Oct 29 2009 4:30pm

Making the Steampunk Month letterpress poster Letterpress Steampunk Poster lettreprress steampunk posterWhen we decided to make October Steampunk Month we thought it would be a good idea to print calling cards for us to hand out to... whomever. Designer Jamie Stafford-Hill showed me the comps and I made the mistake of telling our publisher, Fritz Foy, that they would look great as a letter-press broadsheet. I was joking. He took me seriously.

I emailed the only letterpress printer I know, Ross MacDonald, and asked what would be involved in getting the posters made. And then I told him the bad news: If we went through with the project, we would be driving up to his Connecticut studio to “help.” letterpress steampunk posterAnd so, two weeks later, four of us from Team TorDot—Megan Messinger, Jamie Stafford-Hill, Greg Manchess, and myself—were driving north on a brisk autumn morning. When we got to Ross’s barn-turned-studio, we discovered to our delight that Ross is a natural teacher, and he spent the first two hours showing us around and telling us the history of printing and of the fonts we were busily pulling out, including two or three large wooden fonts that were found in the basement of the Borden house, as in, “Lizzie Borden took an axe...”

One of Ross’s many other hats is that of a prop maker for movies. He showed us various bits of books and documents he made for National Treature II: Book of Secrets and Seabiscuit and throughout the day he kept receiving mysterious packages for work on an upcoming Phillip K. Dick film. As book lovers we were particularly tickled by a “well-loved” book prop that he distressed by pounding on the edges of the pages with his “book-readin’ hammer.” letterpress steampunk posterA quick break for lunch and then we were off to make our poster. We had fretted quite a bit about various typefaces and copy before we got there, but within minutes of being in the studio we happily threw away those preconceptions. We had real wood and metal blocks with pretty letters on them! It was then that it hit me—we weren’t just replicating 19th century methods, we were playing and printing with actual type, actually carved 200 years ago. These fonts have been making posters, and books, and all manner of printed art throughout the past 150+ years. letterpress steampunk posterOur only given was a plate we had made of the logo. (You can learn more about our logo, the HMS Stubbington, here.) And the flourished “dot.” (I guess there wasn’t much call to flourish “dot” in the 1800s, although Ross did end up keeping it against future need.) From that base we started working together, each pulling out various fonts that fit the tone we wanted and the sizes we needed—after a warning from Ross not to put our fingers in our eyes or mouths because of the lead type.

We’d often run into compromises that lead to better solutions. A font would be too big or too small or not have enough of a particular letter. At one point we ran out of E’s—we were, literally, “out of sorts.” No matter, we rewrote the copy a bit, put greater emphasis on some of the text by using a larger font and, voila, we had E’s to spare. Steampunk letterpress posterWe started locking down letters and cleaning off and replacing rejected fonts, all by hand, all by eye. It was the same old methods and fun as hell, and moved much quicker than we expected. We pulled test proofs, examined them, made adjustments and color decisions. Because of heat and time, some of the wooden letters weren't tall enough to hit the paper as it rolled by, so Ross raised them with little pieces of tape and cardboard until every character came out clearly.

We took turns at the large Vandercook hand crank that carried the 350 pound roller over 4 feet across the plate. Along the way, Ross re-spread the ink over the printer rollers, mixing and cleaning them to add alternate ink patterns. What a job. Not as simple as a click, or a drop-down menu, this was manual labor and gritty work. It was hard to imagine entire newspapers being set and printed, with multiple editions, each and every day. Ross told us that the rate of type-setting wasn’t measured by the word but by the “m,” aka, the space an m-dash takes up (“—”), and that an experienced hand could set three thousand m’s an hour, backwards and upside down.

Here we are in action, just a smidge slower than that:

At the end of a long, fun day, we had a stack of about 130 posters made from wood type Antique Condensed, Latin, Roman Extended Light Face, all designed and manufactured by William Page in the mid 1800s, and lead type Antique Extended, also circa mid 19th-century.

A huge thanks to Ross and the the MacDonald family, various dogs and cats included, for letting us crash in on their day and staying well into the evening. and Ross MacDonald

For more pictures of the day, click here.
For more information on Ross MacDonald, check out our interview with him here. letterpress steampunk poster

Irene Gallo is the art director for Tor, Forge, and Starscape books and

Mike Conley
1. NomadUK

Interesting. I'd've thought one laid the type out so that it read backward, from right to left. Or do you go through and reverse all the letters again before printing?
Tudza White
2. tudzax1
Lots of work for a fancy sign with fancy lettering. For newspapers though, this used to be the tool of choice:
3. ChetArt
Very inspiring! Ross MacDonald's work is incredible and I've always been an admirer of both his illustration and letterpress work. The poster is beautiful.
4. CasketGirl
Very cool! So how can I get a poster? ;)
5. threeoutside
I want one, too! I suppose, though, that they'll be collector's items already. *sigh*
Irene Gallo
6. Irene
We *might* have squirreled away a few for our readers. ;-) We'll do some kind of giveaway soon.
7. Craig Elliott
Looks like so much fun. I wish I had taken some of the letterpress classes at Art Center when I was going. The shop is all gone now... I'd love to know where one could get a poster!

Craig Elliott Gallery
Brady Allen
8. akabrady
I wonder if the lucky recipients knew how lucky they were?
Geri Sullivan
9. GeriSullivan
See where joking will get you? Nice.

Have you been to the Museum of Printing in North Andover, MA? I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time with dozens of typographers and type designers the last time that Typecon was in Boston. The museum staff turned us loose in The Mergenthaler Font Library and several of the members showed the rest of us the letter drawings they themselves had made or approved earlier in their careers. Amazing. Equally fun was looking at all of the equipment while each of us regaled the others with how we'd started on or used various typesetting systems, recalling the quirks and intricacies of each one.

Also of interest to Steampunk and type aficionados everywhere is the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, WI.
10. theatremom
I want my poster!
12. slin(2)
Those posters are awesome! But just to be nitpicky about letterpressing, there's no way that the roller was 350 pounds. I've worked with vandercooks and no way does it weigh that much.
Evan Jensen
13. eoghanacht
The photos on flickr of the typesetting and leaded layout are beyond gorgeous. I almost want a poster of that. Not that the final product (especially the split-font/rainbow roll pull) isn't beautiful and awesome. But seeing all the block edges of the type and the leading and spacing jigs... it's just too pretty.

Thank you much, Irene, for sharing such an awesome trip.
Irene Gallo
14. Irene
Note to Torie: We may have to rig it so @10 Theatremom wins a poster...since she's also artdepartmentmom
fred smith
15. fredex
Fantastic article! Loved seeing the letterpress in use. I used to work in the typesetting industry, back before it was overtaken and sucked into the publishing industry, just as computerized typesetting was getting real big. I used a 36 pica mergenthaler VIP and eventually worked for Quadex (later purchased by Compugraphic). I had a blast working in that industry though I missed out on tons of history by coming to it so late.

And as I always saw it, it's spelled "em", not "m". Or is that a convention I missed, too? An em is the type's point-size in size, e.g., in 12 point type, one "em" is 12 points. In many typefaces that works out to be the size of "M", though of course not all, given the variety of typefaces available.

Also, thanks to GeriSullivan for the mention of the printing museum--I had not previously been aware of the place. Looks fascinating, and I'm definitely going to have to make a trip (or two, or three) to see the place.

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