At Dartmouth, Reviving The Art Of The Letterpress

Sep 23, 2014

While more and more people are reading and working in cyberspace, some are stepping back in history.

They're using metal or wooden type to print what they want to say, one letter at a time. Six of them — all women, mostly writers, designers, poets, and one librarian — recently got their hands a little dirty at a letterpress workshop in the basement of the Dartmouth College's Baker Library.

Sarah Smith, a printer and art teacher at the college, started her lecture-demonstration by sorting through small pieces of lead type stored in little cubby holes in  a flat wooden type case. Baubles in the shape of metal wrenches dangled from her ears. She rejected some letters, and arranged her choices in what she called a job stick.

It looks like a metal ruler with a ledge to hold type.  A movable lever keeps the line of lead letters fitting snugly, sometimes with blank spacers to fill out the row. Each piece of type has a groove, called a nick, at the bottom.

Sarah Smith shows how a job stick can hold metal type as a page is being composed for a printing press.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“So I am spelling my first line first, left to right, as if I was writing and then keeping that nick facing up, facing the open part of the job stick,” Smith explained as she showed them how the announcement for this Book Arts workshop was printed.

To make a page, she would transfer these lines of type to a shallow rectangular box, called a chase, and place it on the bed of a printing press, ready for ink.

This may not be the way most commercial presses operate any more, but letterpress is increasingly popular with artists and writers who see printing as an art in itself —not just a job for a computer.

“People definitely miss the tactile quality and the process of it but even if you are not into doing it people like the look of it and the feel of it," Smith said.

Which is why, Smith added, so many of her friends are doing letterpress work these days. She even hand printed her own wedding invitation—in the shape of a chicken leg.

She scattered dozens of other arty invitations, little books, even advertising brochures, on the table, and then asked the students what they liked about them.

The press room in the basement of Baker Library at Dartmouth College has spawned generations of printers and is still in use today.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

Jill Baron, who works upstairs in Baker library, said she thinks setting type by hand will make her writing less wordy.

“So okay, maybe I don’t need that clause because concision might be helpful setting that type. And you know when it’s a more physical act it’s like, you know, how can I save myself the work and the trouble?” Baron said as her fellow students nodded and laughed.

"People definitely miss the tactile quality and the process of it." -Sarah Smith, printer and Dartmouth art teacher

Next Smith led her aspiring typesetters into a press room down the hall. It’s filled with antique contraptions, including one powered by a foot pedal.

“Genius, isn’t it?” she asked the onlookers.

A printing press stands ready to accept projects by attendees of a letterpress workshop at Dartmouth College.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“Wow, really complicated,” one murmured.

They tried a slightly more modern one.

Some of America’s most prestigious letterpress designers and printers learned to set type in this basement studio at Dartmouth.  And although many of those alums have now closed their print shops as digital technology has taken over, these ancient presses are still working just fine for a whole new generation of book artists.