Letterpress Christmas Card exchange 2014

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1 crazy idea, 2 presses, 3 days, 4 impressions, 50 stamps, lots of swearing. Christmas card exchange 2014 – done.

This year’s exchange was the biggest yet – with over 40 contributors from around the world, with contributors from Iceland to Mexico. I’d been thinking about my idea ever since I came into possession of some really cool old John Haddon border pieces earlier in the year, and the entire time I was worried about how the hell I was going to achieve what was in my head with ink and paper.

The basic idea was to make a snowflake by repeating a set pattern three times, each time offsetting 60 degrees. To make it even more interesting, I wanted to start at an angle of 15 degrees, before even thinking about the rotations. To make this work I needed 4 things: Lock-up a pattern that when repeated would look nice, my long-forgotten basic grasp of mathematics, some sort of mechanism to get an accurate angled lockup, and a fancy press – my Farley just isn’t accurate enough for such a precise multi-impression job.

So, #1 – making my lockup. I played around with several variations and came to the conclusion that making something simple would look best. This process required a bit of imagination to figure out how the final shape would look when repeated. In the end I settled on a simple shape that would give a basic star shape and allow flexibility for slight inaccuracy of the process. It looked like the below:

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Next up was problem #2 – how to figure out the maths. I was tempted to cheat and create an 8-pronged snowflake, which meant I could create something in two impressions. But that wouldn’t be in the spirit of Christmas. Oh no. So I had figure out how to offset a pattern equally three times. For those of you unfamiliar with the process of letterpress printing, things generally work great at square angles; 0; 90; 180; 270 degrees are ideal… 15, 135, 255 degrees are not. To get this working in my head, I semi-cheated and sketched up the angle of each impression on the computer.

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Next was to figure out a ‘jig’ to make these lockups stay in position for a long run on the press. The only way I could figure this out was to create the above angles from 10mm thick mount board that would allow me to align everything up square to the press and then use (loads) of galley magnets to lock the forme in place.

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As you can see from the above, I solved my ‘fancy press’ problem. Simon at the London Center for Book Arts kindly let me spend the day in the studio on his wonderful Vandercook. One day I will own one of these beautiful machines. The cylinder was great for the paper thickness I wanted to use, it had incredible registration and the bed was plenty big enough for my chase rotations.

So, all of the above problems sorted, I had the simple task of printing the bloody things. Paper was sorted – Materica Clay and Materica Gesso from Fedrigoni at 360gsm, a lovely stock and completely and unashamedly inspired by these stunning business cards from The Counter Press. The colour of the print was to be a nice, vibrant blue, made from a base of transparent white to give a bit of pop from the paper mixed with Pantone 2995C.

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With the colour sorted and the press inked up, it was time to set the first angle of 15 degrees. With the forme locked into place by a load of magnets  it was time to begin – only 100 cards to make – but first came the make-ready, which was always going to be a bit of a challenge using ancient and battered John Haddon borders.

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First impression done, I then had to figure out how to get the forme rotated and the center of the snowflake in exactly the same position. The only way I could figure this out was to use a piece of string with a dot drawn on to mark the middle.

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Then after a bit of precision alignment on the Vandercook feed registration, the second run through the press went pretty smoothly…

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With time in the day running out, the third impression followed a similar pattern of angles and adjustments, leaving me with something that hopefully resembled a snowflake. Simon trusted me with his guillotine, which was great fun to use – there’s something about dangerous power tools that excites me, plus  it beats individually trimming with a scalpel for sure. I trimmed the cards down to A4 size, chucked placed them in the car and went home to let the ink dry.

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The following day I dusted down my trusty little Adana and set the line of type that would be printed on the face of the cards: ‘Let it Snow’. It was set in some salvaged grotesque face that I got a while back in some scrapyard. The white of the text offset the blue nicely on the grey stock – for the gesso stock I used a pale grey.

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The final part was to crease the cards. I’d been speaking with Jacqui from Print for Love of Wood and she recommended getting a creasing machine. Now, I’m never in need of an excuse to get another tool, so after a bit of research I bought one of these. The day it arrived, I creased pretty much everything in sight – it’s truly amazing and is properly heavy-duty – making short work of the thick card stock. I may just chuck out my bone folder.

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With creasing done, all that was left was to write the cards, get some stamps, post them and sit by the letterbox awaiting a bumper mailbox from talented people all around the world.

Once Christmas is over I’ll share some of the amazing cards that have been dropping on the doormat over the past few weeks. So much creative work is on my mantlepiece this year, there’s some that I still can’t figure out how they were made… Thanks everyone – Bring on 2015!