So we all have a general idea of what letterpress is and how it's made. But do we know know? I've recently become fascinated with learning more about how some of my favorite types of artwork are made. I've always liked the look of letterpress prints and cards. The subtle imprint in the design, how the ink varies between each print. There's a really nice mix of handmade and machine-made in letterpress, but I didn't know how that was really achieved. So I decided to call my friend, Sarah McCoy. Sarah (above) is a letterpress artist extraordinaire, owner of The Permanent Collection in the East Village of Des Moines, and all-around awesome #girlboss. She let me hang out with her at the shop recently to ask a million questions and take photos of the process so I could share it with all of you.
Letterpress was the first method of mechanized print, from 14th century Europe. Fast forward several hundred years and Sarah began printing in 2001 and beginning her business in 2007. It's amazing that she is working in an art form that began 700 years ago. The machines above are some of the print presses she works with, each about 100 years old and each works differently--some automatic and some hand turned. Sarah showed me the process of creating a print from a hand-turned press.
Sarah had been asked to make a print for a group of students and teachers that had been caught in a snowstorm while on a school trip. They, along with so many other cars, were stuck for about 24 hours and the print was to commemorate the whole ordeal. She started by going through her antique letters and putting together her design. Most of the letters she uses are antiques but there are a couple of companies that create these today here in the U.S.
Apparently the phrase "Mind your p's and q's" comes from letterpress because they can look similar if you're not careful. These letters can also be called "sorts" which is where the phrase "all out of sorts" comes from, as well. The more you know...
After she has all of her letters, she lays them out on the press. The blank pieces of wood, or "furniture", are put into position to keep all of the letters in place. They are slightly lower than the letters so the ink on the roller doesn't hit them too.
Next, she uses the metal bars and spacers or "quoins" to lock everything into place, and adds the ink to the roller. The ink is much harder than I expected, so she scoops it up with a putty knife, warms it up on an ink plate and adds it to that top roller. After several turns the ink starts to spread evenly on the plate.
After a few test runs to make sure there is enough ink, it's time to start creating the prints.
I'm feeling extremely proud of myself that I created my first .gif. But anyway, that's how Sarah puts the paper through and hand rolls each print. Additional colors and designs can always be used in a second or third roll.
It's incredible to think that each of these prints and cards were made with so much thought and care. There's a lot of creativity, precision, and love that goes into every one. Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us.
Any other types of artwork you would love to see made? Screenprinting is next!