Old made new: Visual art department purchases 19th century letterpress

One of the newest additions to the visual art department might also be one of the oldest pieces of technology on campus. This past month the department purchased a letterpress and large cabinet of type for Windgate Visual Arts East.

The Chandler & Price letterpress originated between the 1880s and 1920s in Cleveland, Ohio.

The visual art department purchased one such press from Cody Langford, a graphic designer and letterpress artist who restores old letterpresses in Carthage, Mo., said Todd Goehner, associate professor of visual arts.

The department also negotiated a deal with Siloam Springs Printing to acquire a large cabinet full of type to use with the new printing press.

“They just have a whole treasure trove of lead and wood type,” said Bobby Martin, associate professor of visual arts. “We’ve reached an agreement to get all their old type stuff—the type cabinets, the type itself and they’ve also got some other bits and pieces of equipment we can use.”

Though letterpresses are no longer commercially used, Martin said they have become a “cottage industry.”

“It’s this boutique printing now where designers will get a letter press machine and do really upscale wedding invitations and different projects,” he said. “Artists use it, too. You can print not only with type, but you can print linoleum cuts or you can even do digital plates…and lock them into this machine.”

In order to use the letterpress to create a print with type, the artist first lays out the type using a composition stick. Both the letters and words are set up backwards so it will read correctly after it is printed.

Once the type is composed, the artist sets it into the chase, which holds everything in place during the process. Originally, printers pedaled the machine to turn the wheel and start the press, but now the press is equipped with a motor.

As the wheel turns, rollers cover both the chase and type with ink and then lightly press the type against the paper for a “kiss,” or impression. The kiss slightly embosses the words and figures onto the page. The artist will remove the freshly printed sheet and replace it with a new one in a continuous process. This particular letterpress prints on 8” x 10” sheets of paper or smaller.

Martin said the department would eventually like to have a dedicated letterpress class.

“In the beginning stages it might just be integrated into a printmaking class or… a typography class,” he said. “We haven’t 100 percent decided. It initially might just be a class project.”

However, both Martin and Goehner agree the letterpress helps make the art department a more complete program.

“The press will bring more depth to our department, giving students a better understanding of the history of design and communication and teaching a new set of skills that they can integrate into their art and design,” Goehner said.

Martin added that the press provides “part history lesson, part contemporary practice.”

“They need to know the ideas of leading and point size and all these things on your computer screen, it came from here,” he said. “You are still using it today when designing something in [Adobe] InDesign or Illustrator. The terms came from here.”

The professors are not the only ones excited about the letterpress. Senior Will Oelschlaeger is eager to try it out.

“It’s a printing method that’s grown in popularity again and is often used for works that appear on blogs and in design magazines,” he said. “I was very curious to try this method firsthand. It’s not something that’s common outside of specialty design firms.”

Oelschlaeger sees himself using the press to make résumés, business cards and portfolio pieces in the near future.