Craft makes a comeback16 Jul 2012 | Nolan Giles
The traditional process is undergoing a resurgence as designers spurn digital for print with the human touch
Where does letterpress technology fits in today’s industry? For decades, the answer would have been: in the office reception, beside the sign-in book, in front of a wall of framed awards. But ageing platens and presses are once again proving they deserve a spot on the pressroom floor.
Yes, the machines are temperamental antiques. Sure, the makeready process is excruciatingly slow. Of course the wastage is monumental. But at a time when late-model Speedmasters can be spending too much time sitting idle at some commercial print shops, many an ancient Heidelberg Windmill is whirring away somewhere, churning out lucrative work.
Many view digital printing as the future for any products that aren’t replaced by electronic communications. That’s a sound argument, but for some projects, people want print that looks and feels like print.
Not convinced? Sales of conventional presses are at an all-time low. The worst hit are the used machinery dealers. But when ProPrint spoke to a range of secondhand specialists late last year, Allied Machinery’s Craig Huckstep saw a silver lining.
“There are fewer customers around, but if we buy the right stock there is still always someone for it. Mind you, we’ve sold more old letterpress machines and Heidelberg platens in the past few months than we’ve sold in the last 10 years.”
There’s a letterpress revival going on.
Watermarx Graphics, based in Sydney suburb of Brookvale, views this resurgence as both a boost for speciality printers and a wake-up call for commercial printers that focus on price over quality. The eight-year-old business has watched printing in Australia limp haphazardly into the digital age. Today, while the general commercial print sector undergoes some deep soul searching, speciality printing, particularly letterpress, is flourishing.
“Letterpress provides that tactile point of difference,” says Watermarx Graphics co-owner Angela O’Dea.
“I think the letterpress resurgence is very much driven by success stories in the US, and now Aussies want a piece of the pie. Our print shop might look a museum to some of the big guys out there, but when we produce a beautifully embossed or letterpress invite, we are producing something the client truly values.”
Commercial printers need only ask their older pressmen why potential clients are suddenly asking for jobs produced on out-of-production presses from the ’50s.
“It’s the smell that gets them,” says Sydney letterpress printer Nathan Leong, who was championed by ProPrint in last June’s Young People in Print supplement.
Leong is the owner of The Distillery, a start-up print business that has, in one short year, increased floor-space tenfold and tripled its staff roster to keep up with rocketing demand. How many other printers can say that in this market?
There’s emotion in play at The Distillery, says Leong. “We get a lot of older printers in here and their faces just light up when they walk into the space and take in the sights, sounds and smells from the print floors of yesteryear.”
The Australian letterpress resurgence is much more than nostalgia. The love and respect veteran printers have for this technique is clearly contagious. Design agencies are flocking to letterpress establishments to pay top dollar for handcrafted printed pieces. They are willing – eager – to pay for work that would once have been considered sub-par.
Watermarx co-owner Alan Fawcett’s letterpress pedigree dates back to his trade education. His was one of the last years to include letterpress techniques as part of the curriculum.
He reckons he’d be “rapped over the knuckles” for the type of output currently being produced at Watermarx. But far from being shoddy work, this is what clients are demanding: letterpress that looks like letterpress, with deboss and all.
Whether offset or digital, print-outs are still called ‘impressions’, but it is in letterpress that this truly makes sense – and makes money. A one-colour job printed on a triplex 600gsm cotton stock with a deep impression might seem ludicrous to some printers, but it is in demand among big agencies. Some graphic designers are just plain bored with modern ink-on-paper techniques.
“Both young designers and older printers see that the future of ‘commercial’ printing is basically just giant laser printers,” adds Leong
“They are much more interested in an obscure piece of letterpress machinery, like our Ludlow Typograph, used to print Polish newspapers in the ’50s.”
The presses may be outdated, but they have stories and soul, which helps build relationships with their users and customers. The letterpress resurgence is representative of the ‘maker’ movement – restoring belief in the age-old rudimentary relationship between man and machine
Wayne Davis could be Australia’s foremost contemporary letterpress printer; his 19-year-old niche printery Artisan Press is certainly one of the country’s most established. He splits letterpress printing into two broad categories – modern and original. In his 40 years in the industry,
he has mastered both.
“The process – as in the original letterpress printing process – was only really meant to leave a kiss print where ink would just touch paper and leave a mark. In the heyday of letterpress printing, jobs were often printed on 100gsm paper stock, and your boss would give you a kick up the arse if the impression went through the paper.”
“With modern letterpress, it is often about achieving that same print impression, which shows through the stock and is actually a lot easier than a kiss print,” adds Davis.
Step up to the plate
The other noticeable difference, between modern and classic letterpress printing has been the introduction of photo-polymer plates in the printing process. Davis notes that the makeready involved in producing a photopolymer plate isn’t quite as involved as setting up wooden
and lead blocks, and is the most viable and flexible option for a commercial letterpress printer.
Davis is proud to have done his printing apprenticeship at Nosek & Co in Waterloo in Sydney in the ’60s. The business, which went bust after the rise of the compact disc, was revered for the high-quality vinyl sleeves its compositors and pressmen would produce for clientele that included Sony and EMI.
“The time we spend on makeready at Artisan Press is the difference between our work and other peoples work. That time and care taken in the makeready was drummed into me when I used to print record covers at Nosek & Co, because each cover had to be perfect,” says Davis.
He describes the time of his apprenticeship as the transition point between letterpress and offset, and also the time when the trade moved away from being about the relationship between man and press.
“Letterpress printing varies with every job. There is no golden rule from a pressman’s point of view,” says Davis.
“When a printer just does the same thing every day he might as well be a process worker. In digital, there is no real makeready and I think a print job is most rewarding when you can look back at the finished product and see why the pre-press procedures you carefully undertook made it print perfectly.
“There’s not much involved with being a compositor these days.”
Melbourne-based Chapel Press began eight years ago, printing invitations for brides-to-be on a 1920s Chandler & Price hand-fed platen press. The business now runs a fleet of letterpress machinery, printing for premium clients such as fashion house Tom Ford, HP and ANZ.
While clearly a savvy businessman, Chapel Press owner Russell Fray discusses his machinery with all the enthusiasm of a true hobbyist.
“We have a lot of great machines sitting on our floor – short-run jobs are handled on our two hand-fed presses,” he says.
“We try and run most of our work on the automatic machines as hand-feeding paper into a printing press is a pretty big workplace health and safety issue. We have four standard-size Heidelberg platens and a couple of Heidelberg GTOs, which are A3 size.”
It is typical for Fray to be asked to print a swing tag or business card job in the tens of thousands on his platens. The price tag on these costly runs easily dwarves his $500 minimum job limit.
“We might do a 30,000 swing tag run that has a lot of mounting and a lot of hand-work involved in conjunction with the printing. While the price tag can be large, people have a real appreciation for the finished result and they understand what it is worth and don’t mind paying
a lot of money for it.”
Fray admits there are flaws in the letterpress business model and fixing an antique machine isn’t quite a simple as dialling up a Heidelberg technician. But as the machines can quite often be picked up for a very reasonable price tag, Fray keeps an arsenal of parts machines as back-up.
In comparison with commercial printing, the overheads for a letterpress business are often fairly low, and the focus is more on employing skilled staff than investing in expensive technology.
Creative Emporium owner Neisha Phillips packed in a successful career as a paper representative for KW Doggett to establish her letterpress and graphic design studio in Brisbane. While she describes herself as a ‘hobbyist printer,’ she has invested significant time and energy into her new profession as she sees it as a genuinely positive business model.
“You just have to look at the United States, there is a huge number of successful letterpress businesses operating over there now,” she explains.
“When I started here in Australia, there was quite a strong niche market that needed to be serviced.”
“The reason why Creative Emporium is doing this is because there weren’t many printers that were offering this service to the commercial design market and there was quite a big call for it.”
Having a Rolodex filled with design agencies has obviously worked in Phillips’ favour, but she admits letterpress isn’t a particularly hard sell anyway.
“Before we even win a job, say, if somebody has asked me for a quote, I will invite them in to have a look and see how it works,” she says.
“People want to see the process. They love the final result, but they want to see how it is done, and I think that is what differentiates me from some other studios out there. I’ll invite my clients in to do a press check where they can check that their colours are spot on and that they are happy with the level of impression.
“Sometimes they spend an hour in here, sometimes they will spend a whole day. They just love letterpress and I love showing it to people.”
Bob Read has been a printing machinist for 63 years. He runs The Village Print Shop at the Caboolture Heritage Village in Queensland with compositor Ken New-love. The charismatic duo are the focus of an upcoming letterpress documentary Bronzed Blue, partially produced by Bris-bane’s Design College of Australia (DCA).
Read admits that the letterpress techniques he learned as a 16-year-old printing apprentice in 1949 are long gone, but he is excited by the innovative direction the trade is heading.
“The reason I am still printing at age 79 and the reason I do all of this work at the village is pretty simple really – there are not many of us left,” he says.
“When a young person who is interested in letterpress comes to me for advice I figure that it doesn’t cost me anything to share it with them. I want to leave a legacy in printing.”
DCA is a huge advocate of letterpress education in Australia and will open the Brisbane Museum of Print later this year.
There is an emotional bond between Read and DCA owner Clint Harvey, who believes letterpress in Australia has been reinvigorated thanks to his mentor.
“I look at a guy like Bob and say ‘wow’. He is directly responsible for the education of Simon and Jenna who run The Hungry Workshop letterpress printery, Brisbane greeting card printers Bespoke, and myself and the letterpress education at the college here,” says Harvey.
“Read and Newlove did their trade in letterpress 40 or 50 years ago and they are inspiring all these new innovators to take the trade in new directions.”
Harvey has been salvaging letterpress machinery, type draws, furniture, casing, wooden type, lead type, printed pieces and anything else mildly related to the trade for the last four years.
Learning by doing
Harvey’s goal isn’t to output commercial work, but rather to establish an institution for letterpress printing in Australia, and inspire both designers and printers to think about the fundamental concepts involved in their profession.
“For modern printers and graphic designers, learning the fundamentals of letterpress is a great way of getting them to slow down and think and work out a job before they jump on the computer and put everything together,” he explains.
“It is a much subtler process. There isn’t as much planning done in contemporary design, particularly with type composition, because you can just fix it up afterwards.”
“When you do a makeready, you have to work out your line length, how your body copy is going to sit in, because if you don’t work it out and you build it and then want to change it, you are looking at about three hours work to put it back together again.”
Artisan Press’ Wayne Davis looks at things from a slightly more idiosyncratic viewpoint. He says is pleased to see letterpress establishments springing up across the country, but he notes the output in quality from some isn’t up-to-scratch. He spent half of his life paying his dues in a pressroom and wants this sense of dedication and care carried across to a new generation of letterpress operators.
“This might sound wanky, but I don’t think you can ever truly ‘learn’ letterpress,” he says.
“There isn’t a shortcut to doing it well. It is a time thing and a notes thing, you have to apply yourself to learning with each individual job.
“My advice for any young enthusiast opening a letterpress business is this – take notes and see where you can improve on it, be critical of your own work, eventually you will get better and better, but it takes a very long time.”
The Distillery Darlinghurst, NSW
Artisan Press Byron Bay, NSW
Watermarx Graphics Brookvale, NSW
Chapel Press Moorabbin, Vic
Creative Emporium Brisbane, Qld
The Hungry Workshop Northcote, Vic
Bespoke Press Brisbane, Qld
Fluid Ink Letterpress Perth, WA
Mitchell & Dent Perth, WA
This Feature appeared in the JULY 2012 issue of ProPrint Magazine