When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type and the printing press over 600 years ago, it kickstarted a print revolution that spread around the globe and remained the dominant way of producing printed media for centuries. With the rise of offset and digital printing, letterpress became less commercially viable on an industrial scale. However, the creative potential and aesthetic qualities of letterpress saw its revival in the 1990s and is now used by small print companies to create unique, personalised work such as gift cards and wedding invitations.
One such print shop is GTO Letterpress Printers, owned and operated by Graham Judd in Auckland’s North Shore. His first contact with letterpress was as an apprentice at the Masterton Print Company. He was instantly drawn to the hands-on nature of the job and the sense of satisfaction at being able to see a job through from start to finish. The constant variety of work also meant there was never a dull moment and he never remembers having a day that he wasn’t happy to go to work. Still true today, he enjoys the balance between the commercial and creative jobs he gets to do. His commercial jobs consist of anything from swing tags to business cards to gift vouchers, with many of his clients being repeat customers. Meanwhile his creative work involves working with bookbinders, printmakers and artists on collaborative projects such as limited-edition prints, calendars and books. During the initial global lockdown, he was relieved to have had a few print jobs as a welcome distraction through this time. A postcard he made in lockdown and sent to his letterpress friends around the world reads: “Confined to barracks, with a Heidelberg life could be worse”.
His knowledge and expertise as a letterpress machinist has given him the opportunity to travel abroad to provide training sessions and courses on the Heidelberg Press. Last year he was flown to the Philippines to teach a client how to use his Heidelberg. It was an entertaining six days with an audience gathering daily to watch him teach his client how to operate the machine. Although it hasn’t been possible this year, he usually attends and runs workshops at the annual Ladies of Letterpress Conference in the US. His trips often include visiting market fairs and letterpress studios, which he said are always very welcoming and happy to swap ideas. On one of these trips he met Ben Jones, a 32-year-old Heidelberg mechanic and engineer, letterpress printer, and all-round expert, who Judd considers to be his mentor, available to answer any questions Judd may have at any time.
Back home, Judd has taught and mentored many young letterpress enthusiasts, some of whom have gone on to start their own letterpress printing companies such as Christina Drummond who set up Windmill Press in Palmerston North after completing an apprenticeship with Judd. At his studio he also teaches one-day workshops for beginners, most of whom are professional designers with a background in graphic design and typography. By the end of the session attendees always leave with a handful of different items and a big smile on their face, which he puts down to that feeling of instant gratification that comes with traditional printing processes.
Since purchasing his smaller Albion Press in 2010, he has been providing workshops in local libraries for school children. He could see that before attending his workshop, the only thing the children knew about printing was pressing a button on a computer and that they really enjoyed discovering and participating in traditional printing methods. His project to create a mobile print shop grew out of this experience with the desire to travel to more libraries, schools, markets and events in and outside of Auckland to share this knowledge with the wider public. Constructing a purpose-built trailer with funds raised from a boosted campaign, Judd is now ready to take his mobile print shop on the road and will be at Nathan Homestead this month to give a workshop to coincide with Love Letters: The Art of Letterpress Exhibition 2020. Showcasing poster sized prints from novice to expert letterpress printers and artists from local and international artists, this exhibition takes place every two years and travels to several locations around the country.
Despite letterpress being a niche artform, Judd believes there will always be a place for it, as it’s aesthetic quality cannot be replicated by digital processes. More importantly, there will always be people who are passionate about the process and he has noticed an increase in the number of younger people getting involved and setting up print shops across the country. Ironically, although digital technology caused a decline in demand for letterpress it has also been a key component to its continuation. According to Judd, the innovation of photopolymer printing for letterpress has reinvigorated the process, allowing designers to use computer software to combine text and images to produce a photopolymer plate which is then printed on a letterpress machine, containing the same tactile qualities of a letterpress print.
The Printing Museum:
Love Letters: The Art of Letterpress Exhibition 2020.
Association of Handcraft Printers:
The Pear Tree Press:
Ladies of Letterpress:
The History of Letterpress Printing. Web. Accessed 9 September 2020. http://elationpress.com/resources/the-history-of-letterpress-printing/