For the Love of Letterpress

For the Love of Letterpress: A Printing Handbook for Instructors & Students. By Cathie Ruggie Saunders and Martha Chiplis. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. ISBN: 978-1408139417

A growing number of colleges and universities, now filled with students who qualify as digital natives, are adding or reestablishing hands-on instruction in letterpress printing as part of programs in art, design, book arts, writing, and library and information science. For the Love of Letterpress authors Cathie Ruggie Saunders and Martha Chiplis are ideally situated to expound on the whys and wherefores of this trend since they teach letterpress printing and bookmaking in the visual communications department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Drawing on their combined seventy-plus years of printing and teaching experience, they have written and designed an attractive and informative handbook that covers letterpress printing methods, equipment, history, instruction, and theory. Rich in color photographs of work from experienced printers working in a variety of traditions, the book offers many additional years of letterpress insights in the valuable captions that explain materials, techniques, and inspirations.

The book’s subtitle, A Printing Handbook for Instructors & Students, points to its key audience and best application, which is as a textbook for both students and instructors to use in a teaching print shop. In this regard the book fills a significant gap in the available literature about teaching and learning letterpress printing in higher education today, where students are often artists who must learn a technology at the same time they develop conceptual works, and where instructors are fine tuning that balance for each student. And, as the book keenly points out, this all must go on in an environment that respects each student’s projects, keeps production standards high, and a print shop in good working order.

If you are a letterpress printing instructor, Ruggie Saunders and Chiplis have your back with this book. Insights into teaching methods are offered in conjunction with learning-to-print instructions. Students using this book can only benefit from the reinforcement of reading about how other instructors teach. The chapters “Creating a Concept” and “Envisioning the Object” are particularly strong, detailing how to work with students as they master materials and equipment, keeping them on track and away from the inactivity that results from over thinking and the unproductive “hamster wheel” of over doing without enough thought. A chapter on classroom critiques, “Assessing the Object Envisioned,” offers a number of suggestions on making this delicate process not only more interesting, but more successful. The chapter “Contemporary Processes” includes an overview of traditional and innovative letterpress printing techniques accompanied by images of completed works that incorporate them. Several advanced processes, a “backwards transfer” and a “floriated initial image transfer,” are illustrated by drawings that clarify the steps involved. (I’ve been printing for twenty years and these transfers were not only new to me, they answered a question I’ve long had about a particular book’s patterned color on the title page!)

The first half of the book provides a short history of letterpress printing and its early masters and introduces the basics of typesetting, typographic measurement, printing techniques, relief matrices, and associated materials of production such as paper and ink. These sections are variably informative­—some need the accompaniment of additional reading or hands-on instruction. Technically complex topics are at times described in only rudimentary text, and challenging moves for beginners, such as transferring type from a composing stick to a galley, cutting paper with a knife, checking roller height, and repacking a Vandercook Press cylinder, are left unillustrated. Because this book preferences images of completed work over images of processes, beginners will want to refer to additional sources if they do not have an instructor nearby.

With its many photographs and stories of completed works, and its instruction directed at both students and teachers, For the Love of Letterpress is a book printers will refer to over and over as they add skills and develop their printing voice and style. One caveat; there are some errors that slipped through the editing process. In the tradition of some of the finest letterpress printers, the authors have kindly provided an errata sheet on their website with the corrections you can—and should—write right into your copy.

—Sara T. Sauers, Adjunct Assistant Professor
University of Iowa Center for the Book

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