Introduction to Letterpress
I spent yesterday at a wonderfully enjoyable workshop – Introduction to Letterpress – run by Sat Kalsi at the Leicester Print Workshop. The day itself was very well organised and expertly run. Sat is a great teacher: knowledgeable, helpful and always encouraging. But she must have been exhausted by the end of the day.
We began with an introduction of how to set metal type using a composing stick. Sat had set out a number of type cases of different sizes, from 18pt to 36pt. I gravitated to an 18pt case as I had come prepared with some longish texts. I’d asked my wife and daughter for some texts that they might like set in addition to the Donne poem I was taking, The Sun Rising. Maggie chose Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 116 while Vick gave me some favourite extracts and poems.
It was obvious that I needed to choose the shortest piece to set and so began on the sonnet. Sat looked at the poem and recommended that I count the number of e’s and a’s in it to see if there was enough in the tray – there wasn’t, so she fetched me another tray, 18pt Garamond.
The composing stick has a sliding end which is set to the maximum length needed for the whole text, in multiples of 6pt, and is left there for the whole page. So, I first set the longest line of the sonnet, the line beginning ‘Whose worth’s unknown…’. This took a long time. The type was set out in an ‘Improved Double Case‘ (though a few of my letters were in slightly different places), so each letter was a matter of hunt and pick using the layout sheet provided. Unfortunately, a lot of the letters had been previously replaced in the wrong slots so I had to check each letter as I took it out.
It turned out I needed a 36pt line length. I wasn’t going to reset that line again so placed a spacer underneath it and began on the first line.
When one of us had enough lines ready to take off the stick, Sat showed us how to remove the lines from the stick and slide them onto the galley tray (a metal tray with raised edges). I did this in sets of four lines. The composing stick got incredibly heavy. It is held, resting on the left arm with the thumb of the left hand holding the last placed type in place. Since all the type is cast in lead, you can imagine what a six inch by 2 inch lump of lead feels like resting on your hand and arm all day long!
This is a shot of the first eight lines of the sonnet in the galley tray. Each line has spacers at the end so that the letters are held quite tight and magnets (very powerful magnets – they take quite some effort to shift).
After the lines are taken off the composing stick onto the press, a proof is taken to check for mistakes. Sat rolled out some black ink (the same as for linocuts and other relief printing work) and showed us how to roll it onto the type. The whole galley tray is then taken to the Galley Press (a simple roller on guides) and a proof taken. Any mistakes then have to be corrected. This was not easy for someone with my clumsy fingers – I could have done with a pair of tweezers but I guess they aren’t used as they’d damage the lead type. Luckily, as my tray had so many letters in the wrong place, I’d been closely checking my work as I went along so only had about four mistakes in the whole text, e.g.:
By the time I’d set the whole poem, my back was killing me. Standing up, leaning over a desk all day is not fun. I’d got used to hunting out the letters so was able to sit down towards the end, but was still very sore.
Sat hunted out a nice gothic-style face, 18pt Light English Text, for me to use on the title for the poem and I set that and proofed it.
Setting such a longish text took me a long time. Others on the workshop set more sensible length texts and were able to do more than one. A couple of people moved on to setting wooden type to make sizeable posters. Another woman had brought some paper onto which she had painted a few colours and printed onto that – it looked great.
After checking the proof, I transferred the text to a chase – a heavy metal frame which takes your text block and uses quoins and other furniture to lock it into place in a much more stable way than with the magnets in the galley tray. I then used this on the Britannia Press to print onto stock paper:
This is my second-best printing. The best one went to Maggie.
I’d like to thank Sat for all the help she gave me during the workshop. It was a fantastic day and I’m very pleased with the amount I learned and with the printed results.