Blog from Freelance Artworker

The Letterpress Typesetting & Printing Process

In Business Cards, fonts, letterpress, typography on 26/06/2010 at 1:04 pm
Letterpress Work on a Proofing Press

Letterpress Work on a Proofing Press

Well after a really interesting course at St Martin’s College learning how to print using letterpress techniques, I thought I would share with you some of the things I learned.

The best part of the course was being able to work with actual, physical, moveable type. This gave me a much better idea of the physical size of type, spacing and it’s relation to the page. I feel computers, whilst they help speed up the process, take the physical side of things away from us. It does wonders for your creativity no end if you get away from it once in a while and revisit a manual process.


Letterpress printing is a physical process. It starts with the type itself, the size of which and the spacing around it. You can get type (individual letters) in metal or wood blocks, in various sizes. They are measured in points, picas or lines. There are 72 points to one inch, and if you recognise the term, it is still used in computing today to select the size of text you use in your document. The spaces between the words and the lines themselves are also measured in points and again are physical pieces of lead. These are used to help set the lines or paragraph of text and have pleasing spacing between. The term leading comes from the actual piece of lead that sits between the lines of type to separate them from each other. There are other pieces of furniture for creating space around the type area, and to fill the frame it sits in (called a chase, ready to be put on the printing machine later, to take the impression from). There can be made of lead, metal, wood or plastic. When setting up a page in the chase the pieces must fit exactly. A bit like a jigsaw puzzle really (and this part was really good fun!).

Letterpress Typesetting

Letterpress Typesetting

So, the first thing was to get used to setting a line of type. This is done using a composing stick and you set the width of the line of type using the adjustable knee. As it all needs to be accurate, a piece of furniture of the required width should be used to set the line size initially. Then a piece of leading is placed in the stick before composing to help with removal of the body of type later.

The type is then taken from a wooden type case or drawer which contains all the characters of a particular typeface and type size. Each character has it’s own set place in the drawer, and a map is often used to help find them. So each character needed is taken out of the space in the drawer and placed in the stick reading upside down, and left to right (so it is right reading when printed onto a page). Each line is separated using a piece of leading, and each character separated using the required spaces again (en, em, thick, thins, quads etc).When setting it is important to make sure everything is square, level, tight and all the lines are the same length (inserting extra spacing as needed)  to help you later on. Care should also be taken not to move the body of type once set, or let it fall out of the stick as you will have to start all over again!

Letterpress Type trays

Letterpress Type trays

Two terms may also be of interest – type high; which is the standard height of the type blocks 0.918 inches, or 23.3 mm, and kerns which are the parts of the letter that stick out, such as in “f”. When setting these next to another letter they do not fit right due to the overhanging piece, so a special ligature should be used such as “fl”, another term that has been transferred to computer typesetting today.

Once the body of type  is set, and if setting large amounts of type, when the stick is half full it is time to transfer it to an imposing stone with a type galley at the ready. The type is carefully slided onto the galley ready to assemble into the final forme, and then locked into chase (metal frame used to hold the type in the printing press).

Letterpress forme in the chase

Letterpress forme in the chase

Letterpress Printing

Various printing machines can be used, such as the smaller Adana presses gradually making a comeback today. It is this we will take as an example (as we have also bought an Adana 8×5, with associated bits from an old printer on e-Bay!).

The  first step is to transfer some ink to the platen. This is done by placing a small blob of ink onto a sheet of non-absorbent material such as sheet metal or glass and using a hand roller to evenly distribute the ink over the surface. The inked up roller is then used to transfer the ink to the platen in a thin layer, again evenly.

Then it is time to insert the chase containing your forme. The machine rollers should be in their lowest position whilst you do this. There is a bed next to this area with a laygauge to help position your paper (the bed should be packed with suitable material to help raise the paper to the appropriate height to help a good impression). The sideways position of the paper is fixed by a small piece of lead glued in place, or a laygauge pin.

Positioning the lay gauge on the Adana Letterpress

Positioning the lay gauge on the Adana Letterpress

The gripper is then positioned correctly and the handle should be depressed lightly to check positioning when it will be fully depressed. Care should be taken so that the laygauge and gripper does not hit the type, as this will damage the type.

Once checked, the handle can then be depressed several times to ink up the rollers (transferred to them from the platen), then with the paper or card in position, depress the handle firmly until it makes contact with the paper and makes the impression.

This first print is referred to a trial ‘pull’, and can be used to check positioning adjusting as required. Going back to the point above, if the type is uneven, more packing can be used in the bed to help this. As you print your work, check regularly to ascertain when re-inking of the platen is needed.

Letterpress Business Cards

Letterpress Business Cards

Useful resources

[Book] General Printing, an illustrated guide to letterpress printing ISBN 0-9785881-4-2 – suppliers of reconditioned Adana machines – great place to find old letterpress machines, associate equipment and old type – traditional letterpress printers – letterpress courses at St Martins College, London – The British Printing Society – Gorgeous papers!

  1. I just stumbled upon your post – its wonderful and a very comprehensive overview. I recently spent a day at Harrington & Squires learning about the Adana and wish I had taken notes so this is very useful!

  2. Gosh, this brings back memories. I took vocational printing in high school back in 1974. We learned to set foundry type and run a letterpress. Some of us even got to use the Linotype machine. Nice photos; I enjoyed reading this.

  3. Nice description, glad you enjoyed the course. Spotted one printers error, no such word as slided.
    A platen printer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: