Visiting Meshwork Press, we learned first-hand how to set type and operate a platen press. My classmates and I printed a composition of scattered stars, the experience of which demonstrated a relationship between printing and text—how the art and technique of letterpress influences the words (or, in this case, stars) on the page and vice versa.
In letterpress, the text becomes a tangible object—pieces of type with weight and volume, bits wood and lead that have to be aligned, supported, constructed. My classmates and I experimented with creating non-linear arrangements of type—much more complicated than setting rows of text, as I learned. The letterpress process is more suited to linear typesetting, printing neat lines rather than random scatterings of typefaces. Because of the difficulty of setting non-linear pages, we allowed our composition to change, shuffling type around almost as willingly as the furniture that supported it in the chase.
A similar interaction between text and object can be found in commercial letterpress printing, too. When the typesetter redistributes type, he does so by spelling out words or syllables. The process by which the typesetter replaces type in the drawer is almost like reading the text (see the instructional video below) (“Learning Typesetting”). The objects of letterpress printing and their purposed construction can conflict with the text, as in our project at Meshwork, and the text can aid printing technique; in either case, the text takes on a physical nature, which informs the printer’s use of the text.
According to 20th century writer Anaïs Nin, the physical process of constructing a page of type also allows printers to write more effectively. Letterpress printers touch, literally weigh each word of their text; the tangibility of letterpress printing allows for scrutiny of a text, examining each word’s contribution (Nin). Our own composition at Meshwork we had the opportunity to revise and rearrange (we were more concerned with getting the type locked in the chase than with the aesthetics of the result, but we had ample time with the “text” to scrutinize it for revision); for the sake of ease we removed a few bits of type and still created a nice smattering-of-stars print. Even printing from copy, as in the instructional video, I imagine the typesetter is forced to examine the text so minutely that he becomes aware of clumsy or efficient writing. Printers like Nin and Haylee Ebersole of Meshwork Press can act on such senses, cutting unnecessary words and revising right up to the time a page is printed.
When a printer sets type by hand, letter by letter, she has to weigh every word and consider every decision of spacing in a constant battle of physical problem solving. The result is something “concrete, definable, touchable” (Nin). I got to experience that creative engineering at Meshwork, as we wrestled with the limits of typesetting by exploring non-linear “texts.” And when we were through, we had what Nin referred to as a physical victory: a printed page.
“Learning Typesetting.” YouTube, uploaded by William Alexander, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVvbWdXRMQs. Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.
Nin, Anaïs. The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.