A while back I had the chance to visit a letterpress printing studio, called Ackley Publishing, in Ackley, Iowa.
Ackley Publishing is home to a (literally) mom and pop printing shop and a warehouse full of collected vintage printing equipment, including extinct typefaces, lead type, and reams and reams of paper.
***insert print designer drooly face here***
I had volunteered to lead a field trip for undergraduate students from Iowa State University, but was able to participate as long as I brought along a quote and a sketch.
Of course, I didn’t bother to sketch out my quote. I wanted to peek at the typography that was available in order to pick my quote and compose my design.
For those who are not familiar, letterpress / woodcut printing is a process in which you compose — letter by letter — element by element — your printed piece. Anybody who has planned a wedding in recent history probably is familiar with the letterpressed (debossed / imprinted) look for invitations.
Now that you know what I’m talking about, let’s take a peek at some of the goodies printed in the studio.
The Letterpress Department is run by Jim as mostly a hobby, but they do fill quite a few orders. In fact, I’m planning on printing my wedding invites with Ackley Press (more to come on that later). One of the things they frequently print are coasters. They also make a lot of popcorn bags.
Here are some examples of posters printed with woodcut typography.
Once I had a look around the studio, I got to work picking my typography and composing my poster.
I found HUGE letters that were bigger than my hands (I have 12-year-old hands, so I guess that’s not super impressive). I decided to go with the David Bowie quote from Rock and Roll Suicide from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. If you’re interested in the process of composing lead type, watch the video below (you do not need volume). You literally melt hot metal (not lead anymore) and pour it into molds to create letters that look like something you would see on a typewriter.
Pretty cool, eh?
If you don’t want to watch the video, I’ll walk you through the process of making a print piece on a letterpress machine.
First you pick your typeface and size. Here are a couple of typefaces I used.
You open the drawer and look for your letters. Make sure that you have a tray with you so you don’t drop (and lose) any of the letters!
Once you have picked your letters, put them on your tray in the way that you want them to look.
Remember: woodcut type will be backwards and the lead type will read forwards until you’ve molded the actual pieces you’ll use to print.
Once you have a composition you like, then put your lead type molds in a composing stick and put it in the machine to make your type.
This is the machine that makes the metal type from the molds.
LAVA errrr, metal is poured into the molds, and the result is essentially a metal stamp.
Once you’ve got your molded type, you need to put all of your type on the tray in the right order, and put spacers between it to hold it in place.
We used a lot of magnets to hold things in place as well.
Then you ink up your plate, and run it through the press (see the video at :44 if you want to see this).
I ended up with a TON of prints on different kinds of paper.
Thicker paper worked best because the metal type would press harder into the paper and it would look really neat. I used a couple of different colors on a few of the prints, and those turned out really neat.
Here are some of the better prints.
If you are interested in one (because you’re a type geek or Bowie geek), leave me a comment and I’ll get in touch.
What’s something really geeky in your field?
Designers typically geek out over typography, whether or not we are in print, on the web, or even in ceramics.