Letterpress is alive -
and well, all over, even in South Africa
This site is dedicated to promoting Letterpress printing in South Africa. It will assist where it can but the success of this trade, craft or art form is up to the actual practitioners and enthusiasts. As a commercial venture letterpress printing is mostly suited for niche markets in the modern world. For basic printed work that can be done with offset lithography or direct digital printing it cannot compete with the convenience and fast turn around time of modern machinery and processes.
However from an educational perspective it is a valuable technique, it teaches students and hobbyists the analogue nature of the process of getting ink onto paper. It is very intuitive in concept and can be grasped by young children as well as those that have spent their whole lives in the digital domain. From a craft angle it is a viable outlet for creative talents and is a relaxing way to spend idle time, it need not take up a lot of space and can be started with relatively modest equipment and supplies. Those who wish to approach it from the direction of fine art will find that it supports experimentation in new techniques as well as the historical techniques that have created the book arts movement as well as being the root of all modern typography including the marketing media. As a commercial niche market it supports a lot of bespoke needs of people who want to offer their clients or customers something different, well done letterpress printing can be made to look professional with crisp inking and a kiss impression comparable with the best offset printing. With deep impression and other techniques it is possible to achieve results that are very difficult and certainly not cost effective to achieve with other techniques. The perforation and numbering services offered for invoices and such by many litho and digital printers are typically still performed on platen presses because of the cost effectiveness and skills base, this would not be called high quality letterpress work but still makes use of the same techniques and machinery.
Here is a list of some of the techniques that have been developed over the years and in many cases still in use in their niches are basic letterpress, wood and lino cuts, wood engravings, photochemical line blocks, half tone colour separations, close register spot colour graphics, deep impressions, debossing and embossing, scoring for folds, perforations for tearing, sequential numbering, bronzing and Verco raised lettering and others.
South Africa is a good site for growing in Letterpress in this new millennium. Much of the larger commercial equipment has been decommissioned and destroyed or shipped out of the country but a large amount of the older vintage equipment has been kept in storage or on display and can often be put back into service with minor mechanical repairs or restoration, this older machinery was made to last and has done so well. The smaller equipment has never had the same pressure to be disposed of and is easier to transport so is ideal for the hobby or occasional letterpress enthusiast. Prices for the smaller equipment (Adana 5×3 or 8×5) can be higher in the retail market but it is only the case when there is a willing buyer, there are bargains to be had out there. Larger platen presses such as the Heidelberg Windmills tend to hold their price due to the utility they hold in the numbering and scoring trades even to this day. Larger presses have often been converted for use as die cutting presses with the inking arrangements removed so are not always well suited to restoration and transport can be prohibitive. Cylinder presses were typically large automated units that are hard to find work for or somewhat smaller proofing presses, mostly hand cranked with a paper width of 15 to 33 inches. The most sought after make in America is the Vandercook but any cylinder press with a working inking system is capable of small runs of high quality work.
The artistic side of letterpress finds expression in ephemera that can take any form the printer chooses or be done according to guidelines if taking part in an exhibition or a print exchange bundle. The other avenue is the book arts where the whole process of printing, commonly onto high quality paper, and often publishing is undertaken by one person or private press and then bound to a high standard, often by hand. These small run books are sought by collectors who are interested in the material or printing or binding techniques and if of a high standard by recognised individuals can fetch impressive prices.
The comercial side is mostly relegated to embossing, scoring and foiling of labels and other promotional material. The perforating and numbering of multipart forms printed offset litho is often done letterpress. A few printers still do much of their work mostly in letterpress. Another comercial avenue that has a large following in America and looks set to grow here is the wedding invitation market and there are already a couple of local printers focusing on this growing niche.