My dad is the letterpressman at the shop we work at. His press is a 1962(?) Heidelberg Windmill, though we used to have a C&P hand-feed press.
A few weeks ago, we were offered a ticket to see the new film about letterpress: Pressing On and he went to see it. Ooh–the first press shown in the trailer looks like the hand press that the shop got rid of (and the press that I most want for my own).
Anywho. My dad is not a graphic designer. He’s not artsy at all. He likes chatting with old pressmen, but mostly he went to the movie to see the presses. It was a bit too people-centered for his taste, but he enjoyed it.
What really annoyed him was the letterpress printed drink ticket they gave him! Yes, I’m laughing as I write this because he ranted to me the next day about how crappy a job they’d done printing it!
“The ink is too light! It’s a weird color and the ink isn’t even.” (It’s a seafoam-ish green color and yes, it’s heavier and lighter in places.)
“They beat the ever loving shit out of the paper!” (Okay, he actually said they beat the crap out of the paper, but I’m exaggerating his words because of how huge a deal this is for him.)
You see, my dad entered the printing industry back when offset printing was just starting out and just about everything was printed letterpress. Type was real type and a typesetter was literally pulling upper and lower case letters out of upper and lower cases. As they competed with offset printing, the sign of a good letterpressman was that the printed material looked indistinguishable from offset. If the paper looks even slightly embossed, the paper is hitting the type too hard and you’re going to wear out your type too fast. Since type does wear out, it’s critical for the typesetter to build up the low characters to match the higher ones so that the ink hits flat and smooth.
Pretty much everything that makes modern artists squeal about letterpress is everything that my dad would have been yelled at for as an entry level pressman. Of course, I am on the artsy-side and I while I don’t need the paper to be beat to crap to know it’s letterpress, I do love it when the ink isn’t perfectly placed on the paper either because the type isn’t perfect or because it’s not lined up 100% correctly.
My dad has a new favorite museum in Colonial Heights, VA and they have some old printing presses and stuff to
play with show off to visitors. At a special event a few weeks ago my dad was very confused by the way they were creating “original letterpress printings” by letting two colors of ink mix on the pallet of a handpress each time someone created a print. Like I said, he doesn’t really get letterpress as art, haha.
And, he really doesn’t understand how anyone makes money off letterpress. He likes to talk about how they’d print business cards at 5¢ a piece in quantities of 20-30. Business cards were really generic back then and they mostly just threw a new name into an already set base. He can’t understand why anyone would pay $5 for one letterpress greeting card.
Of course, he as fond memories of making $2.50/hour when the minimum wage was $1.25.