It's not hard to love letters, they give us ideas and inspiration and connect us to the world through writing. For traditional printers that letter-love is as precise as a knife-edge. This month the Hand-Eye Supply team visited the letterpress virtuosos at Portland's KeeganMeegan & Co. to watch them work and drop off our new printer's rulers. Well-known for their traditional letterpress work and hand illustrated printing, the duo combines old-school techniques and visuals with inviting modern design.
Letterpress, the OG method of putting squiggly lines onto paper, uses blocks of carefully aligned moveable type mounted in a bed, an inked plate or roller, and something to carefully squish the paper in. KM & Co. uses particularly epic-looking platen presses that look like they're just a generation or two removed from Gutenberg, yet are capable of producing stylish work for businesses and famous bands.
As you can imagine, their work relies on tiny adjustments, painstaking attention and a lot of patience. While computerized layout can still be a chore, it's a much longer process when doing it by hand. To shuffle type and images into the careful alignment needed, the line gauge is an invaluable tool. It has several features that give letterpress, printmaking, graphic design, zine layout and other typographic or tactile traditionalists a leg up.
These sweet line gauges have a well-inked history of helping out the tenders of type, offering a notched top for alignment and notation in imperial and metric units, plus points and picas. If those last two don't ring a bell, you're not alone. Katy Meegan explained: "The pica system is for larger scale uses, and the point is for fine adjustment. There are 12 points in a pica (6 points in a half pica). Points are super tiny and they can help us get micro-measurements when we're lining up text on paper. Points also measure the size and height of type. When we talk about "6pt type" or "12pt," it is literally referring to this measurement. The point value has to do with the bed that type initially sat on."
In addition to assessing the letters and paper themselves, printmakers have a lot of careful squaring to do. The human eye is a sensitive tool, and printers take great care to align type so that once a piece is done each element is as neatly spaced as possible. I'd argue that the tactile quality of traditional print heightens your awareness of the ink on the page. So in addition to the exponentially increased chances to mess up registration, the evaluation might be a little sharper than normal. These guys embrace that difficult balancing act—they clearly love both the product and the process.