An Interview with The Letterpress Collective

Back in the dark days of winter, I cheered myself up by enrolling on a day-long letterpress workshop at The Letterpress Collective. The workshop was run by Collective founder, Nick Hand, and Pat Randle from The Whittington Press in Gloucestershire, who patiently guided us through the basics of typesetting and printing. As someone who spends a lot of time sitting, thinking, and writing about the processes involved in printing, it would have been treat enough simply to spend an hour or two in the printshop looking at trays of type and breathing in the lovely smell of ink, but the workshops are very hands-on: Nick is phenomenally generous with the equipment he has collected and everyone leaves with a batch of freshly printed creations which he or she has designed, typeset, and printed on one of the many presses crammed into the studio. Tucked away on a narrow lane just round the corner from St Nick’s markets, the Letterpress Collective is a truly amazing space run by amazing people, and I would encourage everyone to go and get inky for the day. And do go along to the Festival of Print, which is taking place from 15-27 May: more details are on the Letterpress Collective website, where you can also sign up to the mailing list.

Rhiannon Daniels

The following is an interview with Nick Hand:

Can you explain what the Letterpress Collective is, and why and how you came to set it up?

The Letterpress Collective is a Community Interest Company set up to teach the craft skills of composing moveable wood and lead type, as well as using some of the letterpress printing presses to print. We also do some private printing for a few organizations who make a positive change in Bristol and individuals. The printshop came about two years ago as a response to the last commercial business closing its letterpress work. It seemed a good time to protect a handful of presses and type collections.

How would you describe ‘letterpress’ printing for those who aren’t familiar with the term?

It comes under the heading of relief printing, which means printing directly from a raised surface.

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What kinds of equipment do you have in the print shop?

Our collection is fairly random as we’ve relied on picking things up for free or not too much money when they’ve appeared. We have been very lucky to have some very beautiful machines.

We have a lovely small Albion Press from 1881 (from the collection at M Shed). Also a Heidelberg 10×15” Windmill press from 1964, a real workhorse of a press known as a jobbing press. Then a Victorian treadle press, a jobbing press from an earlier age which is foot operated. Some lovely small Adanas which were designed as hobby presses, small hand presses but lovely and effective. We have two proofing presses for larger poster work, and very popular for workshops. Then we have some finishing machines, again quirky and old, like the brilliant Victorian guillotine. Our type collection, again is fairly random: some beautiful wooden founts and also some lead cases, all pre 1961 typefaces (when they stopped making new ones).

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What is your background and how did this lead you to found the Letterpress Collective?

I trained as a typographer in 1973, and my final year at Stafford Art College was spent in a room not unlike our printshop today with a compositor and printer. I think it has stayed with me, and I have taken forty years to recreate that room.

Can you describe a typical working day for you?

Well, my main income is as a graphic designer and sometimes, photography. So I tend to spend 3-4 days a week inside the little wooden shed in the printshop where I hide my computer and do most of my graphics work. But I am most happy outside of the confines of the shed, when I can print something. I am working on a short run book about the printing bike project (see below).

What kinds of work do you do outside the Letterpress Collective?

Five years ago, I cycled 6500 miles around the coast of Britain and Ireland photographing and recording the working lives of makers, craftsmen and women. I have carried on that work when I can since and have made little photofilms of over 300 people which I put on departmentofsmallworks.co.uk and slowcoast.co.uk (from the original ride).

Can you tell us about the printing bike project?

My printshop is 20 metres away from the workshop of my friend, the bicycle builder, Robin Mather. We collaborated on a project that was crowdfunded. The idea was to build a courier bike that would carry equipment and a little Adana press. Then we cycled 830 miles from Bristol to Mainz in Germany (where Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with moveable type in 1450). On this journey I printed sets of postcards (with illustrations from friends) and mailed them to folk who funded the project. It was inspired by the people who used to travel the land making a living from a bicycle (like knife grinders). It was a lovely and very satisfying project.

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What kinds of people are and have been involved in the Letterpress Collective?

The workshops are amazing – we get folk from all walks of life. Lots of graphic designers, who are keen to get away from a computer for a day and get a little inky.

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Are there any particularly exciting events coming up in 2015?

Last year we organised our first print festival. We had two exhibitions in two weeks: one celebrating our friends from Whittington Press who publish the brilliant Matrix, an annual celebrating the best letterpress work from around the world. Then an exhibition called the ‘Politics of Print’, about the power of letterpress to change things for the better. We had some brilliant anarchist French printers as a residency in the printshop and they produced beautiful work while here. We had some good opening parties as well. Printers can certainly party. So we are going to have another festival this year (15-27 May), and hopefully it will be as good.

Can you tell us something about the history of printing in Bristol?

A huge amount of people would have been connected to letterpress printing in Bristol up to 30 or 40 years ago. Apart from private presses, there was the newspaper industry that would have employed a few thousand people at one time. Then packaging and postcards. My guess is around 20,000 people were working in print or allied trades.

Does the building that the Letterpress Collective is housed in now have a historical connection to printing?

Yes, we are in the old Times and Mirror building, which was a newspaper from the 1700s. The building was used as a modern printing works up until about thirty years ago.

Are there any other places in Bristol which are particularly important and/or interesting in connection with printing?

There is a beautiful frontage of the Everard Printing works in Broad Street, it is a wonderful art Nouveau frontage from 1901. Otherwise the Robinsons building in Bedminster was a paper bag and packaging manufacturer and printer.

Is there anything distinctive about Bristol which influences the way in which you work or which contributes to the way in which the Letterpress Collective works? 

Much of our equipment has come from M Shed (and the old Industrial Museum before that), so has a historical footprint in the city. I am aware that it carries with it part of the city. I am a Bristolian, so feel a little bit of a guardian of this heritage in a small way.

What kinds of books do you enjoy?

I like biographies and factual books. Sometimes fiction. I was influenced as a young man by Orwell and the Laurie Lee books as well as Steinbeck.

What’s the first book you remember?

I remember my brother reading a very sad story to me when I was very small.

What’s your favourite book (object, rather than text)?

Currently I look the annual Matrix books, a book produced by the Whittington Press (Cheltenham) celebrating the finest letterpress print around the world and first produced in the early 1970s.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or book-related place?

I do like the Oxfam bookshop on the Triangle (often has some lovely old gems) and also Bloom and Curl on Colston Street. I love the bookshops of New York, especially Three Lives, St Marks and McNally Jackson.

How do you handle your own books? Are you the kind of person who cracks the spine, turns down pages and scribbles in the margins, or do you prefer to keep them looking as new as possible?

I’m in the middle. I do respect books, but I also like them used and available. I like giving books, new or second hand.

How do you define a book?

I think it can only be a physical thing (and I can already see the next question). It should be considered throughout: text, typographically, materials, everything. I like the tradition of books, but I love it when rules are broken as well.

What’s your attitude towards ebooks?

I understand the appeal. But not for me. I don’t trust Apple (any more), it seems like they are all about profit rather than service.

What kind of a future do you think books have?

Well, it seems that books (rather than bookshops sadly) are thriving. I never buy from Amazon and always from bookshops. Books are as beautiful as ever, and it seems we are now aware of the importance of craft. And that you have to pay a little extra for things beautifully made.

For now, anyhow, we seem to celebrate books. Long may it continue.

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