6. Letterpress *

* From digital files to movable type

Each typographic technology or printing technique has its own limitations and advantages. It is interesting and challenging to translate and transform a contemporary design into a historical typographic printing technique. Not just because of nostalgic reasons but to be able to study the basics of chromatic typography. If we want to understand the future of chromatic typography we need to know about the past. Although the subject of this project concerns a contemporary design and technique, we realized that it is both necessary and interesting to consider and inspect the most basic form of printed reproduction, letterpress.

Would it not be interesting to translate and transform a contemporary typeface, obviously designed on a computer, into a technique which finds its origin in the 15th century?

As said in the introduction, this project is a sequel to the Typewood project. Bixa, the typeface we designed for the Typewood project and which was produced in wooden characters for letterpress, had a size of 18 augustijn or 81.2 mm. For this project we designed a typeface wich is better suited to a much smaller size. Chromatic typefaces on smaller font sizes are an interesting challenge for the designer, the typecaster and the printer. The version of Ziza produced in lead is optimized for a fixed size of 36 Didot points, which is 13.5 mm. For this part of the project we worked closely together with Type foundry Westzaan.

The history of printing technology is a still continuing story of automating tasks. For the production of lead characters on a Monotype Supra Caster it was first necessary to produce new matrices. A matrix is a template whereby the lead is molded into the shape of the typographic character. Every character has its own set of matrices, and since this is a chromatic typeface and every character has two accompanying parts, every character has two matching matrices. Producing a matrix used to be a very special skill which could only be performed by a highly trained artisan. Today, this skill has been replaced by a computer and an operator. The matrices for this typeface were produced on a hyper-modern computer-controlled cnc router. A cnc router is a highly sophisticated and precise machine which engraves the metal with an accuracy of tenths of a millimeter. The illustration shows the whole set of matrices engraved in a brass metal plate. Finally, all matrices were engraved with the matching width of the characters and detached. With the newly produced matrices a new set of lead characters were cast on a Monotype Supra Caster. This fully operational Monotype Supra Caster is part of the collection of Type foundry Westzaan. On this machine, which was built sometime in the 1950s, the lead characters were cast. It works on the principle of hot metal typesetting. A hot liquid mix of seventy percent lead and thirty percent tin and antimony is pressed into the matrix. After cooling off, a small metal bar remains with the relief of the character in mirror shape on top.

For this letterpress project, we designed a special chromatic stencil version of this typeface. Each character consists of two separate shapes. When printed, the colors will not merge because they are separated by a small line. The pressure of the cylinders of the printing press, or the smoothness or thickness of the paper can influence the weight of this line. In contrast to modern printing techniques like offset, the registration and alignment of a two-colored typeface presents a challenge for any letterpress printer. Every printed page or object consists of two colors and consequently two print runs.

Due to printing techniques like offset, the dent, that perfect imperfection, is a thing of the past. This is so because offset is a technique based on the principle of the lithographic process, the repulsion of oil and water, unlike printing techniques like letterpress which is a relief printing technique. In our opinion especially the dent is one of the charms of letterpress. It allows the printer to play with the pressure of the cylinders of his press to achieve the preferred dent.

The subsequent development of typography was chiefly the development of technical improvements, more accurately cast types, smoother paper, mechanically perfect presses. Apart from the history of its commercial exploitation, the history of printing has been the history of the abolition of the impression. A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent. An Essay on Typography Eric Gill 1931

The leaden characters can be pushed into the paper and the ink will be squeezed a little bit sidewards. This process slightly influences the image of the printed character. Such small irregularities give the printed typeface a warm, human and ‘imperfect’ feel. When the paper is turned, it is possible to actually feel the print. It is the combination of tactility and small irregularities which makes this printing technique so charming and interesting and enhances the design of the character. ¶ A character printed by letterpress is, by definition, another character than one that is printed on an offset press or the same character displayed on a retina screen. The letterpress printing technique demonstrates the ‘perfection of imperfection’. The eight pages that have been folded around the sections, printed in offset technique, have been produced with the lead version of this typeface. With this part of the project we complete the circle. We started this design on a computer and transformed it into the oldest printing technique of letterpress.