The Art of Letterpress: Printing Process

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The process of printing for my handmade book was an intense one.  I was using a beautiful, well oiled Vandercook press, and because of the size of my paper and the number of pages and illustrations, I had 4 press runs, 2 of them text on both sides, and the other 2 were illustrations. I made 12 books, so that is 24 times through the press!

First, I had to dampen the paper with a sponge and store them in a plastic bag while preparing the press. Then, I printed the text, which was very precarious to move without toppling it over.  After careful measuring, I added the wooden blocks to the pressbed that are called “furniture”, and then two locking metal bars on the side and on the bottom which apply pressure and lock everything into place. After mixing my ink, I turned on the press, lowered the rollers, and used the corner of the palette knife to dot ink on the top roller. This motion spreads the ink evenly to all five rollers. I put the press on “trip” which lowers the rollers to ink the type, then switched it to “print.” I stepped on a pedal which releases the grippers at the top of the press to secure the paper for printing, (and a few layers of newsprint packing behind the paper) then let the pedal go when the paper was secure. Making sure the press was set to print, I used one hand to crank the press along the bed and the other hand to hold the paper against the timpin as it fed through. The timpin is a thick, oil resistant paper that is wound tight around a large roller that fits tight like a drum. It acts as packing so the paper your printing on has enough punch and gets printed evenly and cleanly. This is also what the newsprint behind the paper does.

After printing the type, I put the damp paper back in the plastic bag and cleaned the type, then removed it and the smaller furniture and fit my illustrations in, using various sized furniture. Getting a tight lock around everything is extremely important so everything prints smoothly and cleanly. Then I repeated the same process for the illustrations. They were tough to print because I had such large blocks of color, it took a lot of adjusting the press to get an even print. Take a look at these process pictures:


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Showing 2 comments
  • candice

    This process is so cool but seem like so much painstaking and precise work. Who was lucky enough to get one of the twelve books?

  • emily

    It was very cool, but extremely tough. I didn’t talk about it in the entry because it started getting too long, but I had to start the printing process all over again after all these pictures were taken. I had been in the lab for 12 straight hours and had messed up the alignment and wasn’t getting consistent prints. My teacher came back to the studio at 10:30 at night after her night class, and was like, “Oh my gosh we are going to have to start over.” I felt so hopeless! It was the end of the semester, and she came in to help me for a few days in the studio after classes were done. It was so time consuming and frustrating, but I’m so glad I didn’t walk away from the project!

    I gave one of the books as a Christmas gift to my boss whom I teach ballet for at her studio, she was the director of The Nutcracker for many years. I dedicated the book to my sister so I gave one to her, and one to my mom. I had to turn in 2 copies for the class to be shown as examples for future classes, and 2 more copies are on display right now in the gallery on campus. I don’t think I want to part with the rest of them! I have tons and tons of prints on newsprint and Rives BFK printmaking paper that were the mess-ups, I’m planning on doing some sort of collage painting with them, and maybe trimming them down and selling them individually.


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