Printing enthusiasts keep craft alive

Letterpress Gang member Sarah Phelps displays one of more than 1,000 drawers of type in the Dawson Printshop Collection. Photo: Chelsea Gutzman

The press is inked. The rollers are set. All that’s left is turning the handle.

That simple act is enough to entice printshop visitors, mostly students, to stand in line for twenty minutes or more. Letterpress printing is a novelty most of them have never experienced.

Visitors to 125 Cuts, part of Halifax’s Nocturne arts showcase in mid-October, took home posters they helped print at NSCAD University’s Dawson Printshop. They feature a history of printing in Halifax on one side and a selection of cuts, or images, on the other.

For members of the Letterpress Gang, the novelty of printing has long worn off, but they hosted the event to share their love of printing and raise awareness about Halifax’s important role in Canada’s printing history.

The group of about 10 regular and 30 intermittent members accepts students and community members. It meets every Monday to plan events and print paper goods to sell.

NSCAD teacher Joe Landry is one of the founders of the group, which maintains the printshop’s collection of vintage type and presses and puts it to use.

Robert Dawson, a Dalhousie University professor, began assembling the collection in 1972. It was donated to NSCAD in 2004.

One of Canada’s largest collections of letterpress equipment, it contains more than a million pieces of type and an untold number of cuts collected from local printers. “We’ve got the largest collection of (cuts of) lobster probably on the face of the earth,” says Landry.

Graphic designer Sarah Phelps, who joined the group two years ago, says she fell in love with letterpress printing in art school. “It’s just relaxing,” she says.

These are only a few of the cuts in the Dawson Printshop Collection, which Landry likens to “a commercial history of advertising in Nova Scotia.” Photo: Chelsea Gutzman

About 550 of the estimated 3,800 visitors to the printshop on Granville Street during Nocturne left with copies of the poster group members helped create. The job would be too daunting for one member alone.

“You’re setting (the type) upside down and back to front, so that makes it even more fun,” laughs Phelps.

Proofing the design is important because spelling mistakes happen. Phelps says “mind your p’s and q’s” is a saying that comes from the days of letterpress, since some letters in the type drawers look alike. “Out of sorts” comes from the fact that, after use, poorly sorted and stored letters can mess up the next typesetter.

Phelps says she loves the gang’s support. “I remember I was printing Christmas cards last year and I put too much ink on the press and so we had to feed sheets in just to get the ink off … It can be a real panic, but there’s always someone around … that makes it a nice environment to learn in.”

The group is busy preparing for its annual Holiday Printer’s Bazaar on Nov. 24, and will have a table at the Halifax Crafters Market the following weekend. It sells cards and other paper goods, and the proceeds help maintain the collection and printing materials.

Phelps says letterpress printing is worth the effort, even though digital printing is easier and more accessible.

“It’s the finished product,” says Phelps. “To me, it’s an art form.”

Landry agrees. “It’s like comparing a painting to a postcard of a painting.”