The Cadillacs of Letterpress

Contributor post by Eva Jorgensen of Sycamore Street Press

We all have a love for the beautiful, textured paper goods created by letterpress printing, don't we? Well, then... let's show a little love for the machines behind all that gorgeous impression.

Vandercook Brochure
The Arm
For now, I'm focusing on Vandercooks, aka "Vandies" or "the Cadillacs of letterpress". Although the techniques used in letterpress printing have been around for centuries (more on the history of letterpress here) these babies debuted in the early 20th century, and were used as proofing presses (not for actual production printing). In the 1960's, when letterpresses became obsolete in the commercial printing world, printshops started discarding them left and right. Artists, bookmakers, and schools began picking them up. These days, Vandercooks are known as the best letterpresses for fine art printing.

Hannah Printing at the Atlanta Printmakers Studio Open House
Although there are some automated Vandercooks around, most require the printer to clamp the paper to the press, and then hand-crank it to the end of the press bed. Each piece of paper must be cranked through one at a time. If there's a second (or third, or fourth, etc...) color, the press must be cleaned off entirely, new ink must be added, and then each paper is run through again.

Clockwise from top left: Dee & Lala, Albertine Press, Pistachio Press, Jean Richardson for the Sycamore Club.
Printing on a Vandercook is obviously a labor of love! But the results are really worth it. What these machines lack in speed, they make up for in quality of impression and ability to print on a large scale.

D Petrzelka and The Arm
If you're interested in learning the art of printing on a Vandercook letterpress, there are many workshops to be found. Here are a few I've come across that are open to the public: The Arm (Brooklyn), The Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, Ferney Art Studio (San Francisco), San Francisco Center for the Book, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and the Atlanta Printmakers' Studio. We offer them once in a while at our studio, too.

For an updated list of letterpress workshops in general, see Briar Press.

Vote for Letterpress

Since we have a couple of Vandercooks, I get asked pretty often where to find them. Here are the places I recommend looking: Don Black Linecasting, Briar Press, NA Graphics, your local classifieds, and don't forget word of mouth!

If you just bought a Vandie and are wondering where to turn for help with repairs, parts, etc... Hot Metal Services, NA Graphics, and the Vanderblog are great places to start. 

Sycamore Street Press
Put your hands together for the Vandercook!

Jan Halvarson


Unknown said...

the end results in the right hands are beauty; these machines are often clunky monkey monsters and yet these images of the beasts are also beautiful...

Elizabeth said...

A really interesting post. I don't really know much about letterpresses but this really is fascinating.

Claudia said...

I am with Elizabeth... these letter presses are definitely fascinating!!! :) They make me feel I also want to create something!!! I loved every example you gave us!!! :)

christie&caleb said...

we L*O*V*E our old Vandy......thanks for a great post!!

My Owl Barn said...

I will certainly love to learn letterpress printing. I am glad to know that there is a workshop in SF. I'll be in SF in a couple of weeks. Can't wait to try this!

SNAP said...

We also have a classes at SNAP (Society of Northern Alberta Print Artists) in Edmonton, and on none other than a Vandercook.

Leslie said...

I hope to be ordering new rollers for my Vandercook before the end of the year. Fingers crossed.