Event Recap: Classic Letterpress Workshop

You know your destination is somewhere special when you’re told “Don’t use your phone’s map app. Use these directions instead.” That’s what letterpress printer Norman Clayton told five intrepid AIGA SB members who trekked to his workshop in Ojai this past weekend for an all-day class—and he delivered a great experience for everyone involved. It was AIGA SB’s second visit to Classic Letterpress, and a fantastic opportunity to learn the fundamentals of letterpress by typesetting, printing and then binding a unique collection of haiku poetry.

Norman used the first hour to introduce himself and his work, along with the history of his business. We got a great rundown of monotype vs linotype, litho film, photopolymer plates, the subtractive process of screen printing, foil stamping, and the magic type-height number of .918 inches. A RISD alum, Norman switched from photography to design while studying, and then running Michael Osborn’s letterpress workshop in San Francisco for several years before acquiring and eventually moving it (including a giant Heidelberg press) to Ojai five years ago. For the past 20+ years, Norman has created and collaborated on work for Bay Area clients as large as Apple and as small as local Ojai book-binders and artists; close to 25 precent of what Norman prints are his own designs for clients.


For the morning session, each attendee got to experience the full process of letterpress printing; we selected a haiku, then hand-set its type (plus the title and colophon pages) using the composing sticks and “furniture” tools. We literally had to mind our Ps and Qs (not to mention punctuation, ligatures, leading, and more), and no one escaped the rigorous proofing process. Even when all the characters were set correctly, some still might print poorly; a few letters were thrown into the “Hell Cup” and replaced by sharper, better counterparts. Norman masterfully instructed and advised throughout, displaying his characteristic patience with a process initially complex enough to trip up experienced designers, but accessible enough for all of us to get the hang of it quickly. The upside-down-and-backwards layout of hand-setting type was a refreshingly different approach for those of us accustomed to working digitally.

The afternoon session saw each of us getting a chance to operate Norman’s Vandercook letterpress printer, laying out the set type and printing proofs (and then finals) for binding. After a detailed demonstration by Norman, we got to work. The pedal-operated Vandercook’s mild hum created a great rhythm for the little dance of each print, and before long all of us were comfortably churning out multiple pages (and occasionally re-inking the press). After finishing their pages, each attendee re-distributed their type (a.k.a carefully returning each letter to its proper place in storage). Finally, we printed the colophon and cover pages, and for the binding process we assembled the books’ pages, hand-sewing thread through the spine to tie everything together. We titled the collection “Ojai-Ku,” because puns make the world go ‘round, of course.

AIGA SB thanks Norman Clayton for opening Classic Letterpress on a Saturday to host us, making us feel welcome and fostering our collaboratively creative impulses. We enjoyed our return to Ojai and love the hand-made “Ojai-Ku” collection! If you get a chance to design a project that would look great printed on letterpress, Norman is the man to contact. We don’t call him “AIGA SB’s Letterpress Guru” for nothing.

By Keir DuBois
Published November 10, 2015
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