How to letterpress…

I’m starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be worth some effort to produce a website that would answer a lot of questions for people, and perhaps for some not so new, who need information for how to print.

I subscribe to a number of listservs (Letpress, ppletterpress, bookarts) and it seems that there are a lot of the same questions over and over.

It seems like there could be an effort to help consolidate a lot of information about how things are done and to also answer other questions about things like ink, rollers, etc.

I’m imagining lists of ‘frequently asked questions’ about the various topics.

Then it seems like a discussion could be started about those topics.

Perhaps people could supply photographs of things like locked up forms, samples of different techniques, etc.

Is there any interest in such an effort?

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Don’t know if you’re aware of it or not, but there is a lot of information available at Green Dolphin Press:
including a FAQ section.

Updated. I think greendolphinpress is a lot of good information but most of it doesn’t help you produce high quality printing very much. As I’ve gotten more and more focused on trying to print well it seems that there are lots of things that could be addressed. For instance we’ve been having a dickens of a time trying to print right with our Vandercook SP-15. It took days to figure out that the problem is the rollers which are a full 1/8” too small in diameter and we just could not avoid getting ink piled onto one side.

And with photos.

What are the MUST HAVES to get started
… Roller height gauge
… Tympan paper and on and on.
Ink (explaining differences between oil / rubber-based)
… Not using rubber-based if then run through a laserprinter
… How to make it thicker (and how thick is right) or thinner
… How to mix it
… Advantages of working from PMS colors to start
… How to use a PMS book
Papers (coated v. uncoated, thickness)
… scoring (creasing matrix, rule)
Packing (.040” base)
… Explaining tympan, mylar, Kimlon
… Non-slip packing

Locking up a form
… different kinds of quoins
… how to use furniture in better ways
… How to care for them
… When to replace (need a chart of most roller diameters)
… How to build up the roller guide on a C&P (with what and why)
… Roller bearers
… Roller height gauges and how to use them
How to compose type
… How to do a drop cap in metal
… How to avoid using thins
… How to center
Registration pins
… Explain the various ones
… How to use them and why
Redistributing type
… What is the fastest way
… Piling it v. stacking it like logs
… Good ways to deal with too much of a few characters
… Should you do 12 point and 36 point differently
… How might you deal with multiple designs for the same characters
How to get impression or not
Double inking, double rolling
… What that halo is around your type and how to get rid of it
… Uneven printing and how to avoid it
… How do you set up to print a book
… How do you get good registration front to back
… Quart of white vinegar + 2 tablespoons of salt = hydrochloric acid for getting rid of rust

Then I would imagine people submitting images of composed type showing basics and then interesting type arrangements.

I could imagine a ranking of presses so people would have a broad view of what kinds of presses they should be looking for.

I could imagine a nice portfolio of work done on various presses (imagine 10 nice cards/small books done on a small Kelsey) to show what is possible.

I also think it would be good to start an online glossary of terms and encourage the clear discussion of printing.

Online aids but nicely organized.

Maybe a few of the really good printers could each run off a nice sample (or maybe even a bad example) that people could pay $10 for the package and it would pay for the website. As an extension of that what if we collected 10 packs with 25 nice samples that people could borrow and then return (might pay a deposit fee).

Maybe people could just start listing things they’ve learned that others should know.

Wow! It it was good for me just to read your list. I am just getting started and even just knowing the right questions to ask or things to research is helpful. Can you post the answers all tomorrow???? Hahaha - of course kidding! I’m just getting excited to start in. No classes available within 5 hours of where I live so I am going to need to rely on books and helpful people using Briar Press.

Wow. When you put it that way there is a lot to getting started.
Just trying to avoid duplication of effort—have you looked at Dave Rose’s “Introduction to Letterpress Printing?” It’s linked to the APA (Amalgamated Printer’s Association) website—or I think this URL will take you there directly:

Again, David Rose has produced an incredible amount of information which is all important to the overall issue of letterpress printing, but it does little to actually help you PRINT WELL.

A for instance…

I took a class on the History of Type at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (which I highly recommend). One of the sessions was devoted to compositing a paragraph of metal type by hand. There were two things mentioned during the experience that have really stuck with me. I realize no rule is good for everyone, but these were for me.

1) Never use more than a total of two brass or copper thins in one line of type. We had a chart which would show you the relative combinations of 3/em, 4/em, 5/em and by using that chart you could make very subtle adjustments to the wordspacing to get lines to come out exactly right. After a couple of hours it got to be almost second nature. Clearly anyone is physically capable of using a gazillion thins but it is a sloppy habit that promotes other bad habits.

2) The process of picking up individual sorts and putting them into the composing stick was as follows.

As soon as you were putting one sort into the composing stick you attention should already be focusing on the cell in the type case where your next letter is coming from. You note the position of the nick while reaching for it. Once you’ve picked it up, as your hand starts to move toward the composing stick, your mind starts looking for the next sort. You had noticed the position of the sort in the case and you can be rotating it into the correct position without having to devote your full attention to its placement.

When I see most people just starting out they do the whole process for one sort to its completion and then they start the process for the next one. That pause that happens as you try to remember where the next sort is located takes up time between the positing of every sort and it just drags out the time it takes to set your text.

The process of putting the sort into alignment is mechanical and while you are doing that you should already be moving your mental attention to the next letter.

You can set type twice as fast that way.

What I was thinking was that there would be a nice description of this written out with more thought and care than I just took with maybe a short film showing it happen. I’m never going to be as fast as those guys who did this for a living back at the turn of the last century, but the faster I can do it right, the better.

Updated. Here is the image of the spacing combinations chart I mentioned in my previous response.

If you want to download a .pdf of the spacing chart here is that link.

If you are trying to fill out a line of text and an em space is a bit too much you can try a combination that gives you a smaller amount. Pretty quickly you get the rhythm and can simply look at the chart and sense how much you need to adjust. It really works quite nicely.

Updated. Someone told me the other day that rubber-based ink wasn’t good to use on a letterhead if that letterhead was going to be run through a laser printer (as opposed to an inkjet printer) because of the heat generated in the toner fuser would melt the rubber-based ink which would cause all sorts of problems in the printer.

That makes complete sense.

But it never occurred to me until they told it to me.

Maybe that kept me from really blowing an important job with an important client some day.

Where is that hint written down anywhere? And is it true?


This all sounds good but a couple of points to be considered:

We have never ever had such access to information as we do today as a result of the internet. The problem is not that the answers are not out there but more that folks don’t know how to find them, or are not willing to do the work to find them. David’s Introduction to Letterpress is literally the first item that pops up on a Google search. Why is this then such a surprising discovery?

Most of these questions have been addressed in standard print reference texts, such as the recently reprinted General Printing, which is highly promoted as an introductory text in the same Introduction. Is it being read?

One of the problems with a FAQ, and the reason we don’t have one at PPLetterpress is that they are static and don’t invite further communication. It might be quite tiresome to listen to the same old questions over and over again, but sometimes a new twist or idea is brought forth. That doesn’t happen with a FAQ.

Another problem is that FAQs are somewhat slanted in their approach, dependent upon who has compiled them. Boxcar’s FAQ on photopolymer is notorious in this regard, as it is nothing more than an infomercial.

Also, if folks can’t find the information on their own, given the plethora of information out there, how in the heck are they going to find the FAQ?


So much information here… I just want to keep track of it. Thanks.

Lock and load Wallflower, what’s the web address? There is a shrinking base of information on this topic, and as a new letterpresser who hasn’t a clue, I will gladly take all the information I can. Letterpress is as much learning a new language as it is the mechanics of operating a press.

Bielerpr is right that we have access more information than ever before, but I find it difficult to use this information to gain answers. After all, how useful are six different opinions on how to score? I’m still left wondering which one is right.

If you can put a site together that will be a “learn to letterpress” type site, I think you would have a homerun. In fact, I’d help put it together. The problem with asking for opinions is that you will end up with many. Just build it and your traffic will tell the rest of the story.