Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Demonstrating Letterpress

Part of the fun of being a letterpress printer is being able to demonstrate the printing process. People are invariably fascinated. Young and old, sophisticated or not, everybody loves to pull a proof on an old-time press and to be able to say, “I printed this!”

Opportunities to demonstrate letterpress are everywhere, not just limited to historic sites, though they’re most frequent there. Some places make printing demonstrations easy; others present challenges. One historic site where I volunteered years ago made it pretty tough to fulfill my letterpress demo passion. Ever try printing on a 9x12 platen job press sitting on a wheeled dolly that creeps away from you, while wearing a long pioneer style dress? Interesting to say the least. This site had no type, ink, quoins, chases, gauge pins, or paper – I brought in my own. There was also no running water in the house where I was demonstrating, so when I was done I hauled the inky form home.

Never mind – I had fun demonstrating anyway! It was amazing how excited people would get when I turned the flywheel of the press and pulled out a freshly printed piece. Some stayed to watch the process over and over again. I had big wood type for kids to handle and a composing stick to show how type was set. I explained minding your p’s and q’s and making a good impression (see my earlier blog, “Upper Case, Lower Case”).

Kids absolutely love letterpress printing. Once my husband and I demonstrated at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri and ended up with a long line of kids waiting to print. They were interested enough to be pretty patient until their turn came. And it was great seeing the excitement on their faces when they got to set their name in type and pull an impression on a little tabletop press.

Fascination with letterpress printing isn’t limited to kids, though – far from it. A few years back, my husband and I demonstrated printing on a steamboat cruising the Mississippi River as part of an American Bibliographic Society Convention in St. Louis.

Setting up was challenging. My husband hauled our 5x7 Baltimorean press and gear in his arms across the rugged cobblestones of the St. Louis riverfront. You don’t realize how heavy a little printing press is until you’ve carried it! Once inside the steamboat, we were given a small table to set up. We soon discovered the table wasn’t very stable. With every impression of the Baltimorean, it wobbled. We wondered if this distinguished group of scholars and rare book librarians from major museums and universities would be interested in printing our souvenir bookmark under these conditions.

But it didn’t matter at all – people lined up, watched the process eagerly, and were absolutely thrilled to print their own bookmark. Many said it was one of the highlights of the convention for them to actually print something themselves.
So one more great thing about letterpress is sharing it. I think everybody should get a chance to say, “I printed this!” at least once.


  1. You are so right -- printing something yourself is truly a delight! I'll treasure my bookmark always and I had two of the best teachers to boot!

  2. You're welcome -- we all had fun doing it!