For a long time, letterpress printing was just about the only game in town. Invented in the mid-15th century by Johannes Gutenberg, whose "Gutenberg Bible" was the first major Western book to be mechanically printed, it involved using ink-coated movable type—individual metal letterforms, cast in reverse and set in a frame—to print on paper fed through a press.
The process' definitive characteristic is right there in its name. Letters are "debossed" in relief into the fiber of the page, which makes them perceptible to the touch.
With the invention of movable type, printed matter could be produced in nearly identical runs rather than being copied out by hand. It was the dawn of the age of reproduction, and it lasted for more than 400 years. The letterpress dominated book and periodical printing until the 20th century, when it was displaced by industrial offset printing, more efficient for the mass production of things such as this newspaper.
Offset printing makes each copy perfectly identical, and the type leaves no tactile trace on the page. It seems like a starting point for the intangible slickness, the flattening effect, we ascribe to the computer screens that have eliminated so many artifacts from our lives.
The depth of letterpress printing's influence on printed matter is clear. For example, we still anachronistically call the space between lines of type "leading," even though strips of lead are no longer necessary to separate typeset lines. And the time-intensive process has some life in it yet, enjoying something of a comeback in recent decades.
In Durham, everything from wedding invitations to art books are letterpress printed by Shed Letterpress, Officina Briani and Empire Letterpress. And Dave Wofford can be found hand-cranking posters, books and more through the long beds of two 1960s Vandercook proof presses at Horse & Buggy Press on Foster Street—at least for now.
There are numerous reasons for the resurgence of letterpress printing. Self-publishing, a standard practice before the long, sometimes brutal reign of big publishing houses, has come back into fashion with the advent of online platforms. Letterpress lets writers make books more unique than those run off at Lulu or floating on an e-reader's screen.
For unusual books that might slip through the genre cracks at a publishing house, letterpress printing caters to exacting specifications in print runs scaled to specialized audiences. And it suits the modern trend of using artisanal techniques to restore an intimate relationship between humans and artifacts, predicated against industrial production and fast consumption.
But Wofford is no artisanal purist. He's been letterpress printing since before the modern incarnation of "hipsters" were waxing their mustaches in Brooklyn, and he freely blends old methods with cutting-edge new ones. Wofford designs the Full Frame program guide and the Duke University Press catalog every year. He creates music packaging, including a lot of Mountain Goats stuff, and he's made many beautiful poetry and art books. All of it bears the distinct sensibility of his design background.
"Hand-printing is a slow thing so I want it to be fun," he says. "I like to take a slow process and make it even slower." Combining the romantic handmade quality of the old with the ease and versatility of the new, he's like a slow foodie who also goes in for molecular gastronomy.
For the first five years of Horse & Buggy, Wofford worked predominantly with metal type, either hand-set by him or designed and then made into a monotype cast by someone else. He pulls open a drawer in his cluttered but tidy workshop to show off rows of it. But it's seldom used anymore.
Type can now be designed on a computer, emailed to a plate-maker and then returned as a photopolymer plate, which has advantages over wood or metal in durability and environmental safety. It can be washed with water rather than a toxic acid bath, and it's mounted on uniformly thick machine-milled bases that don't warp like wood.
"It's a nice advancement that combines space-age polymers with printing on a mechanical hand-cranked press," Wofford says. "I like working on projects that are entirely hand-printed, entirely machine-printed or a hybrid of the two."
Letterpress is better for text and line drawings than images, which have to be etched onto plates and printed one color at a time. So for Maji Moto: Dispatches from a Drought, a book of photography and writing by Courtney Fitzpatrick, Wofford used Indigo printing, the highest-end digital printing, for the interior pages, then wrapped them in a hand-printed cover. "Indigo printing does really well with reproducing photography for small runs, even on thick uncoated paper that feels good in the hand," Wofford says, running his palm over a page.
But sometimes lower-tech methods suit a project better. In Southern Fictions, a chapbook of sonnets by former N.C. poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer, medium and theme enrich each other. In the first sonnet, Byer angrily remembers the Confederate battle flag her father mounted in a window. Wofford collaborated with Raleigh's Ann Marie Kennedy to create handmade paper for the cover and the frontispiece, which looks like a Confederate flag faded from decades in the sun.
Though there is something special-feeling about the paper, there's no way of knowing until you get to the colophon at the end that the pulp contained cut-up Confederate flags.
Wofford is as much an artist and designer as a technician. He only prints his own designs, always working closely with his clients—whom he calls "collaborators"—to produce artifacts that mesh his sensibility with that of the project.
A new book that encapsulates Wofford's artistic and technical philosophies is Roses, a volume of Rilke translations by Durham poet David Need (see story on page 22). Containing text and drawings, the book's interior is offset printed in two colors on heavyweight eggshell-colored paper, while the cover is letterpress printed. This makes the volume feel lavish while keeping printing costs and time investment reasonable.
Wofford operates on a work-for-hire basis, but will make special arrangements when he feels especially invested in a project. This was the case with Roses, where Wofford gave Need a discounted rate in exchange for keeping a small portion of the run to sell himself.
"I was impressed by the time he'd spent translating," Wofford says, "and I thought it would be fun to do a book with the translation alongside the original. There's the element of Clare Johnson's images, and David's essay contextualizing Rilke's work was fantastic. I like the intersection of those four things—that's what I like in book design, integrating layers."
Holding Roses in your hands is a more pleasurable experience than holding a generic trade paperback, and Wofford and Need both wanted to make sure people weren't afraid to do so. Horse & Buggy caters to readers, not collectors. Roses retails for $30, about the same cost as a mass-produced hardcover.
"Some people are making $10,000 versions of Moby-Dick," Wofford says. "I'd rather sell books to people that might be buying a hand-printed book for the first time than try to get people to collect Horse & Buggy. Sometimes people want to make it substantially nicer than a regular trade edition but not so much that people can't buy it on impulse."
Wofford prints in runs of 500 to 1,000 if hand-printing is minimal and 100 to 300 if a book is entirely hand-printed. Roses was printed in an edition of 500, a graspable number that makes your copy feel precious. For such a personal project, Need never tried to find a traditional publisher, ensuring that he could control every aspect of the book.
"If you get a real publisher, they want to take the manuscript and have the writer go bye-bye," Wofford says. "That's the main reason people come to me. Also, publishers aren't going to want to put it on 80-pound paper or bind hand-printed covers with fore-edge flaps."
Horse & Buggy is now at a crossroads in its almost 20-year story.
Wofford studied design at N.C. State from 1989 to 1994. "I got tired of putting images up on walls," he says. "So I started putting my work in books; I liked the medium as a way to control content and how it comes across to the viewer."
Wofford stumbled across letterpress printing at the end of design school and, in lieu of getting an MFA, learned letterpress, bookbinding and paper-making at the Penland School of Crafts. In 1996, he moved back to Raleigh and started Horse & Buggy in Antfarm Studios with Ray Duffey, who left pursue woodworking after a few years, making Wofford the sole employee.
Wofford moved to Durham in 2003, and for a couple of years, Horse & Buggy lived in a barn rented from artist Al Frega. In 2006, bowing to the difficulty of finding small spaces in Durham, Wofford founded the Bull City Arts Collaborative co-working space with filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer, signing a nine-year lease with 401 Arts owners Scientific Properties.
A former Nash Rambler showroom, the 1,800 square foot space includes three work studios, one of which is sublet to other artists, and a foyer gallery where Wofford curates in-house and guest artist displays, open for viewing every Third Friday.
Bull City Arts Collaborative's lease runs out in April, 2015. Wofford worries that he may have to hitch up Horse & Buggy and move on to uncertain pastures.
"We've been trying unsuccessfully to get Scientific Properties to sit down and talk about a new lease since March," he says.
Gary Kueber, Scientific Properties CEO, responds, "That's just not true. My property manager talked with them about their lease yesterday. We've met with Bull City Arts Collaborative multiple times."
Wofford maintains that while Scientific Properties has communicated with him about its plans for the 401 Arts complex, he has not been able to get them to the negotiating table. Kueber confirmed for the INDY that 401 Arts is currently on the market, which may explain the uncertainty around the lease.
Wofford still hopes to sign another long-term lease in the current space. "I've greatly enjoyed running Horse & Buggy out of the Central Park District," he says. "We were excited that Scientific Properties was establishing 401 Arts here on Foster Street, and they cooperatively worked with us from the beginning to create customized work studios. We want to continue the community-minded collaborative projects that help make Durham an interesting, unique place, rather than seeing this kind of energy pushed out to the hinterlands."
Regardless, Wofford plans to continue exploring what he calls the "explosion of different paths" available to modern artisanal printers, always with the handmade quality of letterpress at the aesthetic core.
"You're trying to make it look perfect but there's always going to be a small amount of variation, which gets into concepts I like from pottery—the beauty of irregularity," he says. "Computers are great, but I don't desire to interact with them much when I'm not working. The world of books is a much more powerful, intimate, tactile way to bring forth content. Whatever I do, the common denominator is just my belief in the power of print."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pressing matter"