Wednesday, 27 February 2013

News Quote Number One

Wood type poster, If you leave everything to the market you get horsemeat, Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg was on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live last weekend being his usual ebullient self. During a discussion about the UK's strange bias towards people with a privileged background in all walks of life from the front benches of parliament to smug public school boys "clogging up the charts", it was suggested that maybe it was ok to let the market decide what should be in the charts... To which Billy Bragg immediately responded "If you leave everything to the market you get horsemeat in your burgers". Brilliant.

Having recently acquired two newsy looking sets of 20 line type - one very condensed and one slightly less condensed - it occurred to me that Billy's response was an excellent excuse to print a letterpress poster. I set the wood type straight onto the bed of the press that very afternoon, mixing letters from both to keep it within the bounds of the paper and because I didn't have quite enough letters to print it using one set. The wood type isn't in the best shape so needed a fair bit of make-ready, but the point was to print the quote the same day. 

Wood type

I printed it on a medium rough cartridge paper (170 gsm) and the final effort looks a bit like one of the pavement board posters you see outside newsagents. The quote weirdly seems to gain significance by being made into a poster...

There's a very established trend now for letterpress printers to print quotes of the Keep Calm and Carry On variety, and even the most banal piece of fridge magnet wisdom can take on the veneer of credibility when turned into a letterpress poster. Fortunately, there's also some great work from printers like gridula or The Counter Press which provides hope (and a laugh) and work from Meat Collective makes my head spin it's just so good. To get me started however, there's definitely scope for a series of posters of 'News Quotes' or 'News Comments' -- the kind of comment that just sums up a particular story, or has you screaming at the radio, or makes you laugh. A News Quote poster series could provide an interesting take on the news over a period of time... or it might just reveal my own political bias in 3 inch type. I'm willing to take that risk and am now listening out for suitable quotes for new posters -- let me know if you hear any.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Magic of Shiny New Type

Shiny new type from Hand and Eye

Taking it One Step at a Time (part 2)

The new type from Hand and Eye foundry arrived much quicker than expected. It came wrapped in large quantities of brown paper and bubble wrap, which took ages to carefully undo. New type is surprisingly shiny and I tried and failed to prevent myself from going into Gollum impressions "My preciousssssssss". It's ok, there was no-one to see...

I typeset Mary's business card again, taking the opportunity to tweak the design - a little less leading there, a little more there, a different kind of rule, putting Mary's name in 12pt rather than 10pt - and inked up the press again ready to try the first print with the new type.

But before I did that I made absolutely sure that the Adana was set to minimum impression because I want this new type to last as long as possible.

It was a bit nerve-wracking to try that first print because at the back of my mind I was worried that the problem hadn't been with the type at all... but the very first print was immediately so much better than the best of my previous attempts and it all suddenly seemed... easy. The letters were crisp and clear and the commas looked like commas rather than squashed midges. 

Printing with old and new type - a comparison

Printing the cards after that was relatively straightforward, though there was a nasty moment when it looked as though the left hand edge was wonky even when the bottom edge was straight. Took a while to realise that the cards had not been cut straight, so I will be trying a different supplier in future. Though ultimately it would be much better to cut them myself. This discovery meant that each and every card had to be checked for a square edge before printing. One day this will all seem hilarious.

So what have I learned?
1. Never buy second hand type without checking it with a magnifying glass
2. Don't bother to buy second hand type in smaller sizes unless it's very unusual, or you know the previous owner treated it properly

Although I suspect this whole episode reads like a nightmare, it's actually been an enjoyable experience. Really! It's been very satisfying to figure out, step by step, why things aren't working and to gradually put them right. Printing is a mechanical and logical process and it just takes a bit of time to get it right. Unfortunately it just takes me ages to get it right! I'm hoping that once I move on from 'letterpress beginner' to 'letterpress intermediate' the process might get a little quicker.

Finally I have been trying to work out how the previous owner of that second hand type let it get into such a terrible state. Did he/she really throw it across his/her workshop and stamp on it? Or were the typemice busy? Or perhaps that's just how type gets after a long and useful life. It should really be destined for the hellbox so it can go back to the founders to be made into more new shiny type... But Gordon Chesterman's idea of setting worn type in resin for further creative experimentation suggests there might be a little more life in it yet.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Taking it One Step at a Time

worn type

Over the last few days I've been on a voyage of discovery... ascending a steep learning curve... undergoing trial by type... enduring initiation by ink... Yes, you're absolutely right - these are euphemisms. I'm having trouble printing some business cards.

Unfortunately these business cards are for my friend Mary who is an utterly brilliant letterpress printer and bookbinder, and it would severely pain me to present her with cards that were anything other than well printed. With hindsight perhaps it would have been better to print cards for myself first, or for the dog... or for someone who actually genuinely likes the 'distressed letterpress aesthetic'. But on the plus side once/if I (ever) crack this, I might be able to cast aside the 'letterpress newbie' label and advance to 'letterpress intermediate'.

It started well, with a parcel from the Happy Dragon's Press containing everything I needed to replace the packing on the Adana. I could have followed the instructions in the Adana manual and packed the platen with newsprint paper, card and a paper topsheet (the cheaper option) but I liked the sound of their 'Swiss packing' and decided to give it a try. It arrived with extensive instructions and there was also a very friendly and helpful email from Stafford, so fitting it all was relatively stress-free.

The new packing is excellent so I am very pleased with my investment (though bear in mind that my only point of reference to compare and contrast it with are soft porn pages covered with brown card - see Unusual packing for an Adana 8x5). 

Sadly the new quality packing made it suddenly obvious that my Adana was nowhere near as well set up as I'd thought. The forme was meeting the platen at a bit of an angle, so the top edge of the card couldn't print. This meant squaring up the bed by setting a chase with an H in each corner, inking it up, and turning the impression screws on the back by increments until there was an even print across the paper.

That done I was all ready for business card production... or so I thought. But even with the new packing and the newly squared bed, the prints were horrible. Blobs of ink where I didn't expect or want them and some letters with parts missing, or absent completely, and some letters bolded up. Over the next couple of printing sessions I attempted the following solutions:

1. Printing on different kinds of card
2. Using less ink 
3. Using a different ink
4. Using a little more pressure

Each time I tried something new the resulting prints were a little better, but it was still nowhere near presentable. 

Finally I looked closely at the type itself using a linen tester, and had a horrible shock. Some of the type was extremely worn, some was missing parts of the letters altogether and many pieces were filthy - with ink-encrusted random gobs of nastiness which turned out to be responsible for those extra blobs of ink. And some letters were from from different typefaces altogether. This was a bit of a low point as I'd bought this type second hand last summer and hadn't used it before. Sometimes that learning curve just feels very steep indeed. 


So I've ordered new type (got to keep those foundry and monotype boys in business or we won't have any nice type to print with) and while I wait for that to arrive, I've been swapping out the worst offenders, cleaning the type carefully and spotting up where necessary. Every time the prints look a little better. And every time I do this, my hands seem to have a better idea of what they're doing, and things come together a little faster. 

By the time my new type arrives my hands and head will be in synch and I'll be printing perfect business cards. Just you wait and see! Fortunately Mary is a very patient woman.