Designing for Letterpress

There’s something sexy and mysterious about letterpress printing. I still remember the first letterpress piece I really noticed. I saved it from the garbage when we were cleaning out some old files, not long after I joined the HOW staff. The paper was a lovely cream color, and the two typefaces that made up the bulk of the broadside gracefully played off each other and the illustration behind them. The skillful printing turned a lovely quote from Through the Looking Glass into a tangible, covetable keepsake.

I immediately gave the piece to my best friend Alice, a Wonderland aficionado, and it still hangs above her desk as a reminder that just because something doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway. Letterpress in the age of the Internet doesn’t make much sense. It requires skill and patience. Why go to all that trouble for a few pieces of paper? The obvious answer is because it’s gorgeous. It’s also memorable, tactile and full of possibility. But another answer lies in actually running a press, something the HOW staff recently experienced.

Printer’s Apprentice
Ars Brevis Press is housed in the home of Cincinnati-based designer, printer and educator Katie Harper. A room off the kitchen is devoted to paper and binding. Her former garage serves as the printing room with two Vandercook proofing presses and two Chandler & Price platen presses. A few steps into the basement leads to the typesetting room.

All five HOW staffers took over Ars Brevis for a day to design and print our own broadsides (with a lot of help from Harper). After going over the general guidelines for the project, she turned us loose on the cases of type to rummage around and choose a font or two.

Spending the morning setting type by hand made us all appreciate the convenience of QuarkXPress, but putting each line together with the proper word spacing and leading (chunks and thin bars of metal) made the conventions of typesetting tangible. Wrestling with the letters—they have to be set upside down and backwards—became a meditation on detail and patience.

Harper says part of what attracted her to the letterpress is the precise process of printing. “I’ve always been interested in process,” she says. “I guess that’s why I ended up being a photographer and a printmaker because I always like to learn how to control and manipulate those little things, whether you’re getting something beautiful and elegant or something wild and wacky.” Harper creates both kinds of work. She’s designed elegant business cards and wedding invitations for clients, but she’s happy to push the limits of the letterpress in her personal work. The Hit, a letterpress and mixed-media book she designed and printed in 2000, is a perfect example. A short story about love gone awry and the fantasy of plotting revenge, The Hit interweaves quotations from songs and poems about love with the text of the story.

The entire book was printed on one of Harper’s Vandercooks. She hand-set the quotations and lyrics and printed them on Neenah UV/Ultra, each quotation in a different color ink. They’re overprinted and layered on the pages in tinted varnish, with one readable version in a darker color that stands out amid the layers. Harper set the story, which is barely visible through the translucent UV/Ultra, in Linotype Optima and printed it with black ink on Neenah Classic Cotton paper. The cover is made of 1U4 in. clear acrylic, shot with a .38-caliber bullet.

Although Harper used linotype for The Hit, this kind of experimental project is often created with polymer printing plates made from light-sensitive plastic. Basically, Harper says, you can have film, and then a plate, made from any digital file. Of course, you can also print from woodcuts, linocuts or any other relief process.

What a Relief
Relief printing dates back more than 1,000 years, when Chinese scribes painstakingly carved characters into wood blocks to print books. In the mid-1400s, Gutenberg popularized movable type that could be printed on a modified winepress. And while mechanized letterpresses are much more complex, the basic idea is the same: A thin coating of ink is applied to a raised surface—letters or illustrations151;and paper is pressed onto the surface to make an impression.

The result is usually a very tactile printed piece that stands out from the slick, offset work common today. The HOW staff’s printing excursion was inspired by the increased number of letterpress projects we’ve seen in our competitions. They always catch our eyes, even among thousands of competitors. As I was researching this story, a letterpress postcard peeking out of our mailbox got my attention. Someone has amazing timing, I thought.

The postcard turned out to be a promotion designed and printed by Brooklyn, NY-based illustrator Derek Stukuls. Stukuls was inspired by his wife, a printmaker, to explore the letterpress. “She helped me make a book of bowling cards, kind of like old-fashioned baseball cards, on a Vandercook press at The Center for the Book Arts in the city,” he says. Stukuls was hooked.

He and his wife acquired their first press from a retired hobby printer. “He was offering to sell them,” Stukuls says. “So we went up to Boston to talk to him and he ended up giving us one of his machines.” The pair lugged the 900lb. press back to Brooklyn and set it up in their studio.

Stukuls says he’s noticed an increased interest in his letterpress work—he also does digital illustration for clients like The New York Times, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Rhode Island Monthly. “When I send out a promo, I get a lot of calls from people who are excited by it,” he says. “They like the feel of it, the look of it. I always get great responses, but people often don’t know how to put letterpress into their projects.”

As a result, Stukuls uses the two presses he now owns (a Golding and a Chandler & Price) mainly for personal projects. Like other letterpress owners, he’s had to learn to care for the vintage machines. “When we got our first press, the spring came out and there was really no one to turn to to find out how to put the spring back in, so my friend’s father and I had to figure it out,” he says. “It was dangerous and scary, but we did it, and I’m not too worried if it pops out again.”

Runs in the Family
Judith Berliner, a full-time letterpress printer, is luckier. The daughter of noted printer Harold Berliner, she relies on a mechanically inclined pressman and her trade secret—Jim Lauback. “He worked for my Dad when I was a little girl,” she says. “When it comes to these presses, there are weird

little buttons that will make them go backwards and things. You’ve got to know somebody who’s been in the industry for years to find out some of this stuff.” Berliner herself has been in the industry for more than 25 years, beginning her career keyboarding and running limited-edition monotype books for her father, then working for the offset printer Graphic Center in Sacramento, CA, and now running Full Circle Press in Nevada City, CA. She’s the printer behind many notable letterpress projects, including the Through the Looking Glass quote designed by Sacramento-based Tackett- Barbaria.

Berliner confirms that there’s been a recent resurgence in letterpress printing. “I’ve been busy since I started,” she says of her 12-year-old press. In fact, HOW published a story about the rising popularity of letterpress in 1991. “But things have really shifted in the last two years,” she says. “Three years ago, I was doing boatloads of business cards. Now I’m doing a lot of wedding invitations, special events, baby announcements—most of them custom.”

Most of Berliner’s customers are regulars who appreciate her experience. “Generally, they’ll send me a PDF and we’ll talk about the project on the phone,” she says. “And, if I can get them to, I have them send me film.” Berliner does all her work from polymer plates. “I love it. There’s a whole group of printers who treat hot type like a religion. They can print from it as long as they want, but I like polymer. I like the way it stores. I like the way it prints.

I like not having to touch lead,” she says. The designers Berliner works with usually want a really hard hit to get the popular letterpress feel, and she says polymer stands up to that abuse much better than metal type.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s
“Don’t smash the type!” is Harper’s No. 1 letterpress rule. Tiny metal letters aren’t impervious to repeated use. Case in point: At the HOW workshop, after I’d set my type on the press and run a proof, we noticed that one of the D’s was chipped. I ran downstairs to the type case and selected a different one, traded it for the broken D and ran my job—six broadsides of part of my favorite Pablo Neruda poem on a shiny silver sheet from Curious Papers.

A lot of different papers work well for the letterpress. “If you’re going for the really nice impressions that letterpress can make, then the more rag content in the paper, the better,” Harper says. “Generally speaking, softer papers do better than papers that are super-calendered. Sometimes a paper with a texture on it can be impressed and it will show off that effect more.”

Although most designers leave the printing to the experts, Harper recommends a hands-on workshop to really learn the strengths and weaknesses of the letterpress. “Letterpress has certain limitations,” she says. “And you need to learn what really makes the letterpress sing. Usually those are things like the tactile qualities, the palpable capability that letterpress has to take a printed piece and make it a seductive piece of communication by reaching people with touch as well as vision.”

And it seems that letterpress is reaching more and more people. The list of small presses is long and growing. If you want to give letterpress a shot for a willing client, it shouldn’t be tough to find someone in your area to do the job. “The thing I’d recommend to designers is to get samples of the work, and certainly don’t go for the cheapest bid. Letterpress isn’t something where you want to price shop,” Harper says. “It takes a long time, and the people who are doing it deserve to be paid for their skill.”

I learned, the hard way, the importance of skill and experience. After I’d run the last page through the Vandercook, I looked over my finished work. Where there had once been a chipped D, now stood a lovely, perfect B. My No. 1 rule for letterpress: Mind your B’s and D’s.




Little Book of Letterpress is a treasure trove of remarkable work from some of the hottest and coolest letterpress studios working today, including Egg Press and Hello Lucky.

In this recording of her HOW Conference session, Judith Berliner offers a brief history of pre-computer letterpress and an overview of letterpress equipment, then shows you how to design for letterpress and choose appropriate paper.