A couple of weeks ago I went to a letterpress workshop at Old City Press, Alexandria’s new letterpress studio and graphic design shop, which opened its brick and mortar space back in December. I was so very excited to see them start to move presses into the old fibre space storefront, which is a place that’s near to my heart as it’s the first Old Town business I ever shopped at when I came back to DC years ago. I’ve got a long-standing interest in letterpress, and I was thrilled at the prospect of having a studio close to me, in one of my favorite retail spaces in the city. I’ve got a project in my mind’s eye for 2014 that requires access to a letterpress studio, and originally I was going to make the trek up to Silver Spring and Pyramid Atlantic, but with a shop so close to home I’d be crazy not to explore what Old City Press had to offer instead – am I right? And so I signed up for the workshop to see what the space was all about.
As y’all know, I take a lot of classes, and they run the gamut from amazing to terrible, so I didn’t know what to expect from Old City Press, but these guys hit it out of the park. I was exhausted when I got home – in that great way that happens when you’ve worked hard on something you care about. They keep the class size very small and we each got tons of personal attention from Pete and Eric (Erik? If you or Pete read this please tell me how to spell your name!), who taught our workshop. We each chose a phrase to print (in my case, “To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong”) and set our phrase in a chase using wooden and metal type from Old City Press’s collections. I think my favorite moment pulling text was when I went into a case in search of some image blocks to use to surround my quotation’s attribution and found two stars. Later, pulling a print, I noted how the stars gave my print kind of a Civil War era political poster vibe… and then realized those posters were printed with lead stars exactly like the ones I was using here and now, in 2014, to pull my own prints. I love setting type because it connects me with a history of printmaking – the same way I love weaving – it’s the common thread, the historical narrative of craftwork. I am definitely more of a printer and less of a graphic designer.
Once we finished selecting our type, laying it out and fixing it in place, we mixed up our inks and pulled a series of prints on each of the shop’s two Vandercook presses; we each got several copies of our posters. I am not showing y’all mine because hey, born perfectionist, and this was my first print pulled in ten years – so not ready for prime time – but I do have a copy of it hanging in my weaving studio. We also had the chance to pull prints using a pre-made polymer plate. Polymer plates are widely used today to save time on typesetting and get a deeper impression on the print. One of the things I found most interesting about the class was that although we typically associate letterpress type with that deep, rich indentation that’s so sought after in printing today, historically it was considered a sign that you were an inferior printer if you got that deep impression on your paper. As Pete said, after all, who wants to read a crinkly newspaper or book? And in fact, contemporary printers can crack wooden type trying to use it to produce that deep imprint, which is why it can be hard to find undamaged wooden typesets. I was completely fascinated by this, having never printed with a polymer plate before, but I think I’m still a true-blue typesetter at heart.
I really enjoyed working with Pete and Eric and I can’t wait to rent more printing time in the studio this year.
Update: Sadly, shortly after I took my OCP class, Pete contacted me to let me know they would be giving away the fonts I intended to work with. I’ve found another letterpress studio that’s geared more to serious letterpress printers and will be posting about working in that space soon!