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The Revival of Letterpress Printing
In recent years, letterpress printing – a relief printing technique that uses movable wood or metal type – has seen a revival. Letterpress printing typically involves setting and inking the type and pressing paper against the letters to create an impression on the paper. The craft also includes other forms of relief printing, including engravings on wood and linoleum.
In the 19th century almost everything was letterpress printed, but the developments of offset printing and digital printing in the 20th century caused the letterpress process to become largely obsolete for commercial production. My own family operated a printing company for over a century, and with 20th century innovations, the printing presses were retired to an old barn for storage. Year after year, devotees from all over the country would come to visit and print from the old presses. Like those visitors, who cherished the nostalgia of our presses, there are now many new enthusiasts for letterpress printing.
People with an attraction to hand-set type and hand-printed materials are a diverse group: printers weary of machine-made mass production; designers tired of digital perfection; and writers who enjoy the hands-on satisfaction of setting their type on the page. The resurgence has created new print shops from coast to coast and has kept century-old businesses in production. Following are examples of several of the many letterpress printers across the country, these, selected for their rich history or their innovation – like a mobile print shop.
Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum – Two Rivers, Wisconsin
Founded in 1880 by J. Edward Hamilton, the original Hamilton factory was the largest wood type manufacturer in the country. Wood type are letters carved from wood, which are used for the relief printing of words on a printing press. The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is the only museum dedicated to the study, preservation, printing and production. The 45,000 square foot working museum – with 1.5 million pieces of wood types and 1,000 styles and patterns in their collection – is one of the largest functioning workshops in the world.
Hatch Show Print – Nashville, Tennessee
Founded in 1879 by the Hatch brothers, the iconic Nashville print shop has carried on 19th century traditions and practices of letterpress design and printing. Over the decades, Hatch has created posters for country, rock & roll, jazz and blues entertainers. Work is still in demand by artists and venues seeking out the unique look of a hand-set letterpress poster; 500 to 600 posters are created a year as well as artwork for many varied projects. Currently, Hatch Show Print is a historic property of the Country Music Hall of Fame and occupies four different spaces: print shop, retail store, gallery, and design space for classes and workshops. The retail store sells posters created for legendary artists like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash.
Power and Light Press and Moveable Type Project – Silver City, New Mexico
Recently founded in 2009, Power and Light was created by print advocate Kyle Durrie. What makes Durrie unique in the print world is her Moveable Type truck: a 1982 Chevy van with a mobile print shop in the back. The project was funded by Kickstarter and also several sponsors (Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum provided a press and Dale Guild Type Foundry provided type and ornaments). From 2011 to 2013, the van traveled all over North America with Durrie teaching workshops and providing demonstrations.
In our modern digital age, the appeal of letterpress is the craftsmanship and timeless beauty. This appreciation and enthusiasm can be found in the revival of other crafts – clay, glass, metal, and textiles – that also require extensive handwork and skill. This appreciation is the ethos of the slow living movement, which prioritizes alternatives to consumer culture and celebrates traditional skills. Across the country there are several associations and professional organizations dedicated to the preserving the art of letterpress printing. The following resources are available to help locate a printer in your area, provide opportunities to learn more about this craft, or purchase the supplies to set-up your own studio: The American Printing History Association, Letterpress Commons, and Letterpress Things.