What Makes a Master Printer

Alright, one last post before going back to my senses-shattering deadlines.

A few months ago, I printed some work on my letterpress for a customer, and she was ELATED. She sent a friend of hers to me for some other work, and her friend told me that I was referred to as a “Master Printer.” I told her that I don’t think I was deserving yet of the title, but I was proud to stand by my work. But it did get me thinking - what makes a Master Printer?

I work with all types of printing methods, from my century-old presses to offset to digital printing (I’ve just started experimenting with foil - the work I do is good, but it takes me forever to get it just right). I also do a considerable amount of prepress and design work, but have no problem typesetting by hand on my old Ludlows. While I consider myself a very well-rounded printer, in no way am I a Master Printer. There’s so much to learn, and there have been many times when I’ve had to teach myself something on the fly.

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of practical resources to learn the trade, and the few classes I’ve seen around my area seem geared more toward the hobbyist than the professional. That’s why I’m so appreciative of this site - I learn something every time I come to briarpress.org, and am always pleasantly surprised when I get an email or phone call from one of the members here. The insight and encouragement of the Journeyman Printer means a lot to me.

It’s amazing how many people scoff at me when I tell them I have a print shop, like it’s a dying technology. What I’ve found is the opposite - find a niche market, and do things Kinko’s and Staples can’t do, and then do it better than anyone else. I do pretty well, all things considered, and make more and more money every year for doing something that I absolutely love. Not only that, my enthusiasm shows and my customers pick that up - it’s become part of my salesmanship when I do the upsell.

One of my absolute aspirations is to become a Master Printer. While I have much more experience about printing and the printing process than a lot of people, I honestly feel that I may have some years before I take on that appellation. I don’t feel that I have the knowledge base or practical experience to refer to myself in with that title just yet.

So, dear reader, what makes a Master Printer? And, if you consider yourself one, how many years of experience did it take you? What sort of printing methods do you know? Do you foil stamp? How and where did you you learn the trade? Did you go to school, or did you start off as an apprentice? What’s the most complicated or beautiful item you’ve ever printed? What substrates have you printed on? When did you consider yourself a Master Printer?

Now’s the time to brag! Please don’t be shy - I’d really appreciate you sharing your experiences! I’m sure others here would as well.

Sorry if I don’t respond or look at this post right right away, I’m busier than a one-legged man in an butt-kicking contest.


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As I understand it, the traditional Anglo-American system worked a little like this: You begin as an apprentice (the printer’s devil), working and learning the trade for about seven years. After that, you receive a journeyman title, and are expected to travel a while, learning the trade at various printshops across the country (and beyond). The traveling time averaged from a few month to a year. Those that chose not to settle, or simply couldn’t find a place to do so became “tramp” printers. There was no formal transition to a master printers status, aside from owning your own shop. Thus, a master printer, is simply that: a master over other printers in his employ. You could spend your whole life perfecting the craft, and remain a journeyman.

With the journeyman system no longer in place, anyone, I suppose, can call themselves whatever they wish. And having your own shop might be grounds enough to assume that lofty title.

From what I heard, the situation is quite different in Germany. The Master Printer rank requires a certain amount of years in the trade, a rather complicated exam (including both practical and historical knowledge), a creation of a certain “masterpiece” to prove your skills, and even includes a formal ceremony with medieval clothing and copious libations.

I’ve always thought of a Master Printer as someone from the same mold as Christophe Plantin or Giambattistia Bodoni, and I don’t believe they were all personally masters of all aspects of the craft, but more knowledgeable enough about them to critique them and ensure that everything that went out of the shop was not only very high quality but scholarly. Most of the master printers of that period, and many since, were scholars as well as masters of fine printing.

Titles are much like degrees. They are conferred rather than self applied.
There are no remaining trade schools or guilds in the US for letterpress printing. Thus no way to receive the title of Master Printer in the old conventional way.
We in the Black Arts can print up certificates and diplomas of any sort and place our name upon them.
That does not seem right,

Added note.
An old friend, now gone, was a pretty good self taught printer.
He referred to himself as a jack-leg printer.
He was a humble printer and let his work speak for him.

Inky, pretty sure that it’s a jake-leg printer!

One thing is sure, you never quit learning in this business. This is my 49th year. Still learning.

Maybe it takes 50 years!

The title of Master Printer goes back to the guilds of old and pretty much died out along with the guilds. Today it is little more than an affectation. After one satisfactorily completed their apprenticeship they would become a journeyman printer which entitled them to go just about anywhere and work in any shop and the proprietor would know that they were fully qualified. But that would only allow them to work in a shop; not open one. Only a Master Printer was entitled to open a shop and employ other printers. To become a Master Printer the applicant, who would have been sponsored by another Master Printer, would apply to the guild for certification. They would then be required to submit a “masterpiece” to demonstrate their superior skill and knowledge of the trade. All work would be be done solely by the applicant and would encompass every aspect of the trade beginning with cutting type matrices and casting letters. After completion, the work would be submitted for review and evaluation and (after paying the required fees) would either be awarded the title or sent back to further their experience. The masterpiece would have been kept by the guild. Once the person achieved the rank of Master Printer he could then open a shop, hang out his shingle, employ journeymen, and take on apprentices.

Certainly not a Proof Press and a few drawers of over used type. 34 years and learning everyday.

The trade was very controlled in London with a limit of 20 Masters initially.


Outside of London the Church gave permission for printers to set up business.

With the massive growth of printing in the 1800s the term Master Printer fell out of use and probably only used by freemen of the Stationers and Newspaper Makers Guild.

The seven year apprenticeship continued until the 1950s and then reduced to 5 years. An apprentice received a percentage of a journeyman’s wage each year. On completion the apprentice was registered at Stationers Hall as a journeyman and a Freeman of Stationers.

In the City of London apprentices also became Freemen of the City.

A Stationer Freeman when running their own business, and it would have to be a substantial one not a one man shop, might be nominated to become a Liveryman.

I somehow fell into printing by way of printmaking and, along with it, drawing and painting. I never had any formal training at any of it except for quite a few good people along the way. I never could bring myself to call myself an ‘artist’ either, always figuring that it was what others called you (rightly or wrongly) and not what you called yourself. I think the title of ‘Master Printer’ is the same……just a thought……db

I feel a good amount of us on this website are apprentice, and good number or journeyman. But, I feel the term the title of Master Printer is pushing.

I was in the ITU in the 60s and 70s, and seeing that I went to trade school for 3 years before entering the workforce the Union made my apprenticeship in the union shop to two years.

But, seeing that all of us in the printing trade (for money or hobby) are learning new ways everyday in printing we should be called: apprentice/journeyman.

Meaning we understand printing and know how to get the job done, but we do not have all the answers, and that why we should think of ourselves as knowable printers.

But, Master Printer is not a good term to use. We all do not have all the answers in today world of printing.

I think some people lack the humility to understand that it is a title bestowed. I think I’d like to share a story.
A friend of mine, Maurice, has been a lithographer for more than 4 decades and has had his own shop working with artists, collaboratively, for 37 years. He’s an incredible printer, very talented, but also very humble. When we had a meet-up for printers at his NYC printshop some months ago, he was referred to as a master printer in the first draft of the email/message outgoing; he contacted us and said, “well there’s one thing you’ll have to change- you can call me a collaborative printer, because there are no master printers here”.
If Maurice doesn’t call himself one, I am definitely not able to call my own self one.

And in the not too distant past, there were organizations of Master Printers in the United States, but it was not a reference to some elevated status as a craftsperson, but as the owner of a printing business. These were the people who steered the course of the printing industry, formed trade groups, negotiated with the unions, attended conferences and conventions, and made the day-to-day decisions of how the printing world operated, at least in the U.S. And like typical executives, many of them were far removed from the actual craft work of the printing trades, even though almost all of them started out at the bottom unless they inherited a business.

I learned the Trade back in the 70/80’s in Europe.
Germany and Switzerland require an apprenticeship of 3-4 years, a Journeymen (geselle) time of 4-5 years in the Trade. Master school is 1-2 years. Entails the full practical gamut of the Trade and the historical, technical aspect, also, accounting and running a Business. Without that Master degree you couldn’t open a shop or OWN the equipment and machinery related to the Trade. All this is regulated by the Innung and the State. (innung = guild).
As a Printer you receive a Gautschbrief on becoming a Journeyman, that’s there the costumes, debauchery (the one initiated pays for all this!!!!) etc. comes in. With the Gautschbrief in hand, you can travel cross Europe and any Printer in good standing will offer you a Bed to sleep and a meal, if not work. This is valid for over 500 years and still works, I used to travel like that.

That Title means you own the shop, are you any good?

Only your work can tell that.

I don’t think time as anything to do with it, except it took time to get there. I have run into people who are Master typesetters and the Form is wrong.
I’m not important, the work is and how it comes out.

Tyoenut you are so right in stating, your work shows your skill in any trade. I been around great craftsmen in many fields, and the come of the project shows you know what your doing.

I take the humble approach too, even though I am 71 and have been connected in one way or another with printing for most of those years. If anybody asks, I say I’ve been in the printing business all my [working] life, or I say I am a “printer,” which is all most people want to know anyway.
I believe there are areas where I am pretty knowledgeable, but there are also areas where my knowledge is deficient.

Here Here Typenut - thanks for explaining that with such humility.
I should say my language is not directed at anyone in particular, but I have come across people who refer to themselves as master printers but barely have a proof to back it up, and I am amazed at how egotistical they can seem; 2 years in the field after 6 in education does not make one a master, but the work produced shows one to be. I like Typenut’s sentiment.

Thanks to collegiate Book Arts education, I think “master printer” terminology has also migrated over from fine art printmaking, without connection to the printing trade.

There used to be a Time where a Letterpress Printer, a Stone Litho Printer and a Printmaker (copper plate) would see each other as colleagues, the Letterpress Printer prints the Text, the Stone Litho and Printmaker the illustrations. The whole Livre d’artiste movement of the last century is build on that premise.

Tamarind Press (NM) has a Master Printmaker Programm, which is rigorous and doesn’t suffer fools. You get that title, you have earned it.

Had a Master printmaker today in my shop and he wants me to make a Book of his prints, digital inkjet, and the printing on the recto on the sheet is turned 180 degrees.

The work speaks for itself.

I have read that Benjamin Franklin asked that this be engraved on his gravestone:

Benjamin Franklin

Have you ever seen this?

As a young man in 1728, Franklin had composed his own mock epitaph which read:

The Body of
B. Franklin
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be whlly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.
He was born on January 6, 1706.
Died 17

I am new to the site and this is my first post.

I was an offset printer for 35 years but studied letterpress in high school in the 60’s. Back then, in the States, unions would confer titles or levels or whatever you wanted to call it. It was way different here than the European standard that required years of study at various levels. My Union - or in Texas, non-Union - organization conferred the title of Journeyman on me for several categories. Those pieces of paper meant nothing.

I have known old letterpress (and offset) guys that weren’t worth the paper trimmed off the end of the sheet called “Master” printers. They knew nothing more than the basics but had done it for years. I knew others who could handle their machines like magic, make them do things they were not designed to do and to me were like printing Gods; but they were happy to be referred to as “printer” and most admitted they still had more to learn.

To me, now that the whole Journeyman system is kaput, I think Master could be applied to anyone who can make the equipment sing. I do doubt, though, that anyone who qualified would apply the term to themselves. Anyone who feels they need a title are usually just talk. Those who can DO, don’t need to say anything. Their work does the talking. If you are really good, call yourself a printer. If someone else wants to refer to you as a “master” printer, take it humbly as a compliment. It is their opinion of how good you are (in their opinion.) But don’t repeat it, don’t put it on your card or your ad or anything.

Years ago, for my birthday, a customer gave me a box of business cards that says in 8 point Copperplate “I’m a printer, dammit!” I have been more proud of that than any of my journeyman certificates. Nothing speaks more about your skills than a gift like that from a customer. They are, ultimately, the most important judge. And, in your heart, you know how good you truly are.

You don’t need to correct your client’s terminology but DO take her money and put it in the bank. If a client calling you “Master Printer” gets you customers, great! It was meant as a compliment and it sells your work. What more is there?

Sorry my first post was so wordy. I will shorten future posts.

People who have never touched a press do so love to throw around “Master Printer.” I’m just a kid, and have only been printing seriously for 7 years, full-time for only 2. I find that folks who say “Master Printer” lightly usually have read Malcolm Gladwell, so I always tell them that I’ve only logged about 6,500 of my ten thousand hours, and to get back to me in a couple of years. ;)

Though I do think 10,000 hours is a little scanty in any trade as complicated as printing! Maybe a good standard for competence, but not mastery. My mother has been a potter for 45 years and she doesn’t claim to be a “Master Potter,” after all.

Thank you all for writing on this post! I forgot that I even posted it back in 2015. According to my appointment book for that year, September 13* was my last day off. I’ve worked every day since then, including every holiday and two of my birthdays! With every passing year, it seems that the amount of work I have has doubled - as well as the white hairs on top of my head! But I am grateful for the work and every new job brings me a new challenge, adding to my knowledge-base and experience.

*As an aside, my handle “Docs Coffee” is in testament to my old man who died on September 13, 1995. A perennial intellectual with four doctorates, he always seemed to have a cup of coffee in on hand.

With sincerity, I appreciate everyone here that took the time to write such meaningful posts. I enjoyed reading every one of them. I aspire to be like Geoffrey - 71 years young with ink underneath my fingernails.

Typenut - I googled “Gautschbrief” and this is what I got: “to be initiated as a printer’s apprentice (whereby one is dumped into a fountain etc, presented with a document and then forced to buy a round).” I’m just curious if that is what happened to you. :-)

In regards to my customer long ago, I just had to correct her. While I think I do some beautiful work (and I do try to stay open-minded and critical of the work I do), her calling me “Master Printer” was too much to bear. I know I have way too much to learn.

However, I do like the term “Jack-Leg Printer” (even though it might be a malapropism, Mr. Carpenter :-D). It’s blue-collared and humbled, a truly wonderful designation. I just might have to put that on my business card…

Again, thank you all for your gracious and insightful remarks.

The few times I have run across self-proclaimed”Master Printers” in the past decades, it almost always turned out that they knew just enough to be dangerous and almost ALWAYS cobbled-up whatever they tried to fix or adjust for someone else.

The more you learn the more you realize that you don’t know. This is a constant learning experience.

One of my favorite quotes is from Stanley Morison who once said “The fine printer begins where the careful printer left off.”


In the UK we had an organisation consisting mostly of owners of printing houses (shops), it was called the British Master Printers Federation, almost always shortened just to initials BFMP. It also had a juniors section called the Young Master Printers .- the YMP to one and all. This lot was commonly (but not entirely) the sons of those in the BFMP and expected to take charge of dad’s firm when he eventually retired. This was called by others in the trade the silver spoon system, and reflected the UK class structure as it then was. . One commonly saw the rags to rags in three generations syndrome, but all this changed in around maybe 1965-ish. The family owners lost control, the Bank put accountants in to run the previously family owned businesses, and the industry changed entirely in a social sense, closely in step with vast technical changes.
The office staff watching understood very well what was happening, but liked it not at all. The new managements were abrasive, employing what were seen as , and to some extent were, American management methods. Seen in the long term, it truly was the beginning of the end for all sorts of reasons. The BFMP still exists, but its not the same trade.

In the UK if you own the shop your the master.
But in Fleet Street my mate John Spurgin was “the Printer” at The Daily Express but John wouldn’t know a printing press from a push bike, he was the clicker in the comproom and handed out the work to the Lino operators having worked his way to the top job through the comproom.
To my knowledge a Master Printer was a rare breed he could do it all make ink, paper, cut punches, cast type, do the imposition and print, then bind the book. Saying that there must be more “Master Printers” around today as we’ve all had a bash at the above. I’m saying nothing as I’m just a hairy arsed compositor, what would I know!!!