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The Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) Print Camp: letterpress printing

Other posts in the IPRC print camp series:
IPRC print camp: Mimeograph printing
IPRC print camp: Block printing and altered books

I attended a print camp at The Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, OR a few weeks ago that covered the basics of letterpress printing, mimeograph, altered books, and relief (block) printing. I’ve already written about the block printing and altered books portion of the two-day session, and so now, on to letterpress.

In fact, the entire first day of the session was devoted only to letterpress. If you know anything about the topic, this will make sense. It’s not a simple process. Instead of a providing a convoluted explanation, I’ll just send you on over to this video on the topic, set at the IPRC (unrelated to my visit), if you want to see it in action.

Letterpress is a natural fit for scribeomechanical types: it’s tactile, ink-based, provides access to fascinating antique machinery, there’s no electricity required, and of course, it’s centered on a reverence for the printed word. The resulting type has a sharpness about it that you won’t get any other way. However, you’d better have a good memory for facts, as letterpress terminology is vast. Also, there is an upside and a downside to the completely manual nature of setting type character by character into a composing stick and then tightening it down into a frame with a series of little blocks and keys: there is no CTRL-Z. There were several versions of the following design that featured characters set the wrong way.

Next post: mimeograph!

The Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) Print Camp: block printing and altered books

Other posts in the IPRC print camp series:
IPRC print camp: Mimeograph printing
IPRC print camp: Letterpress printing

Darn, it’s already been over a week and I still haven’t gotten around to posting about my trip to the IPRC in Portland, OR last weekend.

The IPRC makes me really, really sad I don’t live in Portland. It is a facility dedicated to self-publishing, and they have a great wealth of resources and tools (page layout software, letterpress equipment, a zine library, a bookbinding machine, work tables, photocopiers, typewriters, mimeograph equipment, art supplies, etc. etc.) that you can access for modest membership and/or classroom fees. The instructors and staff are very kind and open-minded (kind of a Portland trait I gather) and do not make you feel like a doofus about your artistic abilities or lack thereof.

My friend Brandon and I attended Print Camp, which was a weekend-long series of classes including an introduction to letterpress, mimeograph, bookbinding, and block (relief) printing. I’ll start with the last two, as there is too much to say about the overall experience for one post.

Block Printing

This PDF link provides a good visual tutorial (unrelated to the IPRC) about what block printing is and looks like. Essentially, block printing involves carving a reverse image into a wood or linoleum block, pressing the block in ink, and then making a print impression.

I wish I could say I was as talented as my friend Brandon in the matter of the visual arts, but alas, I cannot. He did a beautiful, cardworthy octopus print (I forgot my copy of it at the IPRC, perhaps out of jealousy), but you will have to settle for looking at my botched Strikethru design.

If you have never tried block printing, it is very soothing to gouge linoleum with sharp tools. If you are willing to part with $42 dollars and want to give it a try, Speedball makes a block printing kit with all of the supplies.

Altered books

I know I said bookbinding earlier in this post, and that is what this segment of the class was originally supposed to be, but there was an agenda change. Before I proceed, it’s time for a little side story.

I have previous experience with bookbinding, which surely I’ve mentioned here before. If I have, indulge me again. Since it traumatized me, I tend to ramble about it at any opportunity. I took a class here in Seattle several years ago with a nameless book artist in possession of a Jekyll and Hyde personality (which one of those guys was the evil one? Mostly that one) who took to yelling at anyone who did not perfectly duplicate her complex signature-sewing instructions on the first try. One student ran from class in tears (!) and did not return the following day (not sure why I returned myself, actually). Ever since then, I have been afraid of bookbinding (Brandon –who was in that class with me too– even called ahead to make sure The Evil One was not affiliated with the IPRC). I was willing to get back on the horse at the IPRC, but as it turns out, I didn’t have to, as the topic had changed to altered books.

Now, altered books present their own dilemma, more of an ethical one. I have posted about this topic before, related as it is to key-cutting and other acts of destroying 20th century media for the purpose of arts and crafts (or Etsy sales). I am not in reality much of a rebel, however, and wasn’t going to be That Kid who refuses to dissect the frog in biology class and ends up on the evening local news, so I took an Xacto knife to an old romance novel, and turned it into a weird collage of pockets and notebooks.

I admit it was kind of fun. Check back in my Etsy store later this week for a lovely assortment of typewriter key cufflinks and pendants.

I’m kidding, people. But really, I find the subject of old media dissection to be fascinating. There has to be some terribly intellectual thing one could say (this has Darren Wershler-Henry written all over it) about what this 21st century artistic compulsion says about our psyches.

Anyway, this post is To Be Continued.

I made a paper wallet

Paper solves all problems.

My kid likes to dump my wallet out on the floor and rummage through its contents– good practice for the tween years, I suppose. Problem is, key items from the wallet sometimes end up under the dollhouse in the living room when they should be with me at the grocery check stand.

Thus, in a fit of boredom, I made her a paper wallet today. Try to do that online. Oh, that’s right. You can’t. Sorry, interweb.

PS: Here is someone elses’s design for making a paper wallet— it looks a little more official than mine. Might give it a try.

Update Here is my attempt.

Book arts as political statement / Brian Dettmer, book-artist

Finally got around to making a project out of this book. Granted, it’s a modest attempt, but that’s the fun thing about making books– you can put them together from junk paper lying around the house. The cover of this one is an old sheet of watercolor paper that someone used to clean rubber stamps.

Uh oh, Esther Smith has another book, too. Look out, wallet.

There are a healthy number of institutions devoted to preserving and teaching book arts; many major cities in the United States have them, by way of example (Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, oh, there’s tons more). Google Live Search book arts in a town near you, there’s gonna be one there.

I bring this up because I am curious about this craft, in the context of print media’s often forecasted demise. I came across an interesting debate about this topic, which I highly recommend to those in the Luddosphere. The article discusses whether written words will ultimately have a useful and longer life on paper or in pixels: should all text be “searchable, discoverable, linkable, part of the conversation,” or is it true that the unedited, unprofessional digi-screeds of the masses (cough cough) are by definition etherial and destined for deletion?

I find this subject fascinating. Do you? It seems that book arts are more popular than ever before, as evidenced by the endless institutions devoted to the craft. I wonder if this bears any reactionary relation to the fact that the digital age seems hell-bent on removing tactile experience from all forms of media.

Kind of makes the typewriter journal a political statement. (Did you sign up yet?)

Changing the subject somewhat: Brian Dettmer, book artist

Probably a subject for a separate post: the typewriter is not the only 20th century icon of literature being eviscerated for museum display. Brian Dettmer creates sculptures (called “book autopsies” in the case of books) from all manner of fading communications media: records, tapes, books, maps. Of such media, he is quoted as saying “their intended role has decreased or deceased and they often exist simply as symbols of the ideas they represent rather than true conveyers of content.”

I have two reactions to this kind of increasingly popular transmogrification of media into symbol. My less sophisticated reaction: it’s grisly and some could argue disrespectful, like Bodies: the exhibition. It implies that language is entirely separate from the forms that carry and create it, and the latter has no lasting value save for irony.

A more nuanced reaction might be this: I love technology, and the fact that it makes possible the sharing of ideas like these with like-minded people. I don’t want to go back to pre-digital times. But I’d like to think digital communication can be used in the service of good: to preserve, cherish, and even further the use and enjoyment of iconic, fascinating, and useful creations like books and typewriters. Centers for book arts, like those I mentioned above, are exactly the kinds of places where the benefits of technology and tradition can intersect for the public good.

Center for the preservation and perserverence of the typewriter, anyone? Any venture capitalists out there with me?

Update: Brian Dettmer’s work is currently on display in Chicago, at the Packer Schopf gallery. The page I just linked to has an interesting analysis of “object-based media” in the digital age, and the meaning behind Dettmer’s work:

Books age like humans: they become discolored and stiff, and eventually their pages crumble into dust. Dettmer’s tactile book-sculptures are metaphors for the decline of natural, physical media in the face of the digital, which escapes the laws of nature through lacking any single physical form. At the same time, the sheer volume and solidity of these paper peaks and valleys suggest a sense of stability and soundness that digital information necessarily lacks. We see in Dettmer’s books the simultaneous vulnerability and resilience of material forms.

I do think this is a compelling topic to explore in art, but I can’t say I take any aesthetic pleasure in the destruction of books and typewriters to make a statement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I universally denigrate the work of artists like Dettmer, however. I just wonder if there is a different way that art could explore this issue. Thoughts?

How to make books

How to Make Books: Fold, Cut & Stitch Your Way to a One-Of-A-Kind Book

I meant to relate the following story above, but have lost my stamina for writing much more than a page by hand. Sad, I know. I previously mentioned somewhere that a friend and I took a book arts class a couple of years ago. It was an experience that threatened to turn me off of book-making for good.

The teacher of the class was talented in the craft, of that there isn’t doubt. Her teaching method, however, nowhere approached her skill at assembling bound documents. I know little about teaching, but I do know this: if you don’t have boundless patience for people who are not as good as you at the thing you are teaching, DO NOT BE A TEACHER.

This woman grew irritable and snappish at anyone who didn’t successfully imitate her increasingly difficult bookmaking techniques on the first try, to the point where a student fled the class in tears before the end of the first day. The rest of us sewed signatures in terrified silence, desperately trying to follow her instructions to the letter, lest she snarl and make a sarcastic example of our ineptitude to the other cowed bookmaking hopefuls.

At the end of day two, anxiety had completely overtaken any grasp I may have had on bookmaking fundamentals, and I turned my back on the craft for some time. But thanks to “How to Make Books,” I’m back.


There were some interesting comments on the last post I meant to respond to, but houseguests compelled me to take a webcation. I’ve finally posted a comment, and enjoyed everyone’s thoughts on that post. Which begs the question:

WHO WOULD LIKE TO SUBMIT SOMETHING TO THE THE RETROTECH REVIEW (or whatever we are calling it?) Speak now, and include the category of your submission in the comments (fiction, poetry, art, photography, nonfiction, all on the general theme of ephemera and retrotech). Submissions s/b no more than 2 8×11 pages and should not cover any topic not appropriate for youngsters.

Retrotech art, typecon, Alphasmart easter eggs, Wikipedia

I like Christopher Stott’s paintings – esp. those of retrotech.

This is a hoax. Right? I could not get it to work.

Some of you guys were talking about Typecon over in Flickr. I can’t seem to determine if this would contain anything of interest to typecasters, or whether it is just an industry event for typesetters. Anyone know more?

Speaking of Wikipedia, I was thinking one of us should do an entry on typecasting. Much to my surprise, one is already there. My name is in the footnotes…‽ I think we need to get a whole list of typecasters on there, so someone head over to Wikipedia and start editing.