Hands-on Experience: The Thrill of the Letterpress

My English teacher and I recently had a conversation about why she’s choosing to make the midterm a handmade poster rather than a test or electronic project. With students using electronics as a means to get assignments done, she wants to encourage them to take a break from the screen and create a poster; even if it’s something as simple as gluing pictures to poster-board and talking about it, she’ll accept it as long as it’s not a Powerpoint presentation.

While watching the film Pressing On, I couldn’t help but notice the same conversations occurring among small press publishers. Many of them even argued that if more people from my generation were introduced to a letterpress, they would take the opportunity to learn how it works for the exact same reasons.

“Person holding a letterpress roller tool” by Hello I’m Nik. Image found on Unsplash.

We had a letterpress in high school, but I never got the chance to really use it. I did once, but all I really did was pull a lever and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost suddenly appeared on cardstock. All’s that to say is my biggest regret in high school is not taking more chances with learning about the letterpress. I do, however, have some designs from my school’s letterpress hanging in my dorm: one of a rat playing the violin with the caption “Literary Rat” written on the bottom, a poem from a friend’s manuscript, a pink poster with the words “LAVA: IT WILL MELT YOUR FACE OFF” on it (inside joke), and — while I nor the friend who gave it to me are Jewish — a blue dreidel. (Sadly, I was unable to get the poster of a pin-up girl on it that said “Your just my wood type,” which, of course, was made with wood type letters.)

You know how people say no two snowflakes are the same? That also goes for products of the letterpress. It was briefly mentioned in the interview with one of the “letterpressers” that they received positive reviews for the lack of ink on some letters and other imperfections. Their customers quickly stopped them to say they love it because it makes it more real.

The letterpressed I have in my room also have these imperfections, but I find it special because I know the hands that made them. It’s like having a little bit of them with me, even though we’ve all moved on, and if I were to buy from a seller I didn’t personally know, I’d have an equal amount of appreciation because of the time, effort, and planning put into it.

3 thoughts on “Hands-on Experience: The Thrill of the Letterpress”

  1. I love all the examples you gave of letterpress products, and it is so awesome that you have things that have been printed with letterpress! These examples are so varied and so distinct that it adds yet another layer of personality to letterpress, which I think is part of its attraction – letterpress is very much a human process that produces a human product. I think your comparison between letterpress and snowflakes is intriguing, as it exposes that what we value most in both are imperfections (like those you mention) and uniqueness.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s cool to see a connection to more handmade projects in your class over say a powerpoint or essay. Especially like you said at times like now around midterms when lots of classes are having things done on computers.
    I’m excited to hear you can use a letterpress more. Those posters you described sound really cool and fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s so funny that you’re coming into an appreciation of letterpress now, after leaving high school where you had one at your fingertips! The little roller is called a brayer, and it’s often used in proofing. I can’t wait for you to do more printing this year!


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