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History of Letterpress Printing

by Brion Paul June 20, 2018
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It’s all been said before. It’s all been seen before. Nothing is new. Or at least this would be one way of looking at recent cultural output, which has amounted to a retrograde immersion in the past. 1980s remakes clog the movie process from pitch to multiplex, fashion revisits deceased designs, the clamor for the posthumous tomes of exhumed esoteric authors — all roads lead backwards.

This quaint drive through the past has been particularly pleasant for some in the printing world. Technology is the “great democratizer”, allowing more people to do more things, independently and cheaply. Yet, for industrial production in America, technology has often been the great eraser of jobs. One particular victim of this is the large-scale printing press, many of which have been forced to cease operations. Thus, letterpress machines held within these shops are sold, usually on the cheap. Printing enthusiasts, craftsmen and artists seized upon these deals. Through their smaller scale operations and less commercially tethered output, they’ve contributed to the growth of what is commonly referred to as the “Small Press Movement”.

Not just for weddings anymore, the past five years have seen a letterpress resurgence steeped somewhat myopically in its own history, with obsessive collectors sent rummaging for fetishized old typesets and flourishes. Developed over 500 years ago, letterpress is a printing process that uses raised metal type to actually make an impression into the paper. Replete with an extensive, and some might say exclusionary, language all to its own, (different sized type is referred to as agat, minion or nonpareil) to explain the intricacies and delicacies of its precise process is a bit of a herculean task, recounting the particulars of each machine.

Generally speaking, said raised type is inked and pressure is applied for the image to register in the paper with the obvious implication of the thicker the paper, the deeper the image; text you can not only see, but actually feel.

The first presses were hand operated and remained so for the first 350 years. In fact, these presses were manufactured up until the 1970s and remain in widespread use in many small presses. Eventually the process was automated and the machines became larger to accommodate this. The availability and array of type sets and ornamental embellishments (fleurons) is nothing short of remarkable, a veritable museum of visual communication.

Heidelberg letter press printing machine. (Image courtesy of Boxcar Press, Syracuse)

Of course, this reliance on previously produced pieces traps the work in a time machine prison, a specific visual aesthetic that has found favor in the burgeoning nu-hipster economy for concert posters and music packaging. Although this imparts unarguably beautiful prints, it is ultimately limiting.

Alan Nadon, one half of Traction Press, explained how small press printers have been able to expand their repertoire of images through the integration of technological innovations, specifically the advent of the photo polymer plate, which breathed new life into the medium. The solar responsive plastic developed in the ’60s and perfected for letterpress in the ’80s, allows for images designed on or imported to the computer to then be made into super hard plates for impressions. Instead of floridly embellished corners and intricate and slightly askew type, all manners of images can be set deep into the paper.

Nestled away in a loft building in downtown Los Angeles, Alan and his partner Riitta Salmijak have quietly established themselves as printers with a formidable reputation, and as innovative design collaborators. “We’re hiding — I guess it’s a bit of fear of being branded”, is Alan’s explanation of their word of mouth following and lack of web presence. Some of their most forward thinking output has been with designer Brian Roettinger and his creative haul for Southern California Institute of Architecture. Brian explains, “They never let the medium get in the way of the idea, they don’t let what they can’t do get in the way of what they can”. This tenet is echoed by Alan himself, “When we get a job that looks impossible, we take it, we take it as an opportunity”.

Alan cites Lewis Mumford as an inspiration, particularly Mumford’s philosophy that the “machine society” is oppressive and that megatechnics (Mumford’s term for “modern technology”) often produce low quality designs. Traction, and other small presses, have become their own “micro-factories”, where the factory owner is also engineer, laborer, and designer. Alan stresses the importance of self-reliance in this pursuit, he has taught himself how to restore and work with his extensive collection of machines.

The arguable highlights include, but are not limited to, the Los Angeles Times original proofing press meticulously extracted from the archives of Otis College, a circa 1930s Kluge, automated with a vacuum system and customized for foil stamping, an 1890 Chandler Price and the 1910 Carver — 6500 lbs of pure machine brawn all channeled into a magisterial 4 x 6 image.

Coming from all across California, salvaged from shuttered shops and reverentially rehabilitated, Alan says of the machines, “It’s a whole other dimension of stability, when something was made for longevity. When I go into the nuts and bolts of the machines, it’s like talking to ghosts, the ghosts of the engineers. You really become part of something larger, this knowledge — it’s a culture of knowledge”.


Riitta Salmijak
837 Traction Avenue, Suite 102
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Take a look at the end result of the letterhead press with our Book Category

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The first printing presses were hand-operated and remained so for the first 350 years