Letterpress Workshop @ Bowne Printers, Part 1

My generation is a transitional one. I grew up listening to vinyls, and I can still feel the excitement I felt when my dad bought me a boombox with a CD player. I made many mix tapes with it. Awe, mix tapes. I took notes with good ol’ pen and paper in school, not typing on digital devices. When I started working at my first advertising agency, photographers were still shooting film. In fact, I still remember the panic I felt on that elevator ride, when I realized that I lost one of the original large format films from a print shoot. I felt so relieved when my creative director at the time told me it’s “something every art director experiences.” Whether it was true or not, I was grateful for her kindness and that I didn’t lose my job! I’m not old enough to have horror stories to tell from the manual mechanical age of putting everything together by hand, but I’m not young enough to have grown up only in the digital age either. I remember when my Performa first connected to the mysterious world of the inter web, taking forever to download a 37kb image of Linda Evangelista. I was thrilled when Zip Disks came out so I didn’t have to deal with so many floppy disks. Now even DVDs are starting to disappear.

Things have become faster, more convenient, and just better. Or are things really better?

Working at an advertising agency occasionally comes with nice perks. One of my fellow creatives, Bob, suggested an idea of art director outings for two-part workshops to the management, and they made it happen! How awesome is that? So thanks to Bob, we head downtown to a place called Bowne Printers to learn about letterpress printing.

We were welcomed by two young and charming guys, Ali and Gideon. I was slightly thrown off, expecting to see a very old man who’s been doing this for 130 years or something like that. I took in a deep breath, trying to calm myself down from the excitement of seeing all that type blocks!

Ali and Gideon started to take turns in explaining the process of letter press printing. Now this workshop of my dreams was finally happening.

First, we browsed around the space to decide what we wanted to print. It was overwhelming. There were so many things I wanted to experiment with. For the ornamental ones, they actually made cutouts to play with.

I fell in love with these beautiful intricate letters, so decided that I had to have them in my design. I picked RB8 from the name ReinBo8, which is the creative collaboration unit name my hubs and I gave ourselves. I laid out my design on a galley.

Now we have decided on our designs, next step was to lock it up in the square form with these wood and metal pieces called “furniture.” The trick is to take small parts into squares. 

Now it’s ready to go into the press. Ali carefully put ours next to each other.

Here goes mine.

Now all in. He compressed the gap even more by using these tools.

Ali inspected the loose end, and using these small pieces of metal, he tightened the gap even more.

By using this wood block and tapping on it, he could tell which pieces were still loose by the sound of it. The process takes so much patience and care. When I was shopping for the wedding invitations last year, I often wondered why letterpress invitations costed so much. Now I know.

Now it’s all good to go.

Ali put red ink, which swept the letter blocks.

First proof!

We examined and marked what we wanted changed.

Turned out, the height of the blocks did not match. The letter “B” didn’t get any ink love!

Ali and Gideon made adjustments. They used scotch tapes to give blocks heights. Every layer makes a difference.

Added more ink and did it all over again.

I got to also try operating this heavy machinery. And I didn’t break it!

This time around, we decided to change it up and added yellow ink to make it a beautiful sunset like orange.

We got even more adventurous and decided to experiment further with gradient. Gideon added more of a dramatically darker color.

It came out beautifully!

So that was the end of our workshop Part 1 of 2. Letterpress printing definitely takes a whole lot of patience and skills and I had a new-found admirations for it. By seeing what my fellow designers did, I felt that with letterpress printing, having big letters worked better. I slightly regretted only using intricate letters and ornaments. But then again, there is always that experimental component and making what seems like a mistake work in design. So there is still hope for me in the second session, which is next Friday.

I just want to show my gratitude to our wonderfully inspiring teachers, Ali and Gideon, for leading such a great workshop and also Bob for coming up with this incredible idea. They also had a lovely looking shop that I’m hoping to visit next time called Bowne & CO. next door.

Bowne Printers
209 Water St
New York, NY 10038
b/t Fulton St & Beekman St in South Street Seaport