Until last week, I had seen no one doing letterpress printing for, what, getting on for forty years? But then, I went to an interesting event (so interesting, in fact, it was actually called “Interesting”) where, sandwiched amongst a dozen other talks on miscellaneous subjects, Nick Hand spoke about and demonstrated his “printing bike”. The bicycle itself doesn’t actually print anything, of course. It’s a cargo bike he’s had built to carry a small Adana hand-operated printing press. That’s something else I hadn’t seen for a long time – they used to be advertised as a hobby item in a weekly rag called ‘Exchange and Mart’. He rides the bike around the country (and Europe) and gives talks and demonstrations in libraries and other venues.
It took me back to my youth, and my early and brief involvement with printing and graphic arts when I was still a teenager. A time of my life I had effectively forgotten. I’d never have expected that the sight of a little manual printing machine would bring the memories flooding back.
Essentially, a board or plate is made up from inverse (back-to-front) letters, ink is rolled over that, and it is then applied to a sheet of paper. Nimble-fingered typesetters selected the letters they needed in the right sizes from trays, assembling them in the right order to create a printing plate. Photographs were added using metal plates etched with acid. In the nineteenth century, “hot metal” technology enabled high volume printing. Manual typesetting didn’t die out, though, with a dwindling number of experts still typesetting posters, flyers and newsletters and printing them on low-volume manual or semi-manual presses.
Finding inspiration at the Raglan Press
It was the start of the school summer holidays, and I’d volunteered to pick up a pile of posters for the Lowestoft Carnival, an annual event that somehow I’d already been involved in for a few years. I arrived to be told they weren’t ready, and so I passed an hour or two watching the proprietor, Mr Sparham, creating the board of letters and then printing them.
Sparham was a reserved, but nonetheless friendly and avuncular character. His premises were not exactly derelict, but they definitely felt ancient, very dark inside, with chaotic arrays of trays of letters, tins of ink and tattered copies of things printed many years earlier. Posters for events held years before I was born. To my young eyes, Mr Sparham looked like a Methuselah bent over his trays, picking and assembling letters with amazing dexterity and speed. I remember feeling fascinated and horrified at the same time.
Fascinated to watch a master of his trade at work, all alone, in Dickensian surroundings.
Horrified that this was how things got printed in the late 20th century.
I’d been studying computer programming in the previous year (I think my school, Sir John Leman at Beccles, was the first in East Anglia to teach it, and I loved programming – but that’s another long story in itself!). Even though getting a program into a computer involved going to Norwich City College and punching a huge stack of cards, hardly an automated process, typesetting just struck me as an antiquated art.
Surely there must be something more advanced than this? I thought.
Discovering offset litho printing
A few weeks later, on a visit to London, I was walking down Fleet Street when I saw a sandwich board advertising “the most affordable and advanced instant printing in London” (or something like that). The print shop itself was, somewhat incongruously, on the ground floor of a beautiful old timbered building. I think it was the word “instant” that grabbed my attention. It had to be different to the letterpress method I had seen at the Raglan Press.
I had nothing to print, of course, but couldn’t resist going in out of curiosity. I suppose they weren’t busy, as they enthusiastically spent quite a long time explaining to my 16-year-old self the wonders of offset litho printing. Lithography itself wasn’t new, but its application to bulk printing was recent, and I was told that the printing machines they had, busy churning out A4 pages, were the latest Big Thing. The “affordable” meant that short runs of a few hundred pages could be printed much more cheaply than Xerox photocopying, also in its infancy in those days.
The methodology of offset litho was completely different to letterpress. Think of it as similar to photocopying, in that one prepares a sheet with text and pictures laid out exactly as it needs to be printed. The text had to be solid black, so that meant typing it on an electric typewriter with a carbon ribbon. Headings were prepared using Letraset, dry transfer lettering, which I’ll explain later. Drawings and photographs could simply be stuck in place. It was the original WYSIWYG, ‘What you see is what you get’. The printers had a machine like a copier that pushed out a sheet of foil with the reverse image, which was put into the printer itself. I found the process fascinating, but left not expecting ever to come across it again.
Back to school with a new hobby
Back at school for the autumn term, I somehow became editor of the school magazine called Dolphin. For time immemorial, that had been produced using a Gestetner duplicator, which took typed stencils. The raw stencil comprised a thin waxy tissue paper membrane on a thicker paper base. You put it in a typewriter and typed what you wanted to be printed. If you made a mistake, you corrected it with a fluid identical to nail varnish, then overtyped the correct symbol! You had to be quite confident that what you wanted could fit on the page, and in the right place, which usually meant having to type it at least twice, once on paper to test, then onto the stencils. Those were expensive, so couldn’t be wasted. I’d learnt to touch-type in evening classes at Lowestoft Tech the previous year, so, coupled with my natural clumsiness, I quickly discovered the shortcomings of stencil duplication at first hand.
The only way one could make a page of the magazine more exciting was to print it on different coloured paper. Ah, I thought, this is a great opportunity to exploit offset litho printing and introduce it to Beccles! It was indeed new; there were no offset litho printers that I could find in Beccles, Lowestoft, or even in Norwich, the nearest major city. My teachers must have been very indulgent to me, or I must have been very convincing, telling them of the benefit to the Art department (who could now add pictures), as I was allowed to go ahead with this exciting plan. So fellow pupils, a teacher or two, and I typed and drew and glued bits of paper together to create each page of the new-look Dolphin. I discovered Letraset could be bought in Lowestoft – my local crafts shop, Parrs, kept a few sheets in stock – and I taught myself to make headings, reading up in the library about fonts and kerning and layout. A month or so later, armed with artwork, I headed for my instant printing friends in Fleet Street, and returned with copies of the finished magazine.
I was (and am) no artist (but I have a sister who is a pro) but the exercise of producing the magazine kindled in me a new love of graphics and typefaces.
Starting my first business
So I decided to go into business with it! In the spring of 1971, I started a free advertising-based newssheet for Beccles. It was just a folded single sheet, delivered door-to-door by a friend and I. I can no longer recall the details, but I found local businesses prepared to pay just enough to cover the cost of printing. Probably just a pound per advert. It only kept going for a few issues, but it added to my experience and knowledge.
Over the first half of 1971, without neglecting my studies, I became sufficiently proficient in Letraset that I was foolhardy enough to enter their “Letrasetter of the Year” competition. That proved a humbling experience, finding out how many thousands were so much better at it than I was. I also discovered how to create really big letters for signs with a sticky plastic material called Fascal and a scalpel.
My A-levels finished in June, and I had three months before going to university. I could probably have spent it helping in the DIY shop where I had happily worked most Saturdays since I was 13, but I wanted a new challenge. I cycled down to Raglan Street to see Mr Sparham, told him all about the offset litho printing that I’d had done at school and for my newsletter, and cheekily asked him if I could set up my business in an unused corner of his workshop. DASCO Arts was born!
Over the ensuing two or three months, I produced restaurant menus, shop fascias and leaflets, mostly for the owners of small businesses in Lowestoft who I’d met through my involvement with the carnival. I doubt the quality was good, but the prices were low, and the customers seemed happy. I don’t suppose I made much pocket money, but it kept me thoroughly entertained. I liked being at the Raglan Press. It made me feel like I was really in business, rather than a juvenile inventing his own summer vac job. Mr Sparham kept looking over my shoulder, frequently making useful comments, and I could go and watch him work when I wasn’t busy with my own stuff.
And then my brief foray into graphic arts and printing ended. I left for university in London, never to return to Lowestoft to live, as my parents moved away at the same time. But I took what I had learnt about graphic arts and offset litho printing with me. When, a year later, I took on the role of editor of Felix, the Imperial College student union newspaper, and Sennet, the newspaper of the University of London Union, I quickly had them both transitioned from hot metal letterpress printing to web-offset litho. My fellow student journalists were happy because they liked putting together the page exactly as it would be printed, rather than rough layouts to be moved about by printers, and the union was happy because the new technology saved money.
After that, I was never again directly involved with printing or graphic arts. Now, though, I can now look back and appreciate how the skills I gained over those couple of years made an incredibly useful contribution to my subsequent business life. I suppose I even helped accelerate the adoption of new printing technology in my home town. And it was listening to Nick enthusiastically talk about his travels with that little printing machine that made me think back to my own experiences and, perhaps for the first time, properly appreciate the inspiration and practical support I got from Mr Sparham at the Raglan Press.
Author’s note: the facts in this article are correct to the best of my recollection, but it was a long time ago, and it’s quite possible that a contemporary reader will spot something that I’ve got wrong – if so, please tell me via the comments section below, or get in touch with me using one of the links on my contact page.