RAVEN LETTERPRESS: ADVENTURES IN INK AND TYPE
Behind the scenes, another little venture has slowly been taking shape. My husband Neil and I have a collection of antique letterpresses. The newest one is 70 years old; the oldest is 130. They range weight from just a few pounds to several tons. Together, we are slowly learning the art of letterpress printing, repair and maintenance. The hope is that I can use it alongside my artistic work, combining the textural letterpress with flowing watercolors. And some fun graphic projects as well. It is all a labor of love. Which is fitting since the first press was a gift from Neil on our wedding anniversary. And since it came just as our daughter was leaving the nest for college, and since ink-black ravens mate for life, the name Raven Letterpress seemed a perfect fit.
Neil and I were fortunate to have started our careers at a booming time in the newspaper world, back when the pages were still printed to negatives then to plates, film was still developed in dark rooms and there was even a wax paste-up machine still bubbling away in a corner. Our fascination with the printing process began there. I worked in the newsroom as the page designer and copy editor; Neil worked in composing and pre-press, laying out ads and preparing commercial jobs. We left that first paper to start another with our friends, and then Neil and I worked together as a team to help other start-up newspapers get off the ground. Even though it had only been a few short years, by that time, the process was completely digital. He set up their computer networks, I created the newspaper templates, logos, and stylebook. It was all a big adventure.
He surprised me on our 25th wedding anniversary with our first letterpress (the Kelsey). Within a few weeks another letterpress crossed our path (the Line-O-Scribe), then another (the Chandler and Price). We entered the month of March with no letterpresses; we exited March with three. In beautiful condition, plus 25 drawers of type. It was as if the universe decided it was time for us to get back into printing. And we couldn’t be happier to start this new adventure.
MEET OUR LETTERPRESSES
Chandler & Price 8×10 – 1900 — Purchased from an office supply store in Newport, Tenn. across from the old newspaper there. Someone bought the building, and the press was sitting in the corner, in pristine condition. They had no idea how to move it. We did. Just the two of us, we moved it — very slowly — on metal rollers and inched it up onto our trailer with a come-along. Then we then drove it — very slowly — back home on a winding road down through the Pigeon River gorge. Worth every moment of that whole white-knuckle experience. If a thousand-pound piece of interlocking metal, gears, levers, flywheels, oil and ink can be considered lovely, then this press is. It’s just lovely.
Kelsey 5×7 – 1940 — We got this in Waynesville NC, where it had previously belonged to a local dentist and his family. He used it to print church bulletins and wedding invitations. Some of the hardware was even stored in old dental filling boxes! It’s considered a tabletop press, since it’s small enough to be set up and run on the kitchen table.
Line-O-Scribe – 1950s — This came from Waynesville NC as well at almost the exact time we got the Kelsey, but from someone else entirely. The story was this printer belonged to the former Old Style Printing shop, which closed a while back, and this printer and two cases of type were pulled out the back of a storage building. The Line-O-Scribe was sold to shops and department stores to print the display signs announcing sales. It prints up to 14 x 21.
Line-O-Scribe type — We were so fortunate to get the beautiful type, the type display rack and catalogs of everything you could ever want with a top-of-the-line Line-O-Scribe sign maker from the 1950s.
Little Model Press – 1884 — Bought just for the sheer cute factor. You can hold this tiny printer in one arm, like a baby. It was advertised as being “designed more particularly for smaller boys. …For that small boy, a Little Model Press would be the acme of his delight.” The print area is a diminuitive 2 x 3. Adorable.
Type drawers — We were also fortunate to get from the former Old Style Printing shop cleanout a hand-built cabinet with 15 drawers of type. Each drawer is a unique font. Some are fat serifs from the 70s, some are tall western fonts from the 60s. But the real gem is a drawer of the “Cloister” font from the early 1900s. It was an American version of William Morris’s Golden Type, made in Britain in the 1890s. William Morris is a personal art icon. And even the way the drawer is made pre-dates the standard California job case. It was a real hidden treasure, and more than 100 years later still prints up beautifully.
HISTORY: WHAT MAKES LETTERPRESS PRINTING SPECIAL
A letterpress is a type of printing press that produces a relief impression on the paper. Imagine a page of stiff paper where you can run your fingers over the individual letters and feel each dip and groove where it was printed. Sometimes you can feel it on the pages of old books. More often you can feel them on wedding invitations, calendars or art prints. That lovely deep impression is from a letterpress.
The history of the letterpress can be traced back to Gutenberg’s first press from the 15th century. And with relatively few changes, letterpresses were used exclusively until the beginning of the 20th century. These workhorses could be found in every town, in every industry. Almost every printed word you read was produced on a letterpress. But at the turn of the 20th century, the faster offset printing began replacing the old letterpresses. By the 1960s, the last major letterpress manufacturers had closed. By the ’80s, most industries were converting to computers and self-publishing, leaving only newspapers and large scale printing companies to still use big presses. Sadly, so many of the oldest letterpresses were hauled off to the scrap yards.
But by the 1990s, there was a revival of interest in the old letterpress technology and techniques, not just as a workaday printer but as medium for a refined craft. Letterpress enthusiasts are restoring them and passing on the skills to run them. Now, these amazing old workhorses are finding new life printing special pieces that are meant to be treasured.