the arm: letterpress printing

Yesterday, Liz and I headed to The Arm Letterpress in Williamsburg to take a 6-hour introductory class to letterpress printing. I had unfortunately woken up with a migraine so that made me not as perky as I should have been for our 11am start. Under the weather as I was, I had paid $150 to attend this class so I was getting my butt over there no matter what!

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Coming into the studio, we were greeted with the most handsome, most well-behaved Dalmatian I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His name was Henry and he was 9 years old, about the same age that The Arm is now. (I wish I had taken a picture of Henry!) Walking further into the space, we were next greeted by a guy in a plaid shirt, khaki-colored shorts, brown chukkas and a pageboy hat. He later turned out to be our teacher for the afternoon… he also happens to be the guy who started The Arm in the first place back in 2004, Dan Morris. Considering how laid-back he is, I never would have guessed that he was the owner of the place. As soon as he started talking about printing however, you could tell by how much he enjoyed all this stuff that yes, this was someone who had the guts to start his own letterpress studio just because he loved it and wanted everyone else to get to love the stuff too.

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As soon as all 12 students had settled in and hung up our jackets and bags, we were all asked to introduce ourselves and share why we decided to sign up for the class. I found it really funny hearing ย person after person start with an “I’m (insert name here) and I’m a graphic designer.” I think only 4 people there weren’t designers, including Liz who has a probably-cooler job of being an editor-in-chief of the leading food magazine in the Philippines (whuuut!) And yes, I like bragging about my amazing friend.

Anyway, all the designers pretty much said they wanted to get away from their computer screens and do something with their hands for a change. That was also a big draw for me. I miss my silkscreen class at Parsons and everything that came along with it, including scrubbing the screens clean with the big brushes, water sprays and that all-too-familiar scent of Fantastik. Learning something new (but also somewhat familiar) like letterpress printing has definitely been on the to-do list for a while.

We got split up into 5 teams so each team could work on one of the five Vandercook presses at the studio. Liz and I paired up with a sweet girl named Megan. So after Dan had given us all the instructions and demonstrations we huddled together first to figure out what we would print with The Arm’s wood type collection. We decided on printing the word “supercalifragilisticespialidocious” but of course we had to Google how to spell that first! We fit the type onto the press and proceeded to fill in the spaces with the necessary wooden blocks. (I forget what the proper term for them is, if there is one.) You can never really escape the claws of mathematics, even when you’re doing something creative like this. We had to measure the pica lengths and widths and find the pieces that could add up to those numbers. It was a little bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle.

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Liz and Megan showing off our first setup.

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The cabinet filled with Van Son rubber-based inks

As soon as we picked a bright violet from the ink cabinet, we got started on our printing! I really liked the feeling of turning the lever and hearing the rollers go over the bed of metal while the piece of paper made contact with the type. I like the physicality of having to walk along with it and coming back to get the sheet out. 6 hours of standing made for some sore heels but I didn’t really notice because I was having quite some fun!

The afternoon was peppered with mini lessons on how to use the Kelsey Press, how to compose metal type and also how to use the foil stamp machine. And in between those was time for us to print whatever we wanted. We ended up with two posters, but I really have heart just for the first one because we ran into some trouble while printing the second one (and I’m just not going to show it.)

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Overall, I could say the $150 was worth it. Studio time at The Arm is already $20/hour anyway. So in a way, we only paid $30 for the instruction and everything else was just time to be with the machines. Not a bad deal at all! Now I’m excited to get a project that requires some letterpress printing now so I can start putting my new knowledge to work!

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