Letter Pressing at MIT’s Beaver Press

Step 1: Picking out your leaden letters and arranging them on to the metal plates

Apart from working at the Globe and auditing courses at MIT, the Neuffer Fellowship also gives you access and opportunity to be a part of the million events and workshops happening on the MIT campus. One of the workshops I attended at MIT during the fellowship was a letterpress workshop at the Beaver Press.

A note before I start: this is going to be a niche blog for the letterpress nerds out there, but as I have already proclaimed my undying love for print and the broadsheet, I am unashamed to admit that learning how to letterpress inside MIT’s famous dome library was exhilarating.

A friend of mine concentrating hard on her compilation of letters

Dr Erica Zimmer, who also teaches a fascinating course about the history of the book, led the workshop and despite the many disasters that occurred with my print that day she was as patient as one can humanly be. A huge shout-out to her.

Letterpress printing is different from embossing in that it leaves an impression in the paper by pressing into the paper from one side.

The first part, figuring out what quote I wanted to print, actually finding my letters and assembling them into words and sentences and setting them on the metal plates was time consuming but simple. There is some skill involved, with finding the letters swiftly and guessing how much space each word will take up, but you also need a keen aesthetic and an artistic eye to arrange them beautifully. I picked up some skills for sure, but I wouldn’t say I have the natural aesthetic for letter pressing.

Arranging the plates on the press was the hardest part for me

Next is the part where you actually carry your plates to the press, arranged them neatly, enclose them in wood blocks, attach your printing paper and then press down as hard as you can. It seems as simple as following a pattern of logical steps but the plates have to be arranged in a very specific way to ensure a bold print. Let’s just say that because it took me a long time to figure out the press, I do think that now I will likely never forget the mechanics of the press.

The quote I choose is from a chapter of book by Ismat Chughtai, an Urdu novelist, short story writer, liberal humanist and filmmaker from the 1930s. The chapter is about how she was taken to trial by the British Colonial Government for publishing a story that was deemed “inappropriate” and “sexual”.

For the first few presses we could not figure out how to make the entire print appear in the same shade

If you ever get a chance to do experiment with a letterpress, please take it up. It’s riveting to learn all humans did to print pamphlets and newspapers back in the day.

My final print. “Ashiqi” is the Urdu word for love or perhaps “a love affair”.