Monday, February 13, 2012

Letterpress Love

At Affairs, the letterpress company we deal with is Spark! Letterpress Love.  I know now where their name comes from.  I always thought it was just that they "loved" the final product--the deeply impressed print, the yummy papers--I had no idea.  Then I went with a friend to the Old Mill House Gallery and Printing Museum.   The owner, Jim Anderson, is an encyclopedia of information on printing, printing equipment, processes, and basically, everything related to the printed word.
Jim, also known as "Boe", grew up in Ybor City which is the Cuban area of Tampa where they had a big cigar industry years ago.  It's an interesting area. Incidentally, he also plays blues on the bass with other musicians, and he runs a little restaurant with authentic Cuban dishes.  In addition, he does reinactments of a freed slave named Fielder Harris at a local historical site.  Jim started out in the printing industry at age 14 and learned the trade.  He loved the old equipment and machines, and when computers started to obselete these beauties, he started buying them up.  He has some amazing machines.  My favorite is the Chandler Price press which is from the very early 1900's.  Just the sound of it is awesome.  I could listen to it purr for hours.   He has an amazing room full of old printing machines--linotype machines (used to set type automatically--a machine that works much like a computer actually! But that's another post!) printing presses of all different sizes, makes and shapes, and boxes and boxes and BOXES of type! 
So I asked Jim to explain the printing process to me so that I could take pictures and pass the information on to you, my blog readers, in hopes of conveying to you the art that this really is.  This type of printing is VERY labor intensive.  It isn't something where somebody pushes a few buttons and then goes off to do something else while it prints a thousand copies.  This requires a human to set it all up, feed it, and run it, every second that it is working.  When you receive a letterpress invitation, note card, or business card, you are actually receiving a little individual work of art--a treasure from the past that has been kept alive by a small group of dedicated, passionate individuals.

So, how does it all begin?  Before anything else can happen, the design has to be decided, and the type has to be set.  EACH LETTER is an individual piece.  You may have seen these wooden blocks with letters on them in antique stores.  The letters started out being made of wood, and later they were made from lead.

The type is taken, letter by letter, and placed into a "type stick"--a wood or metal tray which is held in one hand and the other hand picks up the individual letters and sets them into the stick to compose a line.

 Keep in mind, the line is composed backwards, and upside down!  AND all the letters are backwards. 
 The lines are then put together to make a page inside a metal frame called a "chase".  The printer uses a surface called a "stone" which is normally made from very smooth, flat, marble, to set the type which is known as "composing the type".   The surface has to be smooth and flat so that the pieces in the chase are all evenly high or low.  If the type is not set all at the same level, some letters will be darker and deeper than others, because they will pick up the ink differently on the press, and it won't look even. 
When the type is all positioned in the chase, the printer then has to fill in the spaces between the type, so that something will hold the print in place.  For this they use "furniture", little plain blocks, that are set lower than the type so that they won't pick up any ink when the chase is put in the press.
Then the printer uses a device called a "quoin" to lock the furniture and type tightly into place.  The whole assembly has to be perfectly tight, or it will slip and move when it's put on the press and the printed pieces won't all be the same, and they won't stay in nice neat lines.  The quoin is tightened with a key that expands it so that the type is all held tightly in place. 
When the chase is filled and locked with the quoins, it is called a "forme".  The forme is then placed into the press.
This is a picture of a small little tabletop press.  The circle of metal you see is the "ink disk" where the ink is placed.  The red cylinder below is the "ink roller" which when you operate the press, goes up to the ink disk and picks up the ink. The forme is below the ink disk in the sort of square area between the ink roller and the ink disk.  The individual piece of paper is placed in the area just below the handle you see on the front.  So when the operator pushes down on the handle, the whole assembly kind of clamps together, the ink roller goes up to the ink disk, picks up the ink and inks the forme, then it all pushes together to put the image on the paper.  Whew!!!  I have a little video I took of Jim operating this little press that might make all this a little more clear:

So, of course, a company that is making letterpress invitations isn't using a little tabletop model like the one you see here.  They are most likely using a much larger, heavier, floor standing motorized model.  But the initial set up work is still there,  whether it is done on a tabletop or a floor standing large press, it is still a little piece of art. 

I hope that this will give you more insight into the beauty of letterpress invitations.  Yes, they are more expensive than thermography or conventionally printed invitations, but they are so special!  When you send your guests a letterpress invitation, you are sending them a message about what your wedding is going to be--VERY special!  These are definitely refrigerator invitations!
Here is a video I found on Youtube showing a little more about the whole process, with some great commentary.

Oh, ok, one more:

So when you are choosing your invitations, whether they are thermographed, flat printed or letterpress, be sure that you think about the impression that your invitation will make when your guest opens the envelope and holds it in their hands.  What message will it convey? What will it tell your guest about your party? Will it tell your guest what to expect at your wedding? If you ask yourself these questions when you are choosing your invitations, you will find the perfect choice to send to your guests!
And remember, we are here to help you find that perfect invitation!

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