This may be churlish, but there is one aspect of the current revival of interest in letterpress that bothers us. Impression. Or rather, excessive impression.
Often now our customers want their printing heavily pressed into the page. We can understand it: they’re usually paying a premium to use us, and they can reasonably expect to get something extra. Such is the demand that Crane’s have produced their Lettra range of uncalendered papers. Soft and textured, they take impression very nicely and are, as the lager ads used to say, reassuringly expensive.
A couple of months ago we printed business cards for someone who said they weren’t ‘letterpressed properly’ because we hadn’t produced a braille-like surface. There seems to be such an expectation now of unsubtle printing that we’re often unsure how a new customer is going to receive our work.
We always do our best to oblige when asked to thump the paper. It involves us balancing the customer’s instruction with producing a sharp, clean image. Pushing extra hard on the plate (we never do this to our type) can produce distortion, especially at corners.
We explained to our dissatisfied client that printing you can feel as well as see is a recent fashion. We have read that the history of letterpress in the industrial age can be seen as the story of the elimination of impression. If a machine minder of, say, the 1960s saw work like that in our photograph you could expect the air to turn blue.
What, you might ask, is the point of letterpress without impression? As another customer said recently, we deliver blacker blacks and denser colours than litho. When we work with metal and wood rather than plates you get the qualities, good and bad, of the design of the type and the physical limitations of putting it together.
If you ask us to print something that shows through on the other side we’ll do it the best we can. We like the traditions of our trade, though. We talk about cases and galleys, not drawers and trays. When we’re left to our own devices we like our type to kiss the paper just the way our machines were made to do it.