Thee Hellbox Press

Private Press of Book Artist, Hugh Barclay

About Letterpress

A close-up of letterpress text

Documents printed by letterpress require that type be set. This is accomplished mostly by setting individual pieces of lead type in a composing stick as was done since the time of Guttenberg. The stick is called a composing stick, because that was the place where composing normally occurred. In the early twentieth century, linotype machines were developed and came into popular use. Using a keyboard, an operator could set lines of type in much less time than a typesetter could handset the same amount. Many newspapers and monthly publications were set using a linotype machine until the early sixties. By the end of the sixties, type setting and linotype had been replaced by offset printing – a process that reduced production times by even higher margins.


During the sixties and seventies, a few dedicated individuals who had work experience in the printing trades bought small printing presses and type faces from printers who were switching to offset. These individuals valued the aesthetical appeal of letterpress, typefaces and distinctive design on quality paper. The Canadian Guild of Hand Printers was formed in Toronto and consisted of five or six very skilled individuals who published Wrongfount, a light-hearted publication to which each printer contributed a piece. Others, such as block printers, poets, and artists, acquired presses and spread the movement. There are now probably some 75 letterpress presses from coast to coast; however, only a very few are actively publishing books.


Because the type makes an impression on the paper, one can identify letterpress by running a finger down the page and feeling the impression of the type. Furthermore, letterpress uses ligatures (joined lowercase letters) such as fi ff fl ffi ffl and ct. Setting type is a very time-consuming activity, and quality papers and inks are relatively expensive. These aspects, combined with the small number of editions produced, tend to drive the cost of letterpress books up. When one perceives artfully designed books printed on acid-free stock as an art form as well as a text, the high cost becomes justified. In reality, no one producing books of high quality is doing it for financial gain, but more for the joy of creating an art form for meaningful text. Victor Coleman probably sums up what most private press printers think when he wrote a piece concerning the unwavering position of the Coach House Press in Wrongfount 8 1972: “Coach House is a canker on the tongue of Mammon; a song amidst the divers small internal combustions in a great dying community; a possibility of freedom in the prisons of our minds.” Quoting from a Japanese aphorism that applies to letterpress printing, “Things of excellence shall not die.”

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