Type high

I’ve just returned from a three-day course at Central St Martins in London. I went last year on their 100 Design Projects week-long course and I found it very… challenging, shall we say. It confirmed my feeling that I am not an artist but a designer who needs to create within certain constraints.

This year’s course, run by Helen Ingham of Hi-Artz Press, was much more to my taste. A short introduction to letterpress printing, with a chance to try out compositing, printing with metal and wood type and using a couple of different machines, it most certainly provided constraints to work within!

I knew a bit about the theory of letterpress, but as with all hands-on activities in art, music, sport or anything else, there’s a world of difference between knowing the theory and putting it into practice. For instance, it’s easy(ish) to create a design that you want to print. However, you then have to find letters to print it with (and very few places will have as an extensive collection of fonts as you find on a modern computer) and fix those letters together in a forme which is firmly held in place with no movement at all, so that under the pressure from the rollers or platen the type stays still and the print is clear and sharp. This is far easier said than done: it took about an hour for me to fix one forme so that the type stayed put, and at one point this involved poking slivers of paper into the tiny gaps between the type. We were told that, although a bit of a bodge, it was something that jobbing letterpress printers do in extremis ‘and don’t let them tell you that they don‘t.’

type set on a composing stick

My first piece of typesetting using a composing stick: three lines of 18pt type in three fonts, printed on a flatbed Farley press in Bordeau Red.

Our first task was to set two or three lines of type in one of the lovely old brass compositing sticks, complete with LCC stamps from 1908 when the council-run college was opened. Despite my mathmatical ability it just wasn‘t as easy as it looked: trying to jam in the last thin space into a gap which was thinner than that, removing all the spaces and trying again with a different permutation of sizes. We set these all together on a flatbed press, learnt about how to fix the forme in place with furniture and quoins, and printed some copies off. It really was exciting to see just how the type printed on paper!

print using wooden type

Two-colour design using 9-line wooden type (Gill Sans bold and Caslon bold). First pass printed in a yellow/warm red gradient and the second in blue.

The next day we used larger wooden type to set a two-colour job. Each of us made up two designs which would overprint; the first colour was chosen to be yellow and warm red, put on the same roller and blended together. The second colour was blue, and on mine you can see how the wooden type has worn slightly, and is less than ‘type high’ – 0.918", the distance between the foot of the type and the printing face.

Farley flatbed printer

Farley flatbed printer, inked up and ready to print.

printed business card

Business card printed on textured cream stock. The first colour used Clarendon bold in purple and was printed on an Adana press, and the second was done by hand.

On the final day we were to use a different printer, an Adana vertical platen press, and print a business card for ourselves or an imaginary friend. I took rather a while to set my type to my satisfaction so time was tight. I managed to print the first colour, although I think the ink was running out, but had no time to set up the machine for the second colour, so simply hand-inked my type and pressed the paper onto it. It was less than satisfactory but gives an idea of what was intended.

All in all it was a very enjoyable three days and I would love to do more letterpress work. Sadly, though, we were the last group of arts students to be taught in the wonderful old Southampton Row building. It‘s been bought to be turned into a luxury hotel, and its parquet flooring, high ceilings and old metal-framed windows will no longer smell of lead and printing ink.