th century, and not the 21st.
Heidelberg, the world leaders in machinery haven’t made a letterpress machine for over 20 years.
So why learn how to do something thats as dead as a dodo.

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Ford hasn’t produced the Model T for 100 years, yet many people cherish them even though they don’t have air conditioning, cruise control, stereo, etc.
To each his own.

I don’t even know where to begin. Yes, I could have a myriade of fonts contained on a thin CD, but I CHOOSE to have approximately 1,900 fonts of handset type in my shop to ‘play’ with. There is something intangible about the satifaction of working with your hands and brain at the same time.

Yes it is slow and laborious, but oh so much more gratifying than simply tapping something out on a computer. An integral part of the process is that things are put together and produced more slowly, perhaps forcing more thought to go into them.

The sound, the smell, the feel, the PLEASURE of doing things by hand in a workman-like manner. It is something to be experienced and enjoyed, and probably not easily described in words alone.

I’ll take hardware over software any time.

Rick von Holdt
The Foolproof Press

As a metal type beginner, and bookbinder, I also spin, dye, knit and felt, and get the “why bother when you can buy a sweater/socks/dishcloth at Wal-Mart?” crap all the time.

I do what I do because I enjoy it, because I want something produced from my own hands, and because for things like sweaters and socks, I get something that fits. :-)

Knitting was, twenty years ago, also a dying art, but it’s made a rather spectacular recovery, thanks to “celebrities” embracing it. (And that’s kind of a mixed blessing….)

Heaven help us if George Clooney ever discovers letterpress!

Mr Bennett,
Because we are established commercial letterpress printers, I have had the pleasure of having this discussion with more than a few ex-letterpress octogenarians.

Certainly, letterpress has its limitations. Thats why offset was developed. But the newer generation now involved in their own businesses, and new people entering the graphics field only know about the products available by offset and digital printing. When they discover the beauty and handmade quality of a letterpress printed piece, they fall in love. It is a novel concept that is fresh to them, they catch the bug and can’t get enough.

Letterpress lends a certain authenticity to the printed piece, both for the client and the printer.

So yes, to the older generation of letterpress printers, it is a just a blue collar trade that has faded away, and been replaced with new technology. But to the folks that have recently discovered it, its brand new and lends a new dimention to the normally flat and lifeless printing options so readily available.
~Bill Cook

There is just a comfortable feeling, when you sit down under the keyboard, of a linotype … especially a well-tuned one. The sounds of mats falling, the smells, the feel of the type. Oh, the feel of the type. Building a form like you were taught, by folks that plied their craft, in days gone by. Most of them are gone now, hanging the elevator, broaching that form, in a better place. It is slower, but guess what folks, it’s better.

Bern ,
It is a mater of perspective when I trained on a platen press 35 years ago I was in industrial arts and the craft was dieing out. Now when someone trains in letterpress they are in the fine arts department.
In a computer age getting out and working with your hands has become a good thing again.

Mr Bennett,

Bern, I absolutely understand your reasoning. I remember that after a forme was printed it would be back to case right after the customer took the job. I too was amazed as the industry was changing. I got into printing in the mid seventies and started as a “distributor”, putting back the type and blanks and lines.
On the mid eighties I decided I would be out of commission soon if I did not step forward and started doing past up art for offset printing. I remember the first time I have seen a IBM Typewriter (those with a sphere with the type in it - there was Univers, Helvetica and Times). Then, after working with compugraph systems I ended up with the uhhhh of the day: PageMaker and the Apple Laserwriter.

Sir, this has changed so dramatically to be what we know today. You can even deliver the files to the printer digitally, and so on and on.

That’s is true indeed that the processes we have today allow us to do all of these things so fast.

A couple of years ago, I don’t know for what reason, only that I always admired; I bought a faximile comprised of two volumes of the Gutemberg Bible. Shortly after that I decided to look for printing equipment, letterpress stuff, and now I am running my own little shop.
Although I can do everything in the computer and burn it to a plate, I am also collecting as much old-new type I can find, so I can be in a place I love, placing them by hand. When required.

The thing is, if I really try to respond your question, I have to recognize that

I don’t know :-)

One thing I guess to say, that so many people is getting involved with it this days because the market tell them: Go letterpress… You will be rich in no time.

I remember seeing those typical pictures, a large interior building where there is fifty people caring on the work, printing, composing, book biding…Good old days. Today, the computer sent forty nine of them to unemployment…

Cheers Sir :-)


Those are great questions. Why would someone take the time to learn to handset type? The case that houses the type has order to it and it takes a while to learn the layout. It’s not a drawer it’s a case. that brings up the letterpress terminology and don’t get me started. Who would want to learn the point and pica system when inches is good enough for most, right? I can get Johann Gutenberg type in Post Script, wow. I tell you I don’t need the letterpress to produce his type, awesome!!! Inkjet color printers and laser color printers are right on with the Pantone Matching System. This rocks.

Now with that said, I’m a graphic designer and have been in the business for 19 years and a letterpress printer for 8 years. I typically like to do things that are a challenge and different than what everyone else on the corner is doing. I love to paint but after 30 hours I only have one painting. I love to cut linoleum and I can change colors with another setup. I have always loved old stuff, I’m a pack rat almost. I have a 1964 cigarette machine a 50 years old Watliing weigh machine, a turnstile, 50 year old bowling trophies, and I could go on and on. It’s all for inspiration.

Letterpress provides me a way to learn a craft that’s going away and we pick up where Bern and others are leaving off. I can print an invitation and when the bride gets it she is so enthusiastic that she almost cries because she feels her wedding is complete.
I can take my wood type and metal type and arrange it on the bed of my Vandercook like the Swiss, Russian and Dutch designers were doing 70 years ago experimenting with typography and images. Now that a thrill to know I can do what ever I want, experimentation on my letterpress. Then print 500 envelopes to make a bit of money then back to the me time I love so much.
Gutenberg had a great idea, moveable type, the Chinese couldn’t do it because they had too many characters and the character represented letters and images. I bet Gutenberg with all the type that took him about a year to cut, punch, and cast was having a great time finding out what he could do on a printed page.
I can’t say I feel like a Gutenberg but it’s nice to know that I’m getting the same excited feeling that he must have had when producing work.

Bern, thanks for bringing up the question, thanks for printing on your presses, you had a helping hand in keeping it alive by just bringing up this topic.



I agree with Rick and a couple of others who have replied.

Admittedly, I am 13 years short of being your age. I have been doing design, production and printing via the computer since the beginning of Pagemaker, Quark, Illustrator and all the rest. Before that I did it with T-squares, ruling pens, and paste-up. Sure computers can do all the things you say. I depend on the printing industry to help pay my mortgage.

A very few years ago, I got back into letterpress and metal type with the intention of doing a few books. Now I even attempt to teach others how to do the same. Why? There is something very satisfying about working with a system where everything is related in terms of fit and measure to a pica. All the furniture, type, chases, presses and on and on. It is one great big puzzle that requires one to visualize what they want to print, figure out how to do it and then execute it with all the tools available. And to be able to do all this with your own hands and have complete control of the final piece is one of the most satisfying things I can think of. If I want to be a perfectionist, I can. If I want to strive for a kiss impression with no show through on the back, I can. And I control it all. I guess there are a few people who could do the same thing using the computer and print the job themselves on an offset press but it doesn’t match up. You can’t get the same look as letterpress. That’s why I do it.



I greatly appreciate all your comments to my question.
I thought it would provide some interesting feedback !
There is little that can compare to the rhythm of a letterpress machine running at 4000 iph,as it consumes mounds of paper. and to watch and marvel how all the intricate parts synchronise.
I can remember testing the vibration of my heidelberg cylinder,at full speed, by placing coins on edge on some flat part of the machine extremities and see how long they would remain upright. The longest time was over an hour!
My first introduction to print was in my senior school years, where we had a choice of handicraft subjects, one of which was letterpress producing the school magazine; from that point on I was hooked, I never wanted to do anything else.
I served a seven-year apprenticeship in machining, attended the local art school evening classes twice a week, learning all I could about the craft.
I progressed, becoming machine shop foreman, production controller, and eventually works director.
An eventful career, with its ups and downs, struggling to meet tight deadlines, coping with machine breakdowns etc, but one which on reflection I would not change.
As was mentioned in the replies it is something completely different from everyday life, a measurement system that is unique to the industry, and as many of you have discovered there are many problems in getting the perfect image onto the paper.
Long may you all maintain your interest, even in many cases just as a hobby

Sorry if my response isn’t as eloquent as others. While I too have always had a fondness for letterpess and the antiquity of it it’s no the real reason for my “love” of it. Have you ever been asked who you are? Have you ever asked someone who they are? Aside from a name, was their answer a diatribe of all the “things” they’re involved with at the time? Mine never has been and never will be. I am, and always will be a printer. I love printing next to little else. As such it wrenches my soul on a daily basis to deal with the types today that I refer to as “look at me I’ve got a computer, I’m a designer”. These people, some of whom claim to be professionals at the top of their career, who have no idea what it takes to create printed matter, of any form, apart from tapping on a keyboard and sending an email. For me letterpess is that which refreshes me. It refills my spirit. It returns me to time when it took knowledge and skill, care and patients to produce something. It reminds me that little things can’t be taken for granted. That overlooking the smallest detail can mean the biggest headache. That at one time that which we make was appreciated because not just anyone could make it happen. At the end of the day when the press is washed, the type returned and my pieces of ephemera are drying on racks, I can feel satisfied in knowing I can do something that not just anyone, with five hundred dollars and a trip to the computer store, can do.

Because cold lead type is waaaaay sexier than my Mac!

There are a million reasons why I love
letterpress. You take a blank piece of paper and turn it into something. The
smell of the shop. The sounds of the presses as they run is like music to my
ears. The castings on the presses are works of art in themselves. The
history of printing. It gets in your blood. You read everything you can. You
dream about it. It’s the knowledge you gain that no one can ever take from
you but you can give it freely. It’s the passion it brings to your soul. My
foreman has to occasionally remind me that not everyone feels the same way.

And computers suck because files get corrupted and turn what I typed into not what I typed (line spacing, paragraphs, etc.)

As an octogenarian who still works metal and Mac’s I get satisfaction from both. The happy median is printing from polymer plates,

I’d just like to add to this discussion how much the limitations of the process work in its favour. Sure, you create anything you can imagine on the computer, but it takes a more skilled designer to work successfully with what is available.

As a tutor, I have experienced first-hand that use of letterpress creates a better appreciation of space, with each character being physically moved rather than merely deleting layers on a computer. With such a long process, each move within letterpress is more considered.

I do not mean to sound anti-digital… I think there is ample room for both.

To Bern Bennett,
well, my brother in print, you got your response and some how I think you meant to open up a little track, or as the Yanks would say a “trail” of responses. I think you are well pleased with the road took. Such enthusiasm, so many different reasons, and the passion!

In other parts of this website I muse on the innocence and inexperience of some questioners and wait for an experienced answer, many of which are yours …

I say, long live letterpress, long live anything that is wholesome, interesting and consuming. Better than a pub with too much beer or a poker machine that is too hungry.

I can’t wait for your next provocative comment, you cunning old devil.

William Amer, Australian
Compositor and Machinist

Hi William,
Thanks for your response; I knew it would promote some excellent feedback.
Letterpress is no longer a commercial proposition in the UK, linecasting is almost unknown, and all the big printers are now offset litho.
I’ll try and think of something equally controversial for my next tirade, and see if it brings an identical respomse.

why ask such a stupid question in the first place? Bern do you really eat out of tupper ware? or, is maybe some old fine china, (or some true depression glass) a nice change of pace……

If it was such a stupid question why has it generated such a varied and big response?
No, I do not eat out of tupper ware and never have.
I like my meals served on fine bone china, and I’m pleased to say I still own some; beautiful stuff from my parents’ home.
Almost akin to the passion for letterpress expressed by so many members of this community, who provide valuable comments and share their knowledge with others, not like some who respond with some unconnected driffle which is completely irrelevent !!

I remarked to my student that she was of the generation that had lap top computers, cell phones that did many things including serve as a telephone, and iPods for music on demand. I asked her why in the world she would want to learn and practice the archaic craft of letterpress.

Her response: Because I love it!

Like real love. You can’t explain it. It just is.



Thank you for posing your question. I think it’s a very good one. I’ve been involved in letterpress in an olmost unbroken line since 1950 when I entered the trade as composing room apprentiuce.

I’m the mid sixties I began working in graphich design, and at the same time as I was sitting down to my first job at the drawing board, I began madly collecting letterpress machines, since at the time they were cheap!

To make this short, I am now more deeply invovled than I have ever been; designing and cutting new faces in metal, and printing limited edition books. As I write this I have The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on the press. For this book I created a new typeface, and cut and fitted it to the Monotype Composition system, making it possible for me to have the entire 270 pages up on galleys at one time.

The point: sometimes I ask myself why I still have my shoe nailed to the floor, and still do the same old stuff.

I think I will have to answer your question in the same way that others have on this thread; nothing new, nothing different. It makes me feel good. I suppose that means I love it.

And one more thing: I feel honoured and privileged to have fallen into to this fine, fine.

Jim rimmer

I also have a Mac and most of the type faces on my mac are unused, I do not really have much fun on the Mac as a design tool although its brilliant and incredibly useful for many of the day to day aspects of printing.
I use the Mac for research and design to a point, but really the most enjoyable part of my job is hand setting and printing from wood and metal type. What many computer “designers” say when they have a day at our workshop is that they are given more time to consider choice, weight, style and spacing than with the Mac. They love the hands-on aspect, the feel, the smell, the imperfection of the printed type; they can go away from here with a useful understanding of the history of letterpress and I think most gain just a little hint of what historically led to the keyboard of a Macintosh computer.

It is a slower pace, it is undeniably more costly than new commercial printing methods, but it has a place in the run of things and I thoroughly enjoy everytime, the first moment a new page of printed type on dampened paper is taken off the press. I do not get that when I press apple P

Long may letterpress continue


I entered letterpress thru the ‘back door’ after taking some offset classes and then volunteering at a museum where the ‘print shop’ exhibit had type and a platen press. I decided that the older technology was what was fun. Partly it’s the tactile, sculptural nature of working with the hands to achieve an artistic layout, but also the fact that letterpress engages the entire person: mental, physical, visual, and on.

I enjoy designing jobs, making up forms, setting type by hand, making ready, and the entire list of things associated with running the press. Perhaps it’s because I do not _have_ to earn a living at it that printing satisfies my need to make things. Or perhaps it’s because I have spent my life learning arcane and wonderful skills: tatting, crochet, knitting, sewing, stained glass, beadwork, clay oven baking, campfire cooking, bookbinding, etc, etc. I could be accused of being a tyro (“jack of all trades, master of none”) but I don’t care. I’m pretty good at many of them and enjoy the _doing_.

Subliminally I must be preparing for my move to the 19th century. So, in addition to all those wimminfolk skills, I now have a trade as well. And there is now an army of us who can pass on the skills to those coming after.

Thanks for posting a question to garner everyone elses’ thoughtful answers.


Agreed, agreed, agreed. Offering another general perspective: why so many many people like manual crafts? Because it has been proved to be so relaxing - the slow pace, the brain-hand coordination. So many people mentioned “the touch, the smells…”. Any experience you can use more than one sense tends to be much richer. Why do people like gardening, for an instance, or growing their own food, when one could go to the store and buy whatever? Because there’s more to the action than the mere act of planting a vegetable and seeing it grow. It’s in the experience that you go through while doing some manual craft that lives the magic. I found out many things about myself and the world while setting type. Manual craft, and of course, art in general, opens the mind to new different dimensions.

No mentioning that a lot of people, me included, need to see how things actually operate to actually get it. I understood, respected and started admiring type much more after starting printing in old machines.

And finally: limitation! I think only one person mentioned this. Limitation is the greatest gift. Too many options kills any art.

I once received a job to crash number 4part NCR 2up invoices but the customer did not print the word INVOICE on both. I hand set the missing word from one of my 4 cases of type locked it up with 2 numbering heads and saved the job. Point here being offset don’t crash imprint.


Haven’t had a half century of experience, only a third, but this is a question best answered by a newbie. Remember when?


Hi Bern,
i spent10 years as a letterpress printer and the last 25 years as alitho printer. theres little skill involved these days!
I can remember using dragons blood making flongs and spending most of the shift making ready, using hand cut overlays etc using terms like “off its feet” hope you know what i mean. It gets in your blood, under your skin its an art form. When i watch the younger chaps at work they dont pay as mutch attention to detail as i do. They have no control with an ink knive they dig the ink out of the tin leaving a big hole where i take a level amount from across the top with a clean knive!! They wouldnt have the patience to do a proper makeready. I check my roller settings every other day takes 30 seconds a unit they only check them when theres a problem and then spend big time cursing and not knowing how to set rollers!!
Happy days

Hi Mike,
Good to hear from you, and to know that my thread can still bring in the response.
Of course I know what “Off its feet means” and i’m not referring to the fact that I may be lounging in my recliner with my feet off the floor!!
I too remember spending hours cutting three-ply overlays, for four-colour sets, and then only having the blockmaker’s progressives to work to. Operators today wouldn’t know where to start. It needed skill, patience and a fine eye for detail in those days.
I also used to check my roller settings daily, I had an engineer friend that ground down a one inch steel bar about 8 inches long to .918, and it lasted me years, and in fact I still have it inmy toolbox. Very useful when working a platen, just pop it on the bed then set the rollers so it just falls through with its own weight.
Also some people today do not know how to set an ink duct to get at least 3/4 max throw and the thinnest film necessary to ensure sufficient inking.
Ialso remember when I was a manager having to scold a Linotype op for not ensuring his slugs maintained type-height. His excuse ; “Its’ the mould wheel too hard to turn by hand if I set the back knife any tighter” My answer to that was the largest screwdriver I possess which gives terrific torque, and once I had set that back-knife to what I wanted there was no way he could move it, without using that driver.
As you say Happy Days.

Print by whatever means you enjoy the most.
Do what you love & love what you do.
I can tell the difference between digital, offset & letterpress.
What I like only matters to me.
Or maybe we should all be using a copy machine.
Just my opinion.

hi Bern
did you know an old english shilling coin also measures
918. I still have my 918 roller gauge off a Thompson platen.
Served my time on Thompson and Heidelberg platens.
Thompson platen was a very versatile machine. I remember doing some great 4 colour work and hand feeding odd shaped stock, cutting and creasing and the odd embossing job. I can also remember printing off large wooden type that must have 100 years old and it all went on the bonfire (crying shame).
I then moved on to Heidelberg cylinders, nearly sliced a finger tip off on a razor sharp duct blade. I ran 2 cylinders side by side. Printing on one and cutting and creasing on the other (hard but rewarding work).
My wife goes mad at me when were out as i keep looking at printed work looking for faults and thinking i could do better than that!! I must be daft.
The print trade here in the U.K.is very quiet at the moment,
too many printers and not enough work to go around.
Happy days

Surely the answer to Bern’s original question is impression - the half a million squid digital printshop down the road can’t deboss the paper like a vintage letterpress.

Okay, the heavily debossed letterpress printing we see today goes against the idea of a ‘kiss’ impression letterpress printers have traditionally sought; but in terms of market differentiation that 1pt-2pts debossing really stands out - size matters ;-)

However I really do agree with the discussion about debossing in an early post - it has to be applied to a good design/layout in the first place.