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.