On one of the hottest days of summer we piled into a minivan and drove into the heart of the Pittsburgh area to visit Meshwork Press, a print shop in Wilkinsburg. Our pilgrimage was not without its spiritual preparation; the previous week we viewed a documentary about letterpress printing called Pressing On: The Letterpress Film. And guiding us through our letterpress printing experience was Haylee Ebersole, an artist-turned-printer with a passion for teaching and an endless supply of patience. After showing us her tools and how they work, Haylee turned us loose in her studio, allowing us to participate in the ritual that is letterpress printing.
Rituals deal in particulars, and letterpress printing is no different. The first tool we learned about was the chase. The chase is a cast iron rectangular frame that holds the type. In a platen press, which is the kind of press we used, one platen stands upright and holds the chase while another platen holds the paper and swivels up and down, pressing the paper against the type after a roller has coated the type with rubbery ink.
One of the hardest parts of letterpress printing is filling up the chase. First, I chose my type, the letters v-i-v-i to spell my sister’s nickname. I opened tiny drawers that held tinier type, picking up and setting down letter after letter—v’s are not easy to come by. Searching through all the pieces of type claimed my entire attention as I focused on letters, not words. Next, I needed to arrange not only the type, but also the wooden blocks, called pieces of furniture, that space out and fix the type within the chase. I walked across the room a dozen times or more, looking for a piece of furniture the right size, trying first one and then another until all the pieces fit like a puzzle. Once the chase was full, an expanding metal wedge called a quoin locked all the pieces into place, after which I had to test the chase to make sure the pieces were securely fastened and would not fall out in the press. Pushing and pulling, bumping and shaking accomplished the test, and then it was time to print.
A ritual is a physical action that manifests an inward belief. Does a writer write something that he or she does not believe? Letterpress is a physical action that produces a material object manifesting ideas. In this way, letterpress printing is a ritual, and as such approaches a religious experience. The letterpress printer interacts with the text in a tangible way, handling every letter of every word and guiding the work into material existence. This was my experience at Meshwork Press: a level of engagement with text that went beyond the text and into the realm of the metaphysical.