Introducing the Letterpress Roundtable: Essential Books about Letterpress

Welcome to the first Letterpress Roundtable Discussion – a new “venue” where we’ll ask a group of letterpress experts for their experienced opinions on a whole range of topics, one question at a time. We’ll ask the question and gather some answers to start things off, but we want all of you to chime in to keep the discussion going. This will be a fun learning exchange as more and more of the extended letterpress community participates, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below!

Let’s launch with our first question – What is the one book on printing that everyone should read?

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

Recommended by: Jenny Wilkson of Wilkson

Why: Not a letterpress manual per se, but it’s still a book that every printer should absorb early on in their career, as most of the information therein applies to hand composition as much as computer typesetting. In one compact paperback, we have a well curated history of type, principles of typographic rhythm, proportion, and hierarchy, and Jenny’s favorite: a fascinating chapter on the geometry of page proportion. The book is beautifully written, but perhaps what makes it most unique and compelling is that Bringhurst draws parallels between typography and music, literature, and the natural world throughout. This book is readily available on line.

Letterpress Printing, A Manual for Modern Fine Press Printers by Paul Maravelas

Recommended by: Casey McGarr of Inky Lips Press

Why: This book speaks to printing on a Vandercook and platen presses, and references printing, makeready, typography, vocabulary, ink, presses, platen, proof presses, and much more. This was the text Casey used in Texas when teaching a letterpress class, and a printer would enjoy this book since it talks about current letterpress practices. Available at Oak Knoll and other online outlets.

Printing Digital Type on the Hand-Operated Flatbed Cylinder Press by Gerald Lange

Recommended by: Casey McGarr of Inky Lips Press

Why: For the practicing graphic designer that wants to print without having typecases full of metal and wood type, this is a must have in the print shop and by the computer (currently out of print- Ebook available soon).

Printing Types: Their History, Forms and Use by Daniel Berkeley Updike

Recommended by: Michael Bixler of The Press and Letterfoundry of Michael & Winifred Bixler 

Why: Bixler calls the two volume set a terrific history of type. He admits it’s a little dry and not everyone will find it interesting, but it’s a #1 must read for anyone interested in type. It was printed in 1922, is very scholarly and worth it for the reproductions of 14th to 18th century type.

Paragraphs on Printing by Bruce Rogers

Recommended by: Scott Vile of the Ascensius Press

Why: Scott’s opinion is both poetic and practical:

To be somewhat glib, the one book on printing that everyone should read is all the books on printing. But if I had to choose one, it would be. Though focused primarily on book design, the amateur with ink in their blood would benefit greatly from the snippets of information on what makes a beautifully printed page. We all have access to an overwhelming number of typefaces, borders, decorations, and patterns. We can, in a day or two, receive a Boxcar plate with our own mental signature of what we believe good design to be, and then print from the plate with bottomless impression. What we desire, as letterpress printers and designers, is a beautifully printed page; this requires much more than a deep impression. It requires study, patience, character, and a careful examination of how design problems were solved in the past. Does the design look as though it were inevitable? That is success in printing.

I cannot state it any better than Rogers:

“Finally, it may be said that the decorative value of a simple page of beautiful type, beautifully printed, is a value quite apart from the esthetic pleasure given us by any other of the graphic arts. So elusive it is that it becomes difficult to analyze or describe; printing in its essential simplicity occupies a compartment all its own amongst the graphic arts. . . . You may be assured, however, that there is no golden road to fine printing. One must continually give his best effort, and only his best, to every piece of work he undertakes. The result will be a lasting thing of beauty—or not—according to his capacity as a workman and his taste as an artist.”

Daniel Keleher of Wild Carrot Letterpress

Recommendation: I cannot name just one book – my printing education came from many different sources. My advice? Seek out basic instructional texts and look for that one little hint that you have not read before.

General Printing: An Illustrated Guide to Letterpress Printing by Cleeton, Pitkin & Cornwell

Recommended by: Peter Kruty of Peter Kruty Editions

Why: Well, here is the book that everyone used at one time or another in their ‘apprenticeship’ to be letterpresser. It was used to teach highshoolers a trade in printing when all was hot metal. I was tickled to see that it is back in print and available from Amazon for $24.95 in a smart new yellow hardcover. No other book is going to show you the right way to tie a form for galley storage using kite string. My only concern is that every other contributor to this blog will recommend this book too, but hey, maybe in the end we are all just big highschoolers slaving away at the machines like it was still the 50’s.

Printing on the Iron Handpress by Gabriel Rummond

Recommended by: Peter Kruty of Peter Kruty Editions

Why: Everything, and I mean everything, about handpress printing, paper dampening, metal type handling, the works. Since nearly all of what we do at the studio is polymer, text and image, it’s interesting that the two books I’m recommending are for hot metal. Ah well, I guess plastic printing is a mast we all tie ourselves to at our own education and peril.

Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type by Geoffrey Dowding

Recommended by: Carol Blinn of Warwick Press

Why: It is a classic. One can still get the best education by looking at books designed by the best – W. A. Dwiggins, Bruce Rogers, Giovanni Marderstieg and his son, Martino, and don’t forget all of the private press people who have gone before – plus new(ish) designers – all of these people were considered great for many reasons – use of classic typefaces, clean use of white space, delicate arrangements of type on a page just the right size for a project – open your eyes and look. And another thing, read your heart out to become educated in how words are put together to make sense. Read books by authors whose work and words you love. Immerse yourself with language. A good printer/designer should be educated in all things dealing with printed pieces – so don’t just become a worker bee, become a well-rounded professional printer/designer/editor/artist.

Having a good teacher is still the best way to learn how to do most things. Books with instructions are fine up to a point, but particularly in this world of ours – if you can’t get to the teacher, at least study their books. If they are still alive, contact them, pester them, and ask your questions. Bring them cookies and ask to stay for a day or two to learn how to make decisions in type and space and materials. Be grateful and thank them. And then go on to make your own mistakes and learn from them.

Do you agree, disagree, or have your own must-read book for printers? Tell us in the comments section below. We all hope to take away some great suggestions to add to your printing bookshelves!

11 thoughts on “Introducing the Letterpress Roundtable: Essential Books about Letterpress

  1. I’m not sure what the best book on printing is but I’d suspect some untranslated tome from the Netherlands.

    Three books that were of great influence on me when I started out were Lewis Allen’s Printing with the Hand Press and the aforementioned Paragraphs on Printing and Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type. These fit into a category of which I would call those that “Guard the Mysteries. Reveal them Constantly.”

    I should add I think John Ryder’s Printing for Pleasure is just that and quite inspirational for the beginner.

    For the die-hard, anything by Theo. L. DeVinne for sure.

  2. Thanks for the great list of letterpress books! Very gratified to see Messrs. Updike and Rogers in there; those are indeed two of the all-time classics about printing. I would also add Roy Polk’s “The Practice of Printing” and Dr. James Eckman’s “The Heritage of the Printer” as two of my favorites, though I have no idea if either is in print.
    Also enjoyed the profiles on Paprika Press and Sugarcube Press; I was at a lunch yesterday of Austin letterpress people and it struck me how our craft, once the province of inky old men (of which I am one) is becoming the province of lovely and talented young ladies.

  3. Life in the Back Shop; Printers tell their stories, 1900-1965 by Robert MacGregor Shaw. Why: “Peter Baxter tells the story about a heavy flywheel that came loose from a newspaper press in the back shop of a California weekly newspaper. The wheel went “right through” a concrete wall, he says, continuing its course into a bar on the other side. Printers did what came naturally: “We put a door in there,” he says.”

    From the back cover of the book, the tales of pre-OSHA shops and equipment are funny, but also good reminders of the real world of letterpress while it was the primary method of printing anything and everything. You’ll never forget to wear your steel-toes after reading this, and also learn that letterpress obsession is a long and beloved tradition. If these fellows were still around- they’d raise a glass (or two)to us all. I especially like the title” Operators are cantankerous for a reason.” You can get it from Superior Printing in Wisconsin.

  4. I’ll chime in to add Clifford Burke’s classic “Printing Poetry: A Workbook in Typographic Reification”.

  5. Polk – I got it before I printed anything, used it to help with my little Kelsey and now with my NS C&P. Every time I pick it up, I learn something new. And, if I am correct, the early editions were typeset – amazing.

  6. Well, I’m somewhat biased, since I wrote the Preface to the new edition of Cleeton & Pitkin’s General Printing, but in truth it really is by far the most comprehensive, illustrated, useful manual around. That being said, there are many wonderful books on letterpress (hey, I’ve got 5,000 of them in my library 🙂 and after General Printing (and speaking JUST about letterpress, which was the question, and not typography, book design, or anything else), I’d second the motions on Gerald Lange, Paul Maravelas, and Gabriel Rummond, and then add in works like John Ryders’s classic Printing for Pleasure; Ralph Polk’s somewhat simplistic but quite accessible Practice of Printing; George Mills’ Platen Press Operation; and the ebullient (albeit not wildly practical) Printing as a Hobby, by J. Ben Lieberman, father of the American Chappel movement.

    For a much lengthier list of books on and around the subject, I’m pleased to offer up a bibliography that I prepared years ago for inclusion with the first typographic design software:

  7. I am pleased to see Gabriel Rummonds’ Printing on the Iron Handpress listed here. As someone who has one of these terrific old presses, it is an invaluable resource, with some of the best illustrations EVER on the subject. If you are starting out on one of these old style presses, this would be the one book I would recommend as well!

    Scott Miller

  8. A book that seem to have been overlooked are Harry Duncan’s “Doors of Perception”. I doubt that a more inspirational book on printing has been written. Many of his students went on to be fine printers, and this collection of essays should be on every letterpress printer’s shelf.

    The second ‘must have’ is the Book Club of California’s edition of “Porter Garnett, Philosophical Writings on the Ideal Book”. Mr. Garnett started the the first typographic laboratory for students at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in the 1920s, and again, many of his students became leaders in the field. His concern for using the best materials, and permanence of finished product is something with which every printer should be concerned.

    If I might add a more contemporary title, seek out “The books to come” by poet/printer Alan Loney. There seems to be a lack of printers writing philosophically about their craft, but Mr. Loney’s essays help greatly to fill that gap.

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