Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wordplay at Iota Press: A Lesson in Letterpress

Over the weekend I attended a 4-hour letterpress workshop. I learned how to set type and roll the printing press over paper, creating a few prints complete with words and corresponding images.

With only one other person in the workshop at Iota Press, we had plenty of individualized attention from poet-artist-instructor Eric Johnson, a retired carpenter who has been playing with the arrangement of letters and shapes on a press at his community co-op for almost 10 years.

I brought in an original poem by Ellen Bass that a dear friend read at my wedding in June. I chose a favorite line--"Let love grow wild, insist on itself"--which I divided into two, and selected two art deco images to bookend the script. Eric suggested a slender, elegant font that would fit well into the space on a small card and showed me how to set it on a metal tray.

Setting type--be it large wood blocks or tiny metal letters--is a tedious process of arrangement; only the detail-oriented may take great pleasure in the task. Once the font and graphic is decided upon, the pieces are fit together like a tight puzzle, using lead squares and thin copper sheets to fill in the spaces between so each piece remains flat under the viselike pressure of the printing press. Eric's light-filled studio contains dozens of antique wood cabinets whose sliding drawers are sprinkled with hundreds of pieces--a true treasure trove of letters and pictures.

The backwards puzzle is transferred to the printing press, where it is wedged with more blocks into place. Just a bit of ink keeps the rollers well lubricated and the image is pressed onto paper with one swift push.

We all agreed that the result is lovely to behold, but the beauty of the metal type with its varied silvery shades is almost unparalleled by its paper and ink component.

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