Letterpress is a type of ‘relief” printing of text and images that is primarily used today for art and wedding invitations, birth announcements and other special occasions. It is done on a cylinder or platen press where a reversed and raised surface is inked and then literally imprinted into the paper itself.
The decision to use letterpress for The Amichai Windows had to do with making the words an integral part of the paper itself. I am also using various plates of images to lend the spreads texture — the outline of a Jerusalem window or a dove or a clock — and to emphasize certain words and letters.
For instance, I love the title of one of Amichai’s poems in the collection: to remember is a kind of hope. I have been toying with the idea of how to stress this phrase, this thought, within the spread of the poem. Or there might be a picture of a woman in one of the spreads that I will frame with a blind embossed window. Each poem presents a new challenge.
Three or four days a week I drive from my home in Virginia to Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. I set out in the morning, weave along with rush hour traffic and then spend the day letterpressing The Amichai Windows.
It is going to be an edition of 18 copies — each with 18 poems. It’s a two or three step printing process. If I’m not printing at Pyramid Atlantic, then I’m making the digital prints at home. Or ordering the ‘plates’ for the letterpress printing.
I apologize for not writing more blog entries, but there’s just a time crunch. If I’m not doing the actual printing, I’m working on another aspect of the book. Or cooking dinner for my family, helping my daughter with homework or running household errands.
I don’t know how much you know about letterpress printing, so I have taken a bunch of pictures of various stages of the work. The design of the book itself is changing as I engage with the letterpress printing. Of late, I’ve been experimenting with metallic inks — silver and gold. I am toying with various ways to print light ink on a dark print. Letterpress inks are translucent. So, for instance, you can’t just print a light color on top of a black or brown color. . . because the ink just reflects through the black or brown. Little by little, I am puzzling out these challenges and finding innovative ways to resolve them.
So, letterpressing . . .first, here’s a shot of the Vandercook press that I’m using — a Universal proofing press.
You can see the inking station to the left and the cabinet of lead type to the right. I don’t use much lead type; rather, I send away for photopolymer plates, a flexible plastic “plate.” I do this for a few reasons: first, it saves me the time of setting one letter at a time in English; second, it allows me to use whatever font I want aside from the ones found in the shop; and, third, it enables me to print in Hebrew because Pyramid Atlantic doesn’t have any lead type in Hebrew.
To use a “plate,” you have to set up your base and lock it into the press with “furniture” and a quoin — a kind of expandable lock.
Then, you can go about mixing your ink.
Once you’ve got the base locked up, you can set up your plate on the base. It has to be precisely “registered” or set in position so that it will print where you want it to print on the paper. This is easier said than done, especially when dealing with two languages that go in opposite directions. And which sometimes need to be placed upside down.
Below is a picture of me checking the registration of the plate. I am using a ruler that measures in “points” – a printer’s term. The press itself is already inked up in green and it probably didn’t “hit” i.e., print, exactly where I wanted it to, so I’m realigning it. The photopolymer plates have an adhesive on the back of them, so you can just peel them off the base and reposition them properly.
Below is my teacher, Laura Kinneberg, looking over a print.
Here, below, I am jogging together a sheet of paper and “packing.” The packing are additional sheets that are used and help determine the depth of an impression of a print. Before I run a print, I have to “trip” the press — that is, ink the plate with the cylinder rollers. Once that is done and the coverage is smooth, I can run a print.
Lining up the paper on the paper gripper . . .
Running a print . . .holding the print with one hand and cranking the press with the other.
Removing a print from the press cylinder . . . and returning it to the starting position.
Sometimes, the coverage is off and I have to make some adjustments to the press. That could include anything from boosting up the base a smidge to resetting the position of the plate. It might only mean adding a thin piece of scotch tape beneath the plate to make it look just right. Letterpress is a demanding and precise art that takes a painstaking commitment to getting it right.
Here’s a picture of a final print of a cover for one of the poems in The Amichai Windows . . .
And here are the drying racks where I stack up finished prints until they’re ready to be stored away and finally assembled into the final book.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into letterpress printing . . . off to Pyramid Atlantic again this week!
Note: All photos in this blog are by Rick Black and Laura Kinneberg