Foundry vs Photopolymer vs Laser

This posting is not meant to get anyone’s nose out of joint, but to begin a rather serious discussion about our future within the realm of letterpress.

I constantly see postings about alternatives to metal type, the most recent being the future of engraving with a lazer. My great fear is that by not supporting the few typecasting and platemaking businesses left that we are doomed to a sort of typographic limbo.

I have spent the last 30 years watching letterpress slowly disappear - I can’t tell you how many shops I have seen go to the scrap heap because of lack of interest and capital. Years ago when Barry Moser talked to me about alternatives to woodblocks for engraving, I offered to him that he should be supporting the blockmakers in trying to have a more constant flow of quality wooden engraving blocks. Unfortunately this plea fell on deaf ears. I am hoping that printers, whether beginners or veterans will see and understand that we are very close to a crisis in the world of letterpress. What are we as a community going to do about it? Are we going to support the historic processes or try to adapt to different ones?

As I read the posts here, I see a real fracturing of community and industry towards a more cottage type industry populated with insanely expensive Kelsey presses with Boxcar bases while production machines are going to to junkyard. Don’t get me wrong, I know folks have to start somewhere and the upswing in interest is encouraging, but at the same time critical pieces of letterpress’ historical foundation are vanishing - to be replaced by what?

Talk amongst yourselves……

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Devil- This is an interesting post, and one that is long over-due for discussion. Where ARE we going as a movement?

From all indications, “Letterpress”, especially hobby & artisitc expression printing, is growing by leaps and bounds…. and many people, including myself are actively experimenting with new ways of producing images. This is NOT an abandonment of our traditional heritage. Ever since the first cast-metal letter impressed a piece of paper, printers have sought ways to make the process faster, sharper, more legible, more user-friendly and less expensive. This is what lead to etching, pantograph-cut wood-type, Line-o-type machines, zinc cuts, PP Plates, and up along the ladder. The current trends toward adapting computer technology to letterpress is another step along that evolution. Personally, I’m not a big computer fan…… but I do see their usefulness as a tool.

Does this mean that I advocate we stop doing things “the old way”? Not at all. In fact, if you read some of my many postings here you’ll find that I am one of the most vocal proponents of re-examining and preserving the more traditional ways of doing things. This has included casting of one’s own rollers, using hand-set type, casting metal type, hand-engraving wood-blocks, making and using wood-type, and a whole host of other things. I firmly believe that there is much wisdom in the old methods, and that we should preserve the better aspects of earlier times.

However, there was also a few bad things associated with old-time letterpress that we should not not be so keen to pass on to this new crop of Artists/Craftsmen. Production letterpress as it was practiced in the 1960’s when I started was rather dangerous….. with presses that would bite your fingers off, acids that would burn you badly, and solvents like Benzene that would dissolve your brain cells as well as the ink. These things are mostly in the past…. and should remain there. With better materials and a more cautious mentality among practitioners, there is no reason for folks to get injured. This too is part of the evolution of Letterpress.

In the end, I think there is room in the Letterpress movement for both the Traditional and the Modern…… we should keep the best parts of the past, and embrace the better tools as they become available.

Well WC I see that we must be the only ones with concerns over the future of letterpress. It’s not the same community that I started out in most definitely. Kelseys rule (apparently).

I find it interesting that so many of the “newbies” want to get right to making a lot of money “letterpressing” — unfortunately, I suspect this will lead to a rush of high-priced presses changing hands rapidly as people try the process, only to discover it’s more complicated than they realized to produce and market quality work. For me the potential for preservation of letterpress lies with those who want to take the time to dig deep and learn both the historical technology and the potential for new techniques such as the laser-cut hardwood blocks. But type and commercial cuts will only be available while there is even the currently limited demand for them — as that dwindles, so will the supply. I hope there will still be some die-hards with Thompsons and CMC laser machines so at least a few of us can keep on “letterpressing”!

To AdLibPress…Amen. To Newbies: buy the books, read, learn, explore, THEN buy the press!!!!

Adlib and Devil-

I agree with both of you, and share a concern for the future of Letterpress. We are seeing a “changing of the guard” where the older letterpressmen are giving way to a new group of artisans who are not accustomed to the relatively long learning process that letterpress requires. Most of the new guard look to PP plates and Digital Imaging because it is cheaper and faster….. not because it’s aesthetically better. Much of the work that is being circulated nowadays as “artistic” would be considered sub-standard by the men who taught me the trade many years ago.

With this mindset, it is not surprising that Type Foundries, Block cutters, and other supporting businesses are declining. PP plates are indeed faster and cheaper…. and they do produce passable results, even in the hands of a mediocre printer. In today’s world of “good enough”, that level of quality is sufficient for the majority of printers and their customers.

I have no problems with PP plates per se. In fact I will admit that in the hands of a skilled worker, they can produce very beautiful results. The problem I see is that the “PP Plate model” as currently practiced limits the learning of the newbie printer. All some of them seem to be able to do is put a PP plate onto their Boxcar Base, and make impressions onto Lettra. For a Hobbyist, this might be OK. For a real “student of letterpress”, it is very limiting to one’s advancement.

Now….. who is to blame for this state of affairs? Well… WE are to blame. Those of us who have learned through years of practice and training have an obligation to teach the next generation. This not only applies to technical training, but also to the more philosophical aspects such as the parameters of quality, and WHY they should aspire to produce perfect prints. It is OUR job to show them the benefits of metal type or copper engravings….. to inspire them to greatness.

By the way… I LOVE Kelsey presses. They are slow and clunky, but they do work. More importantly, they were the first presses for many folks who went on to become accomplished printers…. like myself. ;)

An interesting discussion for me as a fairly new press owner. While I feel that using plates and Boxcar bases has a place in the industry, having been in the culinary field for over 30 years where you start at the bottom and learn all the skills, there is a part of me that feels the Boxcar method is taking shortcuts. …how about the part of learning how to unconsciously pull type from a job case and place it in the composing stick, setting whole pages using a galley, knowing how to tie up the type and transfer it to the chase, - the “industrial arts” parts of letterpress. Learn all that and THEN move on to “pre-made”. For the first time I had a letterpress die that had some text made for me (Beaver Engraving, Portland, OR - great company to work with) and was so excited to receive it and get to printing. But something was missing when I went to lock it up…that visceral part of the set up was not there, the figuring it all out part. I guess I am a bit old-fashioned in believing it is all part of a whole - understanding (and honoring) the history and process of an incredible art form.

It is not supposed to be easy!


There is something about what you are saying here that clicked a bit. I suspect printers from a different era, when there was no easy internet button to click, may have been fortunate. Stanislaus’s admonition earlier probably falls on deaf ears, but it certainly would not have when all that there was to learn from was books as reference, that or apprenticeship with a master, or actual technical institute instruction, when such a thing existed. I can’t imagine trying to learn how to print from web information alone.


I can’t help but wonder if there might be those that would purchase an old Heidelberg GTO and a Kenro camera so they could make direct separations and dry trap four color process on a single color offset press.
Can you even buy Tri-Masking film anymore?