The bite of metal and the smell of ink: The art, craft and design of traditional printing renewed
Article by Larry Thompson
pulled my first letterpress proof–a brief quote from Hamlet composed of hand-set lead type–on Margaret Lock’s Vandercook SP-15 flat-bed proofing press during a workshop in 2003. I seem to recall being rather nervous, and for good reason, having just acquired a vintage Vandercook press of my own. It was an unaccustomed leap of faith. Would this obsolete and painstaking manner of printing resonate with me, or had I made an expensive blunder?

It’s not as though I hadn’t done my research
on the history of letterpress printing and the fine
press movement in Canada and abroad. Although
computer enthusiasts in these gadget-ridden times
behave as if the microchip is the apex of revolutionary
technological change, reaction to such change
has happened before. After 1455 in Europe, scribes
must have watched in horror as their trade, which
had remained steadfast for … well, forever …
crumbled under the platen of Johannes
Gutenberg’s infernal device. Afterwards, letterpress
maintained a constant and near-unchanging
supremacy for nigh on 500 years, until photomechanical
offset plate making processes relegated
letterpress equipment to print shop storage rooms.
Much of this industrial detritus wound up as one
might expect as scrap metal. What survived is now
mostly in the hands of artists, enthusiasts, small
commercial presses, fine press printers, private
presses, institutions and museums.

Be it the Gothic black letter face from
Gutenberg’s Bible, or the straight, clean, modern
lines of ubiquitous Helvetica, setting and printing
type the old-school way is a chore. Every letter is a
separate piece of lead, topped by a relief character
in reverse. The letters are organized in shallow type
drawers, from which the compositor must retrieve
them, character by character, into a hand-held
composing stick. In this manner, lines, paragraphs
and pages are composed, then transferred to the
press, proofed, corrected, fussed with endlessly to
perfect the impression, then printed in an edition.
After the run, the type is redistributed back into
the type drawers, then the process begins anew.
The obvious question, when confronted with
the laborious efforts surrounding this obsolete
trade, is why go to all that work when, at a click of
the mouse, the laser printer can produce crisp,
brilliant full colour copy? There’s no one simple
answer. For some printers, there’s a commercial
motivation, tapping the select public taste for
high-end, deeply impressed wedding invitations
and business cards. Others are enamoured of the
mystique of printing and typography and the debt
our civilization owes to them. Some are attracted
to the very powerful graphic design and illustration
opportunities offered by letterpress, or there
are those who simply love to publish beautiful
books, broadsides, pamphlets and keepsakes.
Many are drawn to the classic elegance of a
well-designed page or broadside, its tradition of
social reformation, the three-dimensional tactility
of type impressed in beautiful paper, and the
steadfast belief that the combination of these
factors and others just make letterpress better
than anything else.

Canada is blessed with a strong field of
well-established private presses and letterpress
resources, coast to coast. In Ontario, this is in part
due to the efforts of the Guild of Hand Printers,
founded by Carl Dair and several other young
book designers in 1959 to encourage collegiality
amongst small presses and to promote the spirit
of graphic experimentation to the Canadian
public. They issued nine editions of Wrongfount,
a gathering of keepsakes and press samples from
member presses, including Coach House Press
(Stan Bevington), Aliquando Press (Will Rueter),
Peter Dorn, Thee Hell Box Press (Hugh Barclay)
and Poole Hall Press (Bill Poole).
The late Bill Poole organized the first Grimsby,
Ontario, Wayzgoose in 1978. ‘Wayzgoose’ is an
archaic name of mysterious origin for a celebratory
gathering of printers, bookbinders, papermakers,
calligraphers, wood cut artists and wood engravers.
Most agree that the ‘goose’ is understood to mean
food and libation in general, so the after-show
dinner at the Grimsby Wayzgoose holds true to the
ancient custom of celebration and camaraderie
amongst bookish artisans.

Poole is revered for encouraging and influencing
a new generation of printing enthusiasts during
his time as a teacher at what is now the Ontario
College of Art and Design University (OCAD). Other
master printers such as Margaret Lock of Locks’
Press in Kingston, Ontario, and Jan and Crispin
Elsted of Barbarian Press in Mission, B.C., have
taught a new generation of enthusiasts. Structured
apprenticeships and formal letterpress printing
training are now a part of industrial history, so new
entrants to the field look to the workshops and
ateliers of the previous generation of book artists
for both technical and artistic direction. However,
art and design institutions are increasingly
reintroducing students to letterpress as a practical
enhancement to pure digital immersion.

Pioneer fine press printers such as Robert Reid
and Jim Rimmer encouraged the development of
what is today a vigorous West Coast book arts
scene. Rimmer’s death in 2010 sent a shock wave
through the private press community. As a printer,
illustrator, book designer and typographer, he
inspired and encouraged ambitious printers and
designers, among them Andrew Steeves (Gaspereau
Press), Jason Dewinetz (Greenboathouse Press) and
Rollin Milroy (Heavenly Monkey) and others who
have entered the printing lists within the last
fifteen years or so. Dewinetz has acquired Rimmer’s
equipment, while Steeves will be the recipient of
the late Glenn Goluska’s letterpress shop. This is
more than the simple reallocation of equipment;
rather it is a torch being passed from one generation
to the next, and an affirmation that letterpress
still has its champions.

Traditional printing craft by no means
connotes traditional printing style. Contemporary
designers revel in making lead and wood bend and
warp, figuratively speaking, to whatever style they
like, from medieval to grunge. Presses such as
Gaspereau and Porcupine’s Quill print mainstream
books using modern offset processes, but incorporate
letterpress in covers and keepsakes. For thirty
years, The Devil’s Artisan (DA) periodical out of Erin,
Ontario, and the Vancouver-based Amphora have
championed fine printing and design. Amphora is
available to members of the Alcuin Society, which
also sponsors the annual Awards For Excellence in
Book Design in Canada, which features a category
for limited edition books.

Letterpress is a relief printing process, so it is
the natural platform for artists who make linocuts,
wood cuts and wood engravings. Canada has a
wealth of woodcut artists and wood engravers,
including Margaret Lock, George Walker, Wesley
Bates, Alan Stein and Gerard Brender-à-Brandis.
Each has her or his unique style. Lock illustrates her
books and broadsides with woodcuts in an
authentic medieval style. Brender-à-Brandis is
renowned for his floral wood engravings. Bates’s
versatile hand and line display his great skill as an
illustrator, and Walker’s use of dental tools and
non-traditional techniques gives his wood
engravings an avant-garde individuality. Stein often
enhances his evocative engravings with distinctive
hand colouring.

George Walker has spearheaded a Canadian
revival of the wordless novel. In his sublime Book
of Hours, he uses ninety-nine wood engravings to
tell the story of the final hours in the life of
anonymous workers at the World Trade Center,
just prior to the catastrophe of 9/11. Similarly,
Barbarian Press has experienced great success
particularly with its Endgrain Editions, lavish hand-printed
books that celebrate the work of individual wood
engravers from Canada and abroad. In these
books, direct, unmediated visual and artisanal
experience is paramount, and it adds credence to
the notion that illustrations, on their own or
integrated with carefully designed pages of type,
deserve greater esteem amongst collectors of
private press books. Indeed, the subculture of
current letterpress activity expresses a shift in
function from technological efficiency to aesthetic
effect and hands on participation.

It would be a touch overwrought to say that
there has been an explosion of interest in letterpress,
but in such a tiny community, it seems to be
the case. Resellers of printing equipment, such as
Don Black Linecasting of Scarborough, have
witnessed a dramatic increase in the cost of certain
presses in the face of elevated demand and
diminishing supply. Local groups have sprung up to
share equipment and knowledge, such as the
Richmond Hill Book Arts Guild and the Ottawa
Press Gang. The Canadian Bookbinders and Book
Artists Guild, based in Toronto, has always been a
champion of letterpress, and sponsors annual book
arts shows, exhibitions and workshops, and OCAD
hosts an annual book arts show early in December.
Similar enthusiasm has been witnessed in
other countries. The elephant in the room is once
again obsolescence, this time not in how printed
material is produced, but the lack of need for
printed matter at all with the advent of convenient
digital readers. And yet, enthusiasts seem to fly in
the rational face of progress, cranking away on
vintage presses, pressing into paper something
beyond just information or entertainment. Perhaps
this is the moment to speak of the aesthetic and
the decorative in the best sense of both, through
rebirth of the old aesthetic and a renewed
appreciation of the decorative value and function
of a centuries-old tradition. It stands for a return to
the integrity of materials, the honesty of intent,
and the pleasures of personal intervention in the
concept and production of an object.

And so I remember back to that first proof,
the experience of a fantastic thrill as the drum
rolled over the form, impressing my modest
assembly of lead type into a piece of fine paper. It
felt as though I were dabbling with the remnant of
an old power, much diminished yet still lingering
in the bite of metal and smell of the ink. I knew at
that moment I had found my calling.

Larry Thompson runs Greyweathers Press in Merrickville,
Ontario. He has printed editions of Coleridge’s Kubla
Khan, a collection of poems by Kera Willis, entitled
Tenebrismo, and Graven Images, from a collection of
original, nineteenth-century wood engravings.

Image: Barbarian Press
Utile Dulci: The First Decade at Barbarian Press, 1977-1987: A History & Bibliography,1988.
Front cover by John DePol
26 x 17cm
Photograph: Courtesy of McMaster University Library

Don Taylor
Emblemata Amatoria, Aliquando Press, 1994, bound 1999
Full calf with debossed found objects and brass keyhole
27.9 x 20.3cm
Photograph: Don Taylor