Letterpress My Way

One of my recent obsessions is handmade books as a vehicle for my palladium and cyanotype prints. To complete the “handmade-ness” of these objects, I’ve learned the venerable craft of handset letterpress.

I started this journey a couple of years ago by taking a letterpress workshop taught by the amazing Eric Johnson at Iota Press. I did a few projects there using their presses and type before deciding I wanted the ability to do this in my studio. The problem was that I needed a press that could accommodate 10×20″ spreads. Not only are these machines very hard to find, at that size they are very expensive and too large for my studio.

After a lot of research and discussion with Eric I decided to buy a small etching press and modify it to handle letterpress. I purchased a Blick 906 press for about $900. A real letterpress machine would have cost many times that much.

The challenge with any letterpress machine is that you are dealing with tolerances of a few thousandth of an inch so you have to have a lot of control – etching presses are not typically used that way.  Here is my press:


The most important addition I made to the press was to have two “bearer bars” machined at exactly .918″, so-called “type high”. The lead type used in letterpress is this height so it was critical that I had bars of steel on either side of the press bed that would support the cylinder at exactly the right height so that the right pressure could be applied evenly to the paper. I had these machined in Arizona for about $100. You can see them gleaming just outside the top and bottom edge of the galley in this picture:


This is a text block I printed this morning, a colophon page in my latest book. All the blocks of wood and metal surrounding it are called “furniture”. Everything gets locked in tight, first while the fonts are hand-inked with brayers and then later when the paper and “packing” are placed carefully on top of the type and run through the press under the pressure of the cylinder. Packing is sheets of paper placed on top of the paper you’re printing on to create the desired impression.

Hand inking with soft brayers is also a challenge, I’m still developing the right touch to do that evenly. There are definitely some tricks to doing this right as well!


One of the cool things about letterpress is that you get to use actual lead type. At first it’s pretty tedious to set the type letter by letter, but once you’ve done it enough you memorize where each letter is in the cases and it goes pretty quickly (not like using Microsoft Word but more fun!). Here is a case of my go-to text font, Bembo 12, designed in 1929.


We are fortunate to live in the same town as one of the few remaining font foundries in the world, Pat Reagh Printers in Sebastopol. Pat is a true master of  letterpress and a great guy as well. His shop is of historical importance in this field. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy fonts, a full set of 12 pt type typically costing less than $100. Of course, there are many fonts in many sizes and once you catch the bug, you may find that there’s always a new font you think you need.

Here are some pages that I printed this morning using the text shown in the photos above:


I’m still learning the craft of letterpress but am confident that I can now make my modest modified etching press do what I need it to do. It’s been a lot of work but it’s starting to pay off!

And by the way, Eric Johnson recently created North Bay Letterpress Arts, a non-profit organization in Sebastopol to do with all things letterpress. Check them out!


Heart of Dark(room)ness


Today I’m making negatives in preparation for spending the day in my darkroom tomorrow printing a set of negatives to make a new copy of my “By Hand” book. So I thought I’d share some of the steps involved in making palladium prints.

First up is making the negative. Palladium printing, like all 19th century processes, is a contact printing method. The negative is placed directly on the light sensitive paper so the final print is the size of the negative. Many people these days are making digital negatives, rather than using film negatives from their cameras. This allows all of the work needed to make a great print to be done up front when preparing the digital file for printing on my Epson printer. This means that when actually exposing the negative and paper I don’t have to rely on crude dodging and burning techniques that we used to use.  Of course, there is a lot that goes into making a really good digital negative that I may go into in another post. So today I’m printing out a new set of negs for printing tomorrow.




Once in my darkroom I first measure out the chemistry I’ll need to sensitize the paper. These processes rely on hand coating various art papers with light sensitive chemistry. You can’t buy ready made paper to make palladium prints.

Next is coating the paper – I use a specific Richeson paint brush that works extremely well. Once dry (but not completely dry!) I place the neg on the paper and put them in my UV exposure unit. Palladium is exposed with UV light and I use a screenprinting unit that provides that as well as a convenient vacuum system which ensures the neg is evenly situated on the paper. Exposure times are pretty long, something like 5 minutes.

Finally the print is run through chemistry. One of the best things about palladium printing is that the image appears on the paper the instant you drop it in the developer – presto, the image jumps out at you! Then comes a series of clearing baths – all in all, the print is in chemistry for about 40 minutes so you need to use a paper that has good wet strength.

That’s it in a nutshell. Of course I’ve simplified it somewhat, especially the part about making negs.

I particularly like the fact that I’m combining 19th century technology (the palladium chemistry and process) with 21st century stuff (the digital negative creation). As I tell my friends, I’m not sure the 20th century contributed much of importance to the history of photography! (… just kidding).

Phoenix Arising from the Ashes



Anyone still out there? It’s been (an embarrassing) 4 1/2 years since my last post! Many things have changed for me on the artistic front, all good, all part of my evolution as an artist.

It began several years ago when I took a master workshop from Keith Carter, a wonderful photographer and educator who instilled in me a newfound enthusiasm for learning the history of photography and focusing on long term projects.

That led to an interest in 19th century photographic printing processes. Being a professional master printer, albeit in the digital realm, I quickly got hooked on this new/old way of making prints and I was blown away by the quality of the palladium prints I was making. I was also playing with image transfers, another “handmade” process that creates unique prints.

My next foray was into the world of handset letterpress. There’s a wonderful local letterpress organization, North Bay Letterpress Arts, that offers workshops on how to practice this venerable art form. Soon I was combining letterpress text with my palladium and image transfer prints.

Next up was moving away from simple framed prints on the wall into the exciting world of handmade books. I found this the perfect vehicle for my handmade 19th century process prints and handset letterpress. I’ve taken some workshops at another wonderful local resource, the SF Center for the Book, and have found a couple of nice binding structures that work well with my prints.

I found myself needing a new workspace to house all of this new activity and its attendant equipment so last year was able to build a new 400 sq ft art studio on our property.


If you look closely you can see my darkroom (yes, people still use them!), my UV exposure unit, my etching press converted to do letterpress, PVA glue, flatfiles, etc, etc, etc. Lots of handmade furniture in the studio as well.

By now you might have guessed that a big theme in my work these days is “handmade”. I’m really enjoying practicing the craft of artmaking, making each completed piece a direct expression of my own thoughts and my own hands. The image at the top is the title page of one of my books celebrating the architecture of the objects of letterpress. The title “By Hand” is at the heart not only of that project but of all my work these days.

This blog will continue as a means for me to share with you this adventure. I’ll share my thoughts about artmaking with this new perspective as well as share what I’ve learned on a technical level in the areas of 19th century printing processes, handset letterpress and bookmaking.

I look forward to hearing from you and am always happy to share what I discover along the way.