An interview with Justin Knopp
(Typoretum Letterpress Studio, Essex UK)
The history of letterpress starts sometime around the 2nd century AD in China where carved wooden blocks were used for printing on textiles and paper. This was a very inefficient process as a different block was carved for each new page or printed material. In Europe, it was Johannes Gutenberg who revolutionized printing, with the invention of a printing press with moveable type around 1440 AD. Although there are several claims that the Dutchman Laurence Koster invented moveable type printing, Gutenberg is generally accepted as the father of modern printing.
Several different printing techniques have been developed over the centuries, but the one that stays true to its original form of press, is letterpress. In the UK, the letterpress tradition is kept alive nowadays with the work of several passionate professionals, who are also keen to pass their trade skills to the younger generation through several workshops in some colleges and universities.
Typoretum is a letterpress studio based in Essex UK, which keeps the art of letterpress alive. We spoke with Justin Knopp the owner of Typoretum, who presented his work and shared his passion for letterpress with us.
Justin, when did you first fall in love with letterpress?
Way back in 1992, whilst studying BA(hons) Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins in London, I gained my first practical experience of letterpress typesetting and printing. I enjoyed it so much that my typography tutor, Phil Baines, kindly arranged for me to attend a week-long course with Alan Kitching at his Typography Workshop and I’ve never looked back!
What makes letterpress so unique?
What fascinates me about traditional letterpress (printing from moveable type) is that the tools and methods involved have hardly changed in over 550 years and yet it is still possible to experiment and produce creative and fresh typographical work. I also feel very strongly that letterpress is an excellent teaching medium and can help to provide a good solid understanding of typography. It is a great pity that many art and design colleges have, over recent years, disposed of their letterpress collections but the tide appears to have turned and a number of college’s – most notably the London College of Communication – are reinstating the teaching of letterpress on graphic design courses.
When, why and how did you decide to start your business?
Typoretum arose from a desire to introduce my letterpress work to a wider audience, after many years spent printing for pleasure and exchanging work with fellow typographers & letterpress printers. It has been a pleasure to allow a new audience to experience and appreciate the unique qualities of a letterpress printed item.
I also needed to make my large collection of historic letterpress equipment pay for itself as it had outgrown my original workshop space and I had to place many items into storage. We had a new workshop custom built in late 2007 and I now have a wonderful warm, dry and light space in which to work.
What does your studio regularly produce?
Currently, our website only promotes our range of greeting cards but I have also been busy designing and printing personalised writing paper, visiting cards and wedding stationery, in addition to other bespoke items. Soon I hope to start printing a selection of self-initiated wood type posters, for sale through our website, although this will only be possible once I have restored my very rare 19th century Wharfedale cylinder press. I am happy for the work I produce to be as varied as possible and I enjoy the challenges that an entirely bespoke project brings. I have a number of very exciting, projects on the horizon…
Which one of your projects do you consider the most interesting or enjoyed working on the most?
I particularly enjoy experimental projects, for example, I used the technique of ‘hot printing’ (developed the Dutch artist, typographer and printer H.N. Werkman) to produce the illustrative print of my Wharfedale cylinder press. I would love to produce similar prints for each of my seven printing presses but this is a most definitely a long-term project!
An interesting recent commission involved producing a small and delicate hand-set booklet for a London watch manufacturer, to compliment his limited edition range of jewellery. Before he discovered us, he had spent weeks trying to find someone who was willing and able to take on such a small project, in both physical size and quantity. We were delighted with the finished piece and it was hugely rewarding to see how our work fitted into the completed presentation box.
Why would you suggest to someone to print on letterpress rather than on offset?
Although I am deeply passionate about letterpress, I am realistic that it is only practical for specific projects and is immensely limited. It is after all, a 550 year-old process that had almost become extinct following the widespread introduction of offset-lithography throughout the mid to late 20th Century. Having said this, letterpress is particularly well suited to low-volume projects where quality is a primary consideration.
Do you have standard clients?
It still feels like early days for our business, although we have picked up some repeat clients. We are always delighted when a client comes back to us with positive feedback about our service and that must surely be the best indicator as to whether we are getting things right. We work extremely hard to ensure our clients are happy with our products and services and the benefit we have is that we are a family business and offer an old-fashioned honest and personal service.
Is letterpress printing nowadays a design trend or a classic value?
I feel that letterpress printing has become desirable for a number of reasons; primarily as a result of an increasing trend toward the honest and handmade, but also due to its’ long venerable history and unique tactile qualities.
Which is the most difficult part of the printing process and which is the most interesting?
Each stage of the printing stage has particular challenge and the utmost care and attention is required throughout printing. I strive to waste as little paper as possible and end up running the press pretty slowly, so that I can examine each impression during the run. The part I enjoy most is the setting up of the press (make-ready) but the printing stage can be quite arduous if I need to print a large quantity. Washing up the press is always the least enjoyable part but I’m usually feeling on a high, if the job has turned out well by this stage!
Which quality of papers do you prefer to work with?
I tend to only use the finest quality high-cotton papers such as Zerkall, Somerset, Bockingford, Saunders Waterford etc as the softness of high-cotton papers works especially well with letterpress and I like the fact that the cotton used to manufacture the paper is a by-product of the clothing industry and therefore very eco-friendly.
What type of inks do you use?
I mainly use vegetable-based inks to which I add tints of colour from a large set of letterpress inks that I acquired from the Cambridge University Press. I mostly use very pale and subtle colours and mix all of my ink colours by eye. The majority of my ink stock is in non-standard colours, mixed for specific CUP projects and book work, and have wonderfully eclectic names like ‘Ignatus College purple’, ‘Hegel’s Philosophy pink’ and ‘Dr Peter Koslowski red’!
How difficult is it to find metal type nowadays?
Purchasing new metal type is becoming extremely difficult, with only a handful of individuals in the UK casting commercially on Monotype machines, although there are a few dedicated enthusiasts now setting up Monotype equipment. I dearly hope that new type will still be available for some time to come, as metal letterpress type has a finite life and can become irreparably worn after many impressions. There are a number of artisan typefoundries operating in the US and I am particularly fond of the Dale Guild Typefoundry. I recently purchased founts of 24pt Ratdolt Titling, 16pt Solemnis and two sets of their delightful Arrighi Ornaments from Dale Guild, to compliment the Centaur in my collection. The lead alloy that Dale Guild cast with is particularly hard and I cannot recommend their type highly enough.
It is virtually unknown for modern typefaces to be cast in metal, although The Rimmer Type Foundry recently released the typeface Stern, designed by Jim Rimmer, consecutively in both digital and cast metal versions. It is encouraging that the first ‘Subscription Casting’ sold out quickly and there is now a wait of at least two months of new orders. I dearly hope that this trend will continue and that more new typefaces will be released in metal in the future.
How do you apply the same pressure on the entire surface of the printed material?
Sometimes with great difficulty! It is essential that the typesetting and ‘locking-up’ of the type matter is undertaken with the greatest of care so as to reduce any imperfections when the printing stage is reached. Given the age of the materials that I use, some wear and tear is inevitable and occasionally I will need to replace letters that have been worn or damaged and are not printing correctly. If any areas of the printing surface (the ‘forme’) are printing lightly, I need to start applying pieces of very thin paper to the Tympan (waxed sheet covering the Platen of the press) or Cylinder. This technique is called overlaying and, although time-consuming, evens out any inconsistencies in the impression.
How do you manage to have a one-color background on your prints?
Printing large areas of solid colour by the letterpress process is extremely difficult as the pressures involved are immense. For the Christmas card that I designed and printed in 2007 for Wilkin & Sons Limited, I had the background colour litho-printed before overprinting it with wood type. This was a very exciting experiment and enabled me to escape the restrictions of paper colours for that project. Once my large Wharfedale cylinder press is restored and running I should, due to the size of the machine, be able to print large solids myself and I look forward to further experimentation with this technique.
How demanding is the service of a letterpress machine compared to the new ones?
I have no experience whatsoever of operating any presses other than letterpress printing machines, although I would imagine that every printing process has its own particular challenges. The challenges are many when printing from moveable type but many obstacles can be overcome with common sense and copious amounts of patience! Each press has its own particular strengths, weaknesses and foibles so it is essential to select the correct press for the job in hand.
How expensive is it to run a letterpress studio?
That’s a difficult question to answer! The running costs of most letterpress machines should be quite low if they are cared for, as they are very heavily built. The most significant ongoing costs involved are for the high-quality papers and inks that are suited to letterpress printing and funding workshop space large enough to accommodate a collection of letterpress equipment. Since each size and type style of letterpress type needs to be stored in a separate typecase (often incorrectly referred to as a ’drawer’), even a modest selection of typefaces will take up an incredible amount of space! Another expense comes with moving machinery around and this is often best left to professional machine movers and this can be quite costly.
Has your work been accepted by the public? Do people recognize the value of letterpress?
I have received a very favourable response to my work and that encourages me to develop my range of letterpress printed items, as I sincerely feel that the unique and tactile nature of letterpress is widely appreciated and coveted. In contrast to modern printing methods, traditional letterpress imparts a subtle three-dimensional effect, especially when soft high-cotton papers are used. This is the beauty of letterpress.
What advice would you give to someone starting a letterpress studio?
Starting up a letterpress studio can be quite easy, with small table-top printing presses (such as the Adana) being freely available second-hand and fairly inexpensive to buy. It should be possible to set up a basic letterpress studio for under £200. Whilst Adana presses are quite limited, they are easy to get to grips with and a great way to develop ones skills. With letterpress equipment and type having become quite rare, it takes a lot of time and patience to find and collect items but I have found the experience of finding and preserving items of letterpress equipment hugely rewarding in itself. Good luck!
What keeps you motivated?
The seemingly unachievable ambition of reaching perfection! Seriously, the enjoyment I gain from experimenting with letterpress and the wonderful and inspiring craftspeople that it has led me to meet, makes all of the hard work and challenges worthwhile. I feel strongly that the skills involved in hand-typesetting and letterpress printing must not be lost in the mists of time, as so many traditional crafts have, and the responsibility of preserving the craft also keeps me going.
What is your main goal for the following years?
To spend as much time as possible preserving, teaching and promoting the craft of letterpress and building on the current resurgence of interest in the technique.