What takes up Tony Sittner’s entire garage is probably sitting neatly on your desk.A laptop and ink-jet printer is the modern version of the trays of single lead letters, metal image cuts and printing presses involved in letterpress. Smaller and faster, yes, but lacking the smell of the ink, the feel of words pressed into paper, the lull of setting type — not by hitting keys on a keyboard or changing fonts with a mouse, but by building words letter by letter.
It’s a process that will be taught during a five-session class and open studio that begins Sept. 22 in Lewiston. Sittner, the instructor, has been doing letterpress for 45 years, both commercially and in graphics production instruction in the Seattle area. Now retired, he lives in Lewiston.
Letterpress is a slow process, but a simple one.
“Typesetting itself is pretty easy, you just take one character at a time and put it into a composing stick,” Sittner said.
Lead blocks with raised characters are sorted in trays. Uppercase letters were once placed above and lowercase below, giving way to the common terminology. Now they are typically sorted side by side. On the lowercase side, ‘e’ has the largest, most central compartment; lowercase letters are sorted in various sized compartments by frequency rather than alphabetically.
Using various tools, words are built, spaced and locked into place. A set block of text is placed and secured into a “chase,” the steel plate that is affixed to the press. Once in place, the text is inked and pressed onto hand-fed paper. The whole process is mechanized on a press that, in Sittner’s studio at least, has been doing its job since the late 1880s.
“It goes pretty quickly once you set it up, but it’s not 5,000 copies an hour,” Sittner said.
Used as the primary means of printing text since the 1400s, the process became outdated by the 1980s. Letterpress is not used for commercial printing now except for specialty, high-end jobs. The process produces textures and appearances not possible with modern printers. Besides getting that hand-crafted look, people are using letterpress because they enjoy the process.
“Some get into it because it’s working with your hands, it’s kind of relaxing,” Sittner said. “Once you get the hang of it, you don’t really have to think about it.”
And while letterpress is popular among art students, it’s not something that requires creativity to create something beautiful.
“You don’t have to be a designer to do something as simple as this,” Sittner said, nodding to a stack of elegant printed papers.
After learning the process, the primary obstacle to doing letterpress is having access to equipment. That’s where Sittner’s class is especially helpful: Once students know how to set type and use the equipment, they’re welcome to use his studio whenever they want. He hopes the equipment will someday be housed in a space where it would be more available for use by the public.
Besides teaching letterpress through Lewis-Clark State College’s continuing education program, Sittner also teaches at the Roy Chatters Print Museum in Palouse and does private instruction. Students usually begin with simple projects — a business card or note card — and some have graduated on to larger projects like a chapbook. A couple have even gone on to purchase a letterpress of their own.
Antique though the process may be, “it’s just kind of fun,” Sittner said.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Letterpress Open Studio
WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. for five Thursdays, beginning Sept. 22
WHERE: LCSC Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St., Lewiston
COST: $60; register online at www.lcsc.edu/ce or call (208) 792-2447