The ancient art of hand-operated letterpress printing is being kept alive in various parts of West Auckland including in the Titirangi garage of graphic designer and former Lopdell Gallery director, Lesley Smith.
Lesley now has three manually operated Victorian printing presses, the most recent having been painstakingly reassembled by Lesley and her landscape architect husband Chris, after it had lain in pieces in the previous owner’s workshop for 30 years.
Two of the presses are massively constructed from cast iron, and the other is a small desk top model. All date from the mid 1800s and now they are all in pristine working order, Lesley plans to start bespoke printing, commencing with her nephew’s wedding invitations and eventually ranging up to books.
“The jobs are piling up,” she says with a note of pleased anticipation.
Lesley took a degree in graphic design in the UK after previously completing a diploma in catering and becoming a fully qualified chef and somewhere in her early life she developed a passion for typography, which is the art of designing and using type-faces.
It wasn’t until 2007 however that her fascination with type found a practical outlet. She attended a typography conference in Seattle, in the USA. “I headed to the preconference letterpress printing workshop and fell in love with the art,” she says.
Letterpress is an exact description of the process first invented (possibly) by the Chinese nearly 2,000 years ago and which formed the core of all printing until the invention of offset printing in the 20th century. Basically words that are to be printed are created using letters of the alphabet, pre-made in wood or metal, and available in different sizes and fonts. These are assembled, put into the press, coated with ink and have a sheet or paper or other printable material pressed against them. Just like a stamp, the image created by the letters is transferred to the paper.
This laborious process changed the face of civilisation by making the printed word widely and inexpensive available, opening the first era in mass communication. Letterpress continued to be used with only relatively small improvements until the mid-Victorian era when it became increasingly mechanised.
“It’s such a tactile process and after 30 years at computers it’s a wonderfully satisfying way to create. The shape and the feel of the wood, the smell of the ink, the feel of the variety of papers, the way the machines work, the pleasure of creating the design and then creating the finished product,” she says.
Lesley even loves the blocks of wooden type because of the way they wear and develop quirks and imperfections that add character to the printed product.
She was surprised to note that the majority attendees at the workshop were women.
“Waves of women all over the world are discovering this art and keeping it alive, I met one who was travelling across America seeking out these old printing presses, restoring them and selling them on.”
On her return she met up with another West Auckland craft printer, Green Bay’s Beth Serjeant, who pointed Lesley towards MOTAT; MOTAT’s printer volunteers, in turn, suggested that she acquire an American treadle-powered Chandler and Price jobbing press built in 1885. This came along with case of type both wooden and metal.
Getting deeper into her passion she met Tara McLeod, arguably New Zealand’s top hand-craft printer. He, knowing that artist Mervyn Williams had an Albion press disassembled in his garage, made the introductions and Lesley and Chris became the proud owners.
She and Chris took many trips to Tara McLeod’s studio to study the similar Albion press he uses, and learn how to re-assemble their own machine and put it back in working order. It was a process in which many people around the area played a role, she says.
“It doesn’t take much strength at all to use,” Lesley says admiringly, eagerly demonstrating how easily she can make them obey her will. And soon, in rural Titirangi, these machines will be a fully productive part of the world-wide revival in letterpress printing.