After a year’s worth of preparation involving extensive research, gathering together materials, and planning, production is now underway. I am setting up the ready-to-print pages (formes) at home and loading them into my little green car every fortnight to drive down to the Melbourne Museum of Printing. Here I lock them on to the bed of the old Western cylinder press and print one hundred and forty copies (at least), four pages at a time.
Some Challenges and Rewards
Letterpress printing can be fraught with challenges, at every stage of production. Typesetting by hand means that one mishap can ruin hours—even days’—worth of work. Then there is the process of making up the forme: a strenuous mathematical marathon for someone numerically challenged, like me! This is similar to a precision-focused game of Tetris, which involves fitting the correct dimensions of ballasting material (furniture, leads and reglets) around the type and engravings, and locking them into the frame which contains it all (the chase).
Once the forme is complete, I must go through the ‘makeready’ process: testing the printed results on the press and adjusting ink, rollers, gauges and packing (the amount of paper and card under the press sheet, which allows for a lighter or deeper impression). I must place shims and underlays beneath the engravings to make them ‘type high’ and to insure that they are printing evenly, and that the print is lining up (registering) correctly on the page. I must check for, and replace, damaged type, and make the necessary alterations to accommodate an even impression. Then, I’m ready to print! Even this stage can be an elaborate undertaking on an old press like the Western. Printing is not automated, but is performed via a crank, which I turn to roll the cylinder that bears the paper, over the forme. A technique that is not consistent can cause misaligned registration—or smudging.
But the result is striking, crisp and tactile—as only letterpress can be. The printed page is created through the perfect—and sometimes imperfect—union of fine ink and precision-cast alloy pressed onto cotton paper. And the most rewarding part is that every stage has been performed by hand.
Check out the video of me printing (below)