Changes in Letterpress Printing

I recently ordered a book Private Presswork by Frank Anderson published in 1977, very close to the time I was introduced to letterpress printing. Frank was head librarian at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina for many years, and he operated his Kitemaug Press as a private press until his death a few years ago. As I looked through the book which lists suppliers, instruction manuals, available type foundries, paper houses and press makers, I am struck by the vivid changes that letterpress has gone through in the last 35 years. Out of 9 1/2 pages of suppliers the number has been reduced to a mere handfull. The press makers have all disappeared as have almost all of the type foundries. The historic papers houses are nearly all gone, and the suppliers that sold regionally to the trade have been reduced to two. The only thing that hasn’t changed are the suggested books for reading (except for the addition of all the fine volumes championed by Oak Knoll Publishing), and the libraries; unfortunately fewer are buying private press books.

For the people who insist that there is “revival in letterpress printing”, it should be amended to “a revival in interest in letterpress printing”. Reading this book it becomes painfully clear that there is no longer the commercial structure to support letterpress, or really for that matter offset and serigraph printing. As the old suppliers have closed down or died off there aren’t any new ones to take their place. Not only is this business structure disappearing, the knowledge that these people, who were integral to the day-to-day operation of these support structures is disappearing too.

Frank Anderson’s book is not just a snapshot of the past, when viewed today it is a revealing documentation of the collapse of the industry of letterpress printing.


image: OldTimePrinters.JPG


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Yes, the motor car replied the horse and cart. But then, I don’t think the horse and cart was supposed to last forever as the primary means of personal transport.

Yes, there are very few horse and cart manufacturers these days. But then, I don’t think today’s horse and cart users demand many manufacturers to service them.

In the letterpress and horse and cart industries, massive commercial structure is no longer justified.

Supply meets demands, which in turn encourages supply.

In the commercial world, especially in graphic arts and fine stationery, there is a revival in the need for letterpress printing. You should get out, and see these industries in action.

I work in a company which has gone from 2 to 15 employees in just over a year. All we do is letterpress printing. Small drop in the big ocean, but there are hundreds of micro-enterprise letterpress printers around the world. We’re not supposed to be major industrial plants anymore, just like horse and cart users are to remain niche too.

You speak of the “collapse” of the letterpress industry. Yes, it was overtaken by more effective technology. You are right, the world has changed. As the world has changed, the metrics behind measuring success and viability has also changed too.

You raise great points:

How do you propose that the knowledge of the people, so vital to the support structures, be retained?

As importantly, how do you propose that machinery be solved. About 6 months ago, someone raised a new topic about the development of new letterpress machines, so we don’t damage the precious few we have left. If I recall correctly, you shot the notion of there ever being any commercial viability in the letterpress industry. Doom and gloom sure can be enjoyable to revel in.

Printing type is used very little these days, and type foundries are very scarce — but they do exist. Paper is still available. Presses are a bit like old cars — they can be restored or found in running condition — at a price driven by demand; but they still turn up cheap or free. The skills are evolving — and disappearing — but some essential ones will be preserved, and reinvented if necessary. Letterpress as a commercial craft is going to have a very limited market, but it does have a market. I don’t think it’s dead yet!


By the way, I loved the photo of the three old printers and the Stansbury hand press (could be either a Hoe or an earlier Adams). Where’s you find that?


I agree with Paul, but also with Bob.
The printing industry moved from Letterpress to Offset, and now to digital.
But the technology still exists to support a niche market and a niche supplier.
I operate my shop by myself and 5 jobs a month its too much for me, if I keep getting 5 jobs a month, I might need to hire someone.

Outside of the photopolymer plate industry (which shows growth in the web flexographic industry) I don’t see a lot of growth, real growth in the letterpress industry. I don’t see new press manufacturers, but I do see more people who are forced to purchase sub par equipment. The ridiculousness of Vandercooks being more valuable than Heidelbergs shows to me that this ‘revival’ is mostly hobby driven.

I see the paper industry paring down papers that are suitable for letterpress (how many printing problems discussed on this list have to do with Lettra papers?), and the loss of text papers from Fabriano is a big set-back. I recently spent several hours looking at the availability of good mould-made papers, and all I found that is readily available is imported from Germany or England; there doesn’t seem to be any manufacturers left in this country. I know that there still are plenty of commercial paper sources, but papers made for letterpress are rare indeed.

I’m glad that there seems to be a few companies who are doing well, but I would argue that this is not the norm. I would be curious to know what is the actual number of commercial letterpress shops, and I don’t mean shops that are primarily offset with a letterpress department primarily used for numbering, perforating and scoring. I’ve searched for industry numbers, but the number seems to be so small that it is not singled out in industry reports. By using scare quotes around the word collapse, you imply that is a word that I coined. The letterpress industry collapsed in the 1950s & 60s, before I ever entered it. By the time Frank Anderson wrote his book much of the equipment was already being used by private presses or hobbyists, the market to which his book was aimed.

It takes more than a few hundred, or even a few thousand letterpress printers working out of their garages to drive the industry. I don’t think that the knowledge that is critical for survival is being retained; I think that most of it is already gone. A few months in a letterpress program is not enough, and there are fewer and fewer professionals left that ‘grew up’ doing letterpress. In the area I live around Monterey Bay I know of several letterpress printers, but only two that operate commercial shops. Both are one-man shops, and both specialize in numbering, die-cutting and scoring. The others I would categorize as private or vanity presses, operated primarily in off hours, or as a hobby, and I can think of only one of those that might be self-sustaining.

I don’t revel in doom and gloom, but I do like to think of myself as an industry watcher. Being a supporter of letterpress printing I prefer to be aware of industry trends, and I don’t think it is wise to assume that everything is going to continue the way it is now, which is a mere shadow of what it was a generation ago. Little changes happen every day, but as I initially pointed out, the changes over 35 years are very dramatic. I guess that if your horse and cart is facing the wrong way you won’t see the train that hits you.

@Bob. A dealer I know had the picture - the group of men were printers and industry leaders from the Detroit area.


And the only horse cart maker I know also makes exceptionally fine printing presses, Pratt Wagon and Press Works in Beaver, Utah. Since his presses are copies of hand-presses I fear they are unable to compete with commercial machines. I suspect that Steve could make a C&P or Kluge clone, but I guarantee it would be too expensive for anyone but the top 2%.


To some extent it’s really all about when you entered the process and what part of that history you belong to.

The private press movement preceded me but involved many of the same concerns. There was a periodical titled the Book Collector (uncertain of the name anymore) but every month in the post war years up until the early 60s there was an article about some private printer, and these were not the great post war fine press printers such as Lewis Allen, William Everson, Ward Ritchie, etc., but just folks working out of their basements and garages, producing little books for their own enjoyment with the letterpress equipment they had picked up here and there. There was never any comparison to, or concern for, commercial letterpress.

I entered the field with the fine press revival of the mid-70s. Primarily young folks mixing the private press movement with a sensibility from the alternative press of the 1960s. We were serious about learning the techniques of the past but we were not publishing the type of material of our immediate predecessors. And we were not trained properly in the trade, thank god. Many of us were self taught.

In a building were I had my studio there was a commercial letterpress printer on my right, a photostat company on my left, and photomechanical engraver on the floor below. I was a fine press book printer. When I was invited to participate in a small gathering of material with some of my colleagues I objected to the title. “Three Letterpress Printers…” Wait a minute, we NEVER used the word letterpress, we never thought of ourselves that way, and what the hell about my neighbor?

That concern about the finely printed book is no longer a draw. Not that it has gone away, CODEX is fair witness to that. But many of the folks who have entered the field since 9/11 have a different priority. The confusion comes to play because of the fact that they are fairly commercially inclined. And there are still old-time commercial letterpress printers around. Still, the work of today’s letterpress invitation card printer is a unique turn in the letterpress wheel. Except for the fact that letterpress equipment is at play it differs greatly from previous practices and concerns.

So what? There are a tremendous number of folks entering the maelstrom. At all levels. Sure the equipment and materials are not really there anymore, the techniques and knowledge of skilled practitioners is pretty much vanished from the scene, the presses are old and decrepit, and well yes, there is no significant educational or technical training available. Still, they come, they love it, they figure it out as much as they feel they need to.


This hit be very hard a few weeks back. I purchase my paper from one the major printing paper suppliers in Houston.
He was very upset, I wanted to purchase some die cut label stock.

He almost throw it at me, Buy it, it’s cheap today, can’t sell it any more.

Very one he remarked, wants digital paper, the label stock of yesterday only works on offset and letterpress he stated, NOT digital.

Buy it cheap today.