Letterpress printing is a complicated process, and today, in 2013, trying to explain it to neophytes through the medium of a do-it-yourself instruction book is problematic at best. Letterpress Now, written by Jessica C. White, and published this year by Lark Books, Asheville, North Carolina, attempts to offer a basic background of the craft, plus direction toward the completion of a few simple (and a few not so simple) projects that could be produced on an assortment of printing presses that are commonly found by hobbyists today. I wish that I could say that she was successful in her effort, but the omissions and misinformation that start with the very first paragraph of text is multiplied throughout the book until I cannot imagine how a beginner could possibly benefit from it.
On the first page, which lays out a convoluted history of letterpress printing, it becomes obvious that Ms. White has not done her homework. She assumes that historians have any idea of the methods with which Johannes Gutenberg cast his type, and alludes to knowledge of the make-up of the metal he used for his types. Since these two subjects, along with the configuration of his press have been debated hotly by historians for centuries, I find that opening her book with this misinformation reflects on the lack of detail offered throughout the book. By the fourth paragraph she states that the "first major change to Gutenberg's model" happened in the 1840s, with the invention of the first platen press, completely ignoring the many developments including the iron screw, the cylinder press, and all of the innovations of machine and materials used to build presses by Adam Ramage, Lord Stanhope, George Clymer, William Rust, Robert Hoe, Richard Cope, William Nicholson, Friedrich Koenig, Daniel Treadwell, Isaac and Seth Adams, and dozens of other inventors and innovators at the beginning of the Industrial Age.
Granted, much credit can be given to Stephen Ruggles for his invention of the first self-inking, treadle-driven jobbing press, but so much more happened in the previous 400 years. Ruggles didn't actually invent a working vertical platen press until 1851, and when George P. Gordon's platen jobbing press was introduced in 1857 it soon captured the small press market, eventually morphing into the Chandler & Price manufactured machines that dominated the market until the company closed in the 1960s. Rounding out her page of history is a paragraph that takes up almost a quarter of the printed text, about rotary and web-feed presses, which, at the end of the paragraph she dismisses as not being germane to the rest of the book.
Of the four presses Ms. White offers as examples for machines that beginning printing enthusiasts might encounter only one in considered a production printing press. The first is the much-inflated in price and construction, Kelsey Excelsior tabletop platen press, a press that was sold for decades to a hobby printing market.
The second is the backbone of the job shop, the Chandler & Price platen jobber, which for some bizarre reason sells today for less than most of the tiny Kelsey presses (which should be proof to those who watch the recent resurgence of letterpress printing that preciousness is more important than production). Considering how many people get injured using this kind of machine I am amazed at how little caution is offered in this book.
The third press described is completely miss-labeled as a tabletop cylinder press, when in fact it is classified as a roller and bearing proofing press. Ms. White does not seem to understand that the round, hard rubber roller used to apply pressure to the printed sheet is not in fact a cylinder (but it is round). If this were the case then the metal rolling pins sold by some printmaking suppliers would also be categorized as cylinder presses, which they are not. Sadly, the printers who use these kinds of presses to excess discover that the ancient rubber on the roller can no longer withstand impression (especially the heavy impression that is now in vogue), and deteriorates with no source for replacement.
The last press described is the precision cylinder proofing press, which is represented by the ubiquitous Vandercook (although in the section on cylinder presses it is somehow operated interchangeably with the roller press mentioned above). Although these presses were never designed to be production presses, they have become the most sought-after press in the hobby market, selling for many thousands of dollars, eclipsing the value of production sheet-fed presses that were designed for commercial use.
The book is loaded with technical errors, like inverted quoins, metal-on-metal lock-ups, uninformed placement of gauge pins, and projects that have ridiculous positioning on the press. There are plenty of photos, but they don't always match the description of the proposed projects. The description of dampening paper must be for the process of etching; is not applicable to anything but the heaviest of papers. There are lots of close-ups of projects, which clearly show the lack of any kind of make-ready, and a definite over-abundance of irregular impression. Most of the projects seem to be printed on some very heavy cover stock, which seems to ameliorate the need for any kind of description of proper make-ready.
The text doesn't seem to be well planned, and jumps back and forth especially in the sections that deal with setting up and making ready the described presses. Sections on paper and ink seem to be out of place, and do nothing to help the flow of the instruction. The different sections seem to be loosely divided by a short Q & A with printers who I assume are friends of the author, but the questions are very repetitive, and the answers were not terribly informative. The printed works featured on these pages had no descriptors, and I assume that the pictured items were made by the featured printers, but it would have been a nice touch to give proper credits as to title, date created, finished size, and limitation if any.
The preciousness of the projects will have appeal to the Etsy crowd, and I suppose that if the reader knows nothing about letterpress printing it might whet their appetite for more information, but I really hope they might instead take advantage of reading some of the few books listed in the section on recommended reading to find out how letterpress printing should be done.