You’ve probably seen them: boxes of discarded wood type collecting dust in a back corner of an antique shop or under an old table at the flea market. If you’re in love with letterpress like I am, these boxes are irresistible, and you probably have a few of these rescues sitting on your bookshelf. Each wooden letter has a story all its own, from the nicks and scrapes to the particular patina and shine of the surface. Would you believe you could print from them with a few simple tools from your kitchen and the craft store? Give it a try, and once you’re done, you’ll have a nice stack of prints to share, and the type can go right back up on the shelf!
First, gather the tools and materials: wood type, a rubber band, a wooden spoon or spatula, a brayer (a hand-held roller), some water-based block printing ink, and a smooth clean surface for inking (I’m using a piece of white tile from the hardware store, but you can also use a piece of glass or Plexiglass). For cleaning up afterwards, you’ll also need water, paper towels, and maybe a small dab of detergent to help clean off the ink.
Line up your type so that it reads backwards, from right to left, and wrap it with a rubber band. To prepare the ink: squeeze out a small line of ink on the inking plate, then use the brayer to roll out a smooth, even area of ink.
Just keep rolling the brayer back and forth and side to side until it’s all evenly distributed. It should be a fairly thin layer of ink, and you’ll know when you have the right amount when you hear a slight sticky sound, like a sizzling griddle, when you roll through the ink.
Roll the ink onto the type, repeating three to four times to add multiple thin layers. Pick up a little more ink from the ink plate each time and roll the brayer across the type in a different direction each time to make sure you get good, complete coverage.
Lay a sheet of paper on the inked type. Here, I’m using a sheet of Mohawk Superfine 80lb. text that’s been folded in half. (This process works best on thin papers, so I would recommend using text weight or thinner, like Japanese papers.) Rub the back of the paper with the wooden spoon firmly, but be careful not to tear or puncture the paper.
Carefully lift up a corner to check on your progress. If it looks speckled or uneven, you may need to rub it for a little longer or with more pressure, or you might need to start fresh and add more ink next time. Have plenty of spare sheets to practice until you get it just right!
This is the first in a series of letterpress how-to articles from Jessica. For more letterpress printing projects, check out her book Letterpress Now: A DIY Guide to New & Old Printing Methods.