Fake Letterpress

I never imagined that I would be a “purist” in any discipline. But apparently, as regards letterpress printing, I am one. 

There are two schools of letterpress printing. In the “old school,” where I am firmly planted, one prints from metal or wood type and, if non-type elements are required, engraved metal plates. In the “new school,” digital designs are output to a polymer plate maker, and the resulting plates are mounted on a base on the press.

I can’t tell you why I’m a purist in this regard, but Michael J. Babcock, a printer in Massachusetts, comes pretty close to expressing one possible rationale in this answer to the FAQ “do you print from polymer plates” on his Interrobang Letterpress site:

What you’ll find, if it matters to you, is that the vast majority of “letterpress” printers out there do fake letterpress. What they do is plastic “platepress”, though they’ll proudly argue until they’re blue in the face telling you they’re letterpress printers. They don’t own any type, and they won’t acknowledge the difference between the genuine process and artifice they engage in.

It would be like someone telling you they baked your wedding cake from scratch, and then you found the empty cake mix box, and frosting tub behind the counter. The end product may taste nice, but it isn’t what you’re being told you’re getting. And you’re being charged for something that doesn’t require the same knowledge, skills, or scarce materials to create.

All day I sit in front of this screen working on my digital work, work that is open to an infinite array of choices and possibilities. The best and worst thing about the networked world is that infinity, and, partially as an antidote to it, I revel in the severe limitations of old school letterpress. There’s something cleansing about being forced to work within immovable limits. And so the notion of “File | Print”-style plate generating seems absurd to me, for it allows the infinite possibilities of the digital world to leak into this.

Even as I type this I realize that it sounds sort of jerky and dismissive and elitist — “I would never bake a cake from a mix!” — but that’s where I’ve ended up, so I might as well be militant about it.


Seth's picture
Seth on June 5, 2012 - 20:15

I can see where you are coming from. I too enjoy the genuine process of using moveable type or wood cuts. But, what are you saying exactly? Sure, you are a “purist”, but are you a business man? Printing is a business and there are artisan values in Letterpress printing, yes.. but the chance of getting a client without giving them the option of providing their own artwork is slim to none. Being a “Purist” is respectable, but it also implies that you do this as a hobby. As a hobby, it’s very respectable! But as a business man, you’d have to have a very “purist” client base, which we all know, doesn’t happen.. I respect your values sir! I’m a designer, with some experience using a Letterpress. I must say I design a lot of my personal projects for Letterpress, and I think it’s sort of insulting to say that I’m doing “Fake Letterpress” because I’m using Polymer. Tell me what the difference is between ordering a Polymer Plate and Getting a Metal Plate made by a CNC router? The Letterpress was invented for Mass Publication and creation for Clients, it has only recently been used as a personal Hipster Machine, I’m just using it for what is was invented for..

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