Over the summer I casually suggested to Frances Squire, a teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School, that she bring her students along to my letterpress shop sometime for a printing workshop. She jumped on the idea, and, as a result, 14 of her grade 9 students arrived at the shop this morning ready to print.
We quick ran through the basics of setting type — we only had 3 hours, so we had to be quick — and then they split into 4 groups to set passages they’d worked out before coming.
As proof that “technology literacy” extends to more than just digital technology, they took to the trade like ducks to water, and quickly figured out their way around the jigsaw puzzle that is setting type by hand.
Hand-set letterpress is all about limitations — you can only set the type you have, and you can only arrange it in ways that physical geometry allows — and so plans had to be adapted in mid-stream (one group’s very ambitious plan for a broadside with two typefaces of different sizes had to give way as the shop wasn’t equipped with enough spaces to allow it to be pieced together). But the students adapted quickly, and we managed to get four passages set and printed before their 11:45 a.m. deadline. Here’s what they came up with:
They were a great group of students to work with: curious, flexible, imaginative. Frances is to be lauded for taking the initiative to get them out of the class doing real stuff.
I learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) in letterpress workshops (don’t talk about “inches” because students today think in centimetres”, do get out of the way and let them figure out the geometry because that’s the only way to learn it). I was right at the limit of the letterpress supplies I have — I really, really need more 30 point spaces and some additional furniture and leading — and with a single press and a single printer at hand there was a bottleneck for the last 45 minutes as typesetting was done and groups had to wait to have their work printed (I did the actually printing, for safety’s sake — I kept everyone 10 feet, err, 3 metres, away and behind a table from the press). But it seemed to all work out in the end.
I may even do this again…