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Back to Basics

Letterpress Practitioners

If you think traditional printing presses can only be found in museums, think again. Harry Mottram has been meeting printers who still use letterpress and prepare type by hand

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Mick Clayton at St Bride has seen the industry change dramatically but feels the old craft is still important

Old school techniques

Once the heart of the British printing industry, there are now only a couple of printers in Fleet Street, and they could not be more different. One is Kall Kwik, the classic 21st century instant print house and the other is the St Bride Foundation. The two have much in common despite their different machinery. Kall Kwik’s list of services would be familiar to the ink-stained fingers of the operators of the historic foundation across the street although their equipment would have been a mystery to the 19th century apprentices of London’s famous print hub. The firm churn out letterheads, brochures, flyers, tickets, invoice sets, leaflets, and posters which are not that different in some ways to the days of Caxton and earliest English print shops.

Old School: The St Bride Foundation is just off Fleet Street in the heart of the once thriving centre of the industry

Not just a museum

Of course St Bride is not a commercial print shop but a shrine to the age of letterpress with fortified and strengthened floors, home to numerous vintage presses, cases of metal fonts, and just about every form of printed matter you can imagine. However, it is not just a museum but still runs the presses, albeit for a series of workshops and demonstrations from time to time. I went along to one of their workshop days to see students assembling sticks of types and preparing to print using the time honoured process of letterpress.

Antique: The old ways are the gold ways at Typoretum as customers love their old school machinery

The tutor Mick Clayton, who will also be plying his trade at The Print Show in October via the Traditional Print Masterclass zone, explains what they were doing. He says: “The students learn how to handset type, how to justify lines, whether it be fully justified or range right, we give them a little help. We then impose that so it is ready to go into a machine. The students mainly use an Adana, and we show them how to operate it, clean and set it up.”

Impressions: This beautiful image is from Typoretum of Colchester which uses letterpress for its work

Clayton is something of a print guru of the old school having worked in the trade during the glory days of the newspaper industry in Fleet Street. He says: “I did a six year apprenticeship at Blades, Eastern Blades in Old Street, in the composing room. Then I went around the trade in London until the late 1970s when I went to Fleet Street, first of all as a casual and then I was a permanent on the Daily Mirror group. You always look back on things with a certain amount of nostalgia but it was definitely a place with a buzz, 24 hours a day, and an enjoyable place to work.”

After retirement he drifted back to his old haunts calling in at St Bride on a fleeting visit. He recalls: “I came here by accident, and there were no printers here, but they knew of my background and printing experience. At the time St Bride held a page of type for just about every language in the world, and they were wrapped in newspaper.
They were trying to clear a room of the packages and they were spoiling them, as they were just kept together by string. So they asked me to come in and rewrap pages, which I did for about four years.”

After this return to his cherished Fleet Street as a print archivist and print preserver, things turned bad for the printer. The management of that time failed to see that letterpress may yet have a future and made Clayton redundant. Within months of his departure, a new, more enlightened management took over and he found himself back in the building as a volunteer speaker, but also as a teacher.

“I love it,” Clayton says, adding: “I have a massive enthusiasm for printing as it’s in my bones having worked in the industry all my life. There are several groups I belong to with lots of ex-printers and like-minded people in various societies. There are several members of the newspaper trade I meet up with from Fleet Street and we volunteer at the type archive at Stockwell one day a week.”

His main mission as a teacher at St Bride is to pass on his knowledge gleaned from a lifetime in the business to a new generation. These acolytes are not the apprentices of the past, but people who have an interest in design, typography, and the art of letterpress printing.

Clayton adds: “We are passing on the methods and skills the proper way, the way we were taught so students don’t have to guess as to how things are done.”

We are passing on the methods and skills the proper way, the way we were taught so students don’t have to guess as to how things are done

Mechanical evolution

The equipment in the print room at the St Bride Foundation is a showcase of mechanical evolution revealing how over the centuries, letterpress was transformed from a labour intensive process to machines which were current throughout the 20th century. Clayton points out some of the kit as we wander from press to press.

“The oldest thing in the room is the wooden compositor frame from Oxford University Press which dates to 1668,” he notes, adding: “They were one of the main printers of the time especially for education publications. Then there’s the Dürer press, a modern reconstruction which was commissioned by the Dürer Group and constructed by Alan May who also made a reproduction of the Gutenberg Press for the BBC for a programme which Stephen Fry presented. It was christened last February by the Prince of Wales on a visit. It gives people an idea of how print was produced in the very beginning.”

The Dürer Group is based in Britain and helps to promote the understanding and research into the early days of printing. Its website says: “When we commissioned a new working press from Alan in 2014, his insights led to a machine that can either be used as a ‘one-pull’ press, as we believe Gutenberg’s was, or as a ‘two-pull’ press.

German: The Dürer Group commissioned this press to be built to reproduce the printing press drawn by Dürer in the 16th century

“The two-pull configuration is shown in Dürer’s sketch and gives greater output by allowing two pages of a book to be printed without taking the paper out of the press and putting it back in again. It is probably that older, one-pull, presses were modified in this way to give the printer a considerable boost from a machine that would be costly to replace.”

Apart from the Dürer Press, there is what is known as a Common Press at St Bride, built in 1796, and was one of the last of its generation of wooden presses before the switch to iron presses such as the Stanhope at the start of the 19th century. Clayton pointed out these new presses, which are still in full working order, includes a windmill Heidelberg Press.

He says: “It is called a windmill press because of the nature of the centrifuge with the two gripper bars that spin and rotate and make the impression. The paper is then released by the rotary blades, and it was probably the most common printing press in the world, a real workhorse of its time.

“The next is a Stanhope Press, they date from 1800 but ours is from 1830. At one stage The Times was printed on a Stanhope Press, and it weighs an absolute tonne. We have a reinforced floor so it can take the weight of the presses. We can imagine, there would three boys or apprentices, just manually working the press. One would do the inking, one who would be working the press and doing the impressions, and one boy with clean hands would be taking the clean printed sheet off.”

Iron age: The Stanhope Press heralded the arrival of metal as the main basis of presses and the golden age of print

Another working press at St Bride is an Albion press made in Finsbury in 1824, which were still widely used through to the 1970s in print shops due to their reliability.

O Factoid: Factoid:  Another working press at St Bride is an Albion press made in Finsbury in 1824, which were still widely used through to the 1970s.O

One of the most striking presses is an 1814 Columbian Press with its elaborate moulded metal decoration of a fish and an eagle—so different from the metal box-like exteriors to today’s digital presses.

Elaborate: This 19th century Columbian press is installed at St Bride and continues to
be used

If St Bride champion the use of letterpress with its workshops and demonstrations, then there are several print shops that still use letterpress and market its use as their USP. Established in 2008 in Colchester, Typoretum is run by Justin Knopp and his wife Cecilia in response to a growing interest in letterpress. Having studied graphics at the Central Saint Martin’s College in the 1990s, Knopp began to amass a collection of lead and antique wooden types, printing machines, and other paraphernalia. And in keeping with St Bride, Typoretum also offer courses and workshops for fellow enthusiasts of print along with producing print for their customers.

Concentration: The students at St Bride learn all aspects of letterpress printing from typography to finishing

Over in Ledbury you will find Martin Clark at Tilley Printing, founded in 1875. After a lifetime in the print industry he has seen the industry transformed, which includes the introduction of electricity and telephones. He took over the business in 1983 and concentrated on printing for the arts with beautifully crafted posters for poetry evenings, theatre productions, and art exhibitions where quality and finish are paramount. With decades of contacts to rely on, he also has his fair share of stationery, brochures, leaflets, and all manner of run of the mill work which keeps his presses ticking over.

The one man firm features an 1850 London Albion press manufactured by A Wilson and Sons, a Victorian Chandler and Price guillotine bought across from Ohio USA, a Wharfedale Press from historic Yorkshire-based Payne and Son, a Thompson London 1950 platen press, and two Heidelberg 10 x 15 inch platens from 1935 and 1980. He takes the job from start to finish doing all the folding, collating, and finishing by hand.

Printing Somerset

It is a story repeated in Somerset at Rose Mills Print Finishers near Ilminster, where Terry Wright and company has been operating since 2008. He was made redundant from a large print firm but realised there was a market for all the run of the mill type work which larger firms were not keen on. He had the skills and contacts, and once he had acquired antiquated and unwanted letterpress and finishing kit, he had a set-up which has seen him happily making a profit for several years.

Experienced: Terry Wright of Rose Mills Print Finishers of Ilminster in Somerset

Wright says: “I’ve enjoyed it. We have all the usual things like delivery dates, and keeping to schedules, but I find a small company like this with a mix of customers can find a niche doing the work that nobody else does. We do small runs, foil blocking, stringing, form cutting, numbering and all the bits and pieces which all add up to a huge amount of work.”

Rose Mills features a 1910 Arab crown-folio size machine, a Heidelberg platen 10 x 15 built in 1965, and a 1950s Heidelberg cylinder double crown size which Wright says is ‘built like a tank’. Perhaps that is one reason why letterpress businesses are still in profit. The kit is reliable, easy to repair, and is paid for.

On the other side of the county is Terry Paget, in Midsomer Norton. Paget Printing is little changed since the early 1960s, except the workforce has dwindled to one. The business is located in an old set of buildings near the church in the Somerset town and is complete with an early hot metal typesetter, an original Heidelberg press, ancient guillotine, and various contraptions for letterpress including a hole drill and a stitcher for putting in wires.

Blue collar: Terry Paget of Midsomer Norton continues to use the same equipment such as hot metal and letterpress

Paget comments: “Father bought the typesetting machine in Slough in 1966 for £6,000 which in those days was a lot of money. You could have bought two houses for the same money then. It’s now only worth scrap and is a devil to maintain, which I do myself and I’ve not called an engineer for 30 years. But I use it every day and it works.”

It’s now only worth scrap and is a devil to maintain, which I do myself and I’ve not called an engineer for 30 years. But I use it every day and it works

His Heidelberg was made in 1955 and it has worked every day since it arrived. Paget says: “I make a poor living these days out of the printing, but I used to make good money in the 1970s when there were six of us here. Now I work three days a week and it keeps me active and it’s fun and it passes the time. Technology has moved on but this equipment all works and so I keep going. Business is declining, but at 77 it keeps me alive, even if I am slowly fading away.”

Which is perhaps one line we can say about letterpress: old printers do not die, they simply fade away. An aspect of printing that shows no sign of fading is that of traditional paper makers. Take for instance Griffen Mill, based in Ireland, which still makes paper by hand. Obviously its products are not the usual pads of A4 80gsm copier paper but something rather more superior. Its paper is made in the traditional way from natural fibres, such as cotton and hemp, and are primarily designed for bookbinders and paper conservators.

Skilled: Paper making continues the old way at Griffen Mill in Ireland

The papers produced are used in the reproductions of books and manuscripts where their antique toned papers are ideal for recreating old books, maps, scrolls, and documents. The paper is so good it has even been stuck on walls—literally as wallpaper. For instance, it has been used on projects where historic properties are redecorated using reproductions of wallpaper of the time, such as the renovation of The Royal Palace at Kew and the restoration of Horace Walpole's House at Strawberry Hill. Walpole was an MP in the late 18th century when printing was rapidly expanding from an age of pamphlets to an age of newspapers and Fleet Street.


This year’s Print Show will be showcasing some of these champions of letterpress with special demonstrations at the NEC exhibition in October. Amongst those taking part in the Traditional Print Masterclasses will be the St Bride Foundation and Typoretum, who in the words of the organisers are part of an: “unbroken chain of technical excellence and skills being handed down from one generation of professional printers to the next.”

Back to the future: Typoretum have used old technology to create a new business

The Print Show runs from Tuesday October 11th to Thursday October 13th at Birmingham’s NEC. St Bride Foundation will be running their next workshop one day courses on Wednesday October 19th and on Wednesday November 16th, with three courses starting the week of October 10th and November 14th. More details are available at www.sbf.org.uk.

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