Review: Pressing On: The Letterpress Film Documents the Glory of Letterpress Printing and Handset Type

Jennifer Farrell at Starshaped Press, Chicago. Photo by Kevin Grazioli.

Writing this review is a labor of love for me, just as making this film must have been for the filmmakers and the cast. Pressing On is the story of how letterpress printing and handset metal type are having a renaissance because of the work of artists, retired printers and lovers of the printed word. They’re buying and restoring old printing presses and acquiring type cases by the thousands so they can print documents where you can actually feel the type impressed on paper.

It’s a labor of love for me because I grew up in my father’s letterpress shop in the West Loop and spent many summers working among the presses, type cases and bindery equipment. My dad was an early adopter of offset printing in the 1960s, but those image-based presses didn’t replace his Chandler & Price platen presses, the large flatbed cylinder press—or the cases of handset type.

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, directed by Erin Beckloff and Andrew P. Quinn, is the story of why an antique printing process, forgotten by most printing companies about 70 years ago, is now surviving and thriving in its niche manner. As an example of how it’s thriving, Letterpress Commons, which offers advice on how to buy equipment, says, “Presses that were being almost given away 30 years ago are selling today for $10,000 and up, for presses in perfect operating condition.”

Chandler & Price platen press. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s define some terms quickly. Letterpress printing means printing by spreading ink on a type form and pressing the type against paper. This can be done with small presses, like the iconic Chandler & Price platen presses, or with larger equipment. The type used is usually individual letters picked from a “job case” and placed into a “stick.” The lines and line-spacing (“leading”) are inserted line by line into a form, which is locked and placed on the press.

Pressing On asks not only why letterpress didn’t die but why it’s surviving now. A new generation of artists and printers—and some from older generations—is fascinated by an obsolete technology. They delight in the sounds and smells of a print shop and the tactile nature of the hands-on experience. Pressing On is not about musty printing history but about the contemporary fascination for printing from metal type. (You might speculate that this mini-trend is related to the revival of interest in vinyl music recordings—valued for the authenticity of their sound quality.) There’s something real and tactile in printing one image at a time from metal type on a hand-operated press.

The documentary features interviews with hobby printers, artisans and designers of all types. Gregory J. Walters, who still manufactures metal type, letter by letter, shows his process and equipment. The stars of the film, to my mind, are Tammy and Adam Winn, owners of Red Door Press in Des Moines. Their garage—now filled with 20 renovated letterpresses—is where they print flyers, cards, forms, invitations, art prints—all sorts of short-run jobs. They also sell from a booth at a Des Moines farmers market. It all started when Tammy brought home an old press and told Adam he had to come out to the garage for a surprise. He says his first response was “Huh.”

Adam and Tammy Winn. Photo by Kevin Grazioli.

Chicago, at one time a printing capital, still has a place in the letterpress world. Jennifer Farrell operates StarShaped Press in the Ravenswood neighborhood; the company tagline is “Printing like it’s 1929 since 1999.” While they print business cards, stationery, greeting cards and wedding invitations—the kind of work that the old-fashioned job shops printed—StarShaped also prints commissioned work and special projects. They also offer their Well-Traveled Ampersand project, a set of art prints combining the lovely ampersand in all its variations with city images.

Another nearby venue featured is the Platen Press Museum in Zion, Illinois, operated by Dave Aken. The museum is open for tours by appointment.

An old show poster company in Nashville is still operating using handset type and letterpresses. Hatch Show Print creates and prints posters for country music artists and other entertainers. They originally printed using wooden type (originally carved by hand in large display sizes) and now use metal. Their poster gallery features the work of musicians like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe and B.B. King.

Co-director Beckloff, an assistant professor of graphic design at Miami University, got interested in letterpress after receiving an historic printing press as a wedding gift. Inspired by the technology, she began to record interviews with printers in the letterpress community, mostly in the Midwest, and later partnered with Quinn to create the documentary.

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film will be released on DVD and VOD on June 19. The film was shown as part of a design double feature last September at the Music Box Theatre. Portions of this article are taken from our review. Also see my essay, “I Love Type,” on my personal blog.

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