The ‘right personality’ for letterpress?

I’m still pretty new to the printing side of things, so perhaps my thoughts on this are influenced by the fact that I am still a beginner and am therefore going through a pretty steep learning curve at the moment.

But for the last few days, I have been thinking about whether there are certain types of people/personalities who are better suited to letterpress than others, and whether I in fact have what it takes to do this?

I love letterpress, and love the end result. When everything is going well I find the printing process so satisfying and get a lot of pleasure out of printing something beautiful and unique.

But… when things are not going well, and I have tried everything I can think of to remedy the problem, and it still doesn’t work (like the last two days where I have had repeated problems printing some sections of text, but not others) I could literally cry with frustration!

Is this just because I am going through an intense period of learning about my press, or is letterpress printing always like this? Seems to me that letterpress is basically about problem-solving and perseverance… but at times it is just incredibly frustrating and requires super-human levels of patience!

Of course there is a lot of satisfaction in solving problems, and I do love the sense of achievement when I have figured out what is causing the problem and fixed it, but when I don’t know what the problem is or how to fix it (which feels like is most of the time right now) it is really just maddening, and at those times I can’t help but question the sanity of trying to pursue letterpress at all!

I guess what I am trying to say is that right now this letterpress business is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me - flying high one minute, down in the dumps the next.

I am wondering whether others ever feel like this, and if it got a lot better once you gained more experience, or if it is always this battle between “yay, it’s working!” and “aaaarrrghhhhhhh!!!”

By the way, I am actually a pretty patient person (I have a 9 month old baby - if anything will teach you patience it is having a baby!) But even so, letterpress sometimes feels like it is going to get the better of me…

Would love to hear what others think about this :)

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What else in life have you tried to learn and encountered frustrations? Lots of life is like that. It is a risk/time/expense vs. rewards thing. Did you master the music or dance lesson? Did you fall from your bicycle and cry when you skinned your knee. Then did you later master the bicycle? How about cooking?
If you continue in printing you will continue to meet up with challenges. If the frustration gets to be too much, walk away from it and return another time. Doctors and dentists and lawyers speak of a practice. Printing is like that. One keeps doing it hoping to get better and learn more stuff along the way.
Except for about 40 years away from printing for a career, I have been mesing with printing since 1947. I now teach. With a student in my shop we encountered a problem (I now call them challenges). I gave the student a couple of questions to stimulate her problem solving analysis. They didn’t work. Then I tried to solve the challenge. I did not do any better. It was something I had never encountered before. The wizard could not perform magic for the student. We cleaned up and walked away. I put it in the back part of my brain and a potential solution came to me that evening. Early the next day I went to the shop and did the magic to make things right.
Long story. I hope it illustrates the philosophy that has worked for me and hopefully will for you too.
I think the rewards are there if you have the patience to work for them.
I say that you have to be just a little smarter than the machine. Not a lot, but some.
If you understand the basics and how things are supposed to work, you can trouble shoot.
Last comment. Only change one thing at a time and test.
No. One more. Wait until your baby gets to be two years old for a real test in patience.

Dude, I’m dealing with being a letterpress newb while being a single father of a 3-year old autistic child. You’ve got it easy!

I’m an old man and that conflict has never resolved itself. I think the only hope is that the choice of material that you choose to print must truly warrant the time and the struggle. Choose some new writing you believe in, some images that warrant publication but that no one else will print, something of your own which must be seen to be understood, etc. Then when you reach the end of the trials and tribulations you truly feel that the effort was worth it.The work is born and out there with it’s absolutely best format…from there it must stand on its own merits but you can find peace and solace that you have moved it forward as your talents and tools provided. That is enough- really.

Thanks all for your comments, they are all helpful and some of them made me laugh! (which is good when the other option is tearing my hair out)

Megahurt - I take my hat off to you!!

Inky - I loved your story. The advice to sometimes walk away and try another day is spot on and I am going to try to remember it the next time I am at the hair-tearing point.

Ke - thank you for the advice as well, very true what you say to print something that has meaning to me and then the hard work is all the more worth it.

At the moment I am printing wedding stationery (not accepting paying jobs yet, just printing samples for myself and to learn) but my main panic is what will happen when I do have a paying letterpress job… if I can’t get it to work?! What then?!

Like you say Inky, I guess I just have to have confidence that I (and my husband) can together be smarter than the press. Yikes.

Miss C, letterpress doesn’t just happen because you take a class or read a couple of books, it takes years to master the trade. There are so many things that can and will go wrong it can feel like everything you try don’t help. thats when you walk away take a break then come back and try again. I have befriended many other printers over the years, when things seem impossible i try to call someone with a little more experience than me. Only problem with that is after 50 years printing there aren’t many older printers left, sometimes just talking it over with another printer and sharing ideas helps a lot (right Greg Carpenter), the biggest problem i find with this letterpress is no matter what you start with you always think maybe a bigger press will be better, then you don’t have enough type to fill the bigger chase, so more type is needed, oh no now i need a larger stone, then more furniture, more quoins, a longer composing stick, bigger line gauge, bigger stock, a larger paper cutter, oh no now i need more space. What i’m saying is you have to be nuts to do this stuff, its like a bad habit, you always crave for more, but when things go good its very rewarding, when things aren’t going so good, call another printer who’s most likely been there and put your heads together and solve your problems. There have been times when i wanted to quit, but i have done this all my life and i wouldn’t ever want to stop printing. Dick G.

I just did my first paying wedding job on Saturday. It was a 3 piece wedding program; 1 color, rounded corners, bound together with a ribbon.

It was too much to deal with on my substandard presses (that’s right I said it!), so I went and used someones C&P 10x15 and they came out as good as I could have hoped for. I suppose I’ll post a pic somewhere when they get all bound together.

Enjoyed you query. Recently I took up golf, or should I say took up golf again. It feels just like your description of your trials with letterpress. Periods of things working well coupled with longer periods of sheer aggregation.
I played yesterday and decided that even when it is good, that is I make a good shot, it just isn’t good enough to make me want to stay after it. The end result is not as satisfying as say- riding my bike!
So here is the thing, if you like the end result, and it is satisfying, stay with it. The more you practice the better you will be and the more satisfying your results will be.
Especially if you are printing things that are fun for you. How about something for your young child. How about a birthday card, a new one for him/her every year.
Briarpress is a tremendous resource of very good and helpful information, when you need help, reach out this is a great community.
Last thought, I have no children but I have to believe that child rearing has to be much tougher than printing. So I wish you all the best and offer any help I can be- with letterpress that is!
Feel free to contact me if you need help.
[email protected]

What an inspirational thread! Ke, I especially relate to your comments: if your heart is in whatever you’re doing (yes, and even golf is an analogy, I suppose!), then you’ll always have the upper hand on any stress about not being able to come up to expectations.

To me, this string represents the very best of this group, from the willing guidance of seasoned veterans who’ve seen and weathered all, yet realize they don’t know it all, to the frustrations and insecurities of novices like myself who share their love of the medium and zeal to excell, even if not yet the expertise to fully demonstrate it.

Well I for one feel so much better after having this conversation with you all! Thank you so much. I don’t have any other letterpress contacts so this is such a great resource for support.

dickg - that is so, so true re thinking the problem is you just need a bigger press! ha. I have fallen for that one once already, and I can already see myself doing it a second time! Although I am quite happy with the current press I am working on so no plans to upgrade anytime soon (husband would possibly attempt to kill me anyway).

megahurt - I would love to see a pic of your booklets. Congrats on making it through your first paying wedding job all in one piece :)

Steve Varvaro - I like your golf analogy. Yes, I do like the end result, and yes it is satisfying (albeit mixed with bouts of intense frustration). But as dickg says, I can’t hope to become an expert after only a few weeks’ printing. Maybe I am not as patient as I thought? Actually I think my problem is more that I am a perfectionist and I want the final product to look just as good as what I see other people achieving, even if those people have most likely been at it for years. And then I get frustrated/disillusioned when it doesn’t.

emthree - I totally agree, this is a wonderful resource and community of people all willing to share and help each other out. And as for “frustrations and insecurities” - that pretty much sums up how I have felt the last week… I think I am basically just afraid that no matter how hard I try I might not be able to produce work that measures up to the standards I want to achieve. Trying to run before I can walk maybe? Actually I think my daughter was doing that this afternoon, trying to stand up before she can crawl… maybe it runs in the family?!

Hang in there. All the troubleshooting is education well learned that will stay in your knowledge bank throughout your letterpress experience.

My mentor once said to me that a journeyman would work 6 years before running a press. The 6 years would be understanding all aspects of printing, setting type, troubleshooting, etc… I’ve been printing 10 years and will still learn something new.

What you learn now is the valuable clutter to becoming a printer. I’ve been a graphic designer for 21 years and the computer facilitates a fast production of a design job. Unlike letterpress printing and the production of files there is lots of patience required.

Don’t give up, be patient, ask questions, find a mentor, and enjoy the process.

Inky Lips Press

Letterpress is an art and skill and it takes time and learning. Yes, at first you things might not go as planned, but hang in there, learn from each job.

That is why I HATE the computer, in the computer world, everyone that owns one is NOW a graphic artist.

The skill of printing a business card or 100 page book is lost in the fact a person with a computer can make it look so easy.

Letterpress is a hands on art form, that shows your skill of doing the job. As time goes on, you will become better at this art form and print jobs without any problems.

I was not born a patient person, so for me, letterpress printing is one way to practice and grow my patience. When nothing is going right and I get that tense, frustrated feeling, I try to take a deep breath and actually…enjoy feeling that way.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I remind myself that if everything were always calm and perfect, I’d be dead. I’m alive (at the moment), so all is still in process, bumps and all. Love it!

There is no “right personality” for letterpress. I’ve known printers with all sorts of temperments, and many of them were superb printers, printmakers, and artisans.

The way I see it, a printing press is just another tool like a hammer or a paintbrush….. and just like any other tool, it all depends on what we DO with it.

If we are bold and unencumbered, we can use our presses for new-age printmaking. If we are very, very conservative we can use the same press to produce very traditional books according to the dictates of Tischschold. If we like fancy invitations, we can print those….. and if we just want to goof off on a printing tangent that we ourselves don’t even understand, the process will support that too.

In this whole discussion, I think we’ve gone down the path backward. The question is not “what is the right personality for letterpress?”… but rather “how can I best use letterpress to match my own unique perspective?”


Here you go miss_c… I posted pics of that first job:

30 years of running letterpresses and I can still get frustrated. It takes time, patience and practice.
I like the analogies of music, painting and someone once told me cooking. I’m also a professional musician and I feel lucky everyday to do the 2 things I love most for my work.
But I agree with dickg, there just aren’t many more ‘oldtimers’ left who went through an apprenticeship and move up the pressroom floor. The first job I had was locking up chases (the right way!) for 3 months before I even touched a press.
I meet many eager students and designers who take classes in my shop and a lot of them leave saying they love it, but just wouldn’t have the patience. I always looked at it as a cross between a study in patience and being creative. After each class, I go in the next morning, get a big cup of coffee, turn on the stereo and sort type and images…ahhhh!
Polymer plates have made it much easier for the beginner to print on a small tabletop or small floor model press but the basic trails and tribulations are still common to the process. Humidity can make paper curl, is it too hot or too cold for your ink to open up, is the machine maintained…
Classes always help as well as books, but there is no substitute for figuring it out, sometimes that’s the coolest part.
Hang in there