a press run, or, new business cards!

As promised on Sunday, this is the post about what I did this weekend.

The press shop got an e-mail last Wednesday from a grad student at MIT. He was flying out to a conference on Monday and needed business cards, and one of the administrators in his lab suggested he talk to us. Could we help him?

The short answer was, we could. (Because it was such short notice, we charged him our rush fee—$3. We’re cheap. 🙂 It’s not always the case that the printshop can do jobs that quickly, because many of our press operators are undergrads and often hosed [0], especially at this time of year (finals!), but it so happened that my housemate Matt, who’s just finishing up his master’s, and I, who am no longer a student, had a free day this past weekend and felt like doing a press run.

Since the grad student only wanted 200 cards made, and it’s a lot of work to set up and clean up the press, I decided to print business cards for myself as well, a project I’ve been sitting on for over a year now. (This is the third job I’ve done on the press—in MIT APO it takes two jobs to become a press operator, a training and a qualifying run—and this was my first without one of the journeymen—the alums who train press operators—present to help me if I got stuck, so I’m still learning a lot, and I wasn’t really confident I could do a job all on my own.)

meet the press

This is a press. A letterpress, to be specific. APO’s letterpress, in point of fact. (APO is Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed non-residential service fraternity, and while an undergrad I became a brother of Alpha Chi, the MIT chapter. Alpha Chi runs a printshop which provides printing services to the MIT community at-cost, and while an undergrad I was trained in its use and became a press operator, as was Matt. So—APO’s letterpress. And APO’s press-ops.)

APO's letterpress

What is a letterpress? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s Wikipedia on the subject, but they’re tedious, so here’s the executive summary—a letterpress’s main distinguishing features are that it’s sheet-fed, rather than using paper in continuous rolls like a modern newspaper press; it uses a mechanical process to apply ink to paper, rather than an electrostatic process like your laser printer or copy machine; and ink is applied to the type (a positive) and then the type is applied to the paper, instead of applying ink to the paper through the image (a negative), as in screen printing.

Basic letterpress anatomy: The big silvery plate you see at the top of the press in the above photo is where the ink goes; it should spread out and evenly coat the plate. The white horizontal bit not bordered in duct tape is the bed, where the paper you’re printing on goes. It will rotate to be nearly vertical when it touches the type block, which gets mounted on the vertical metal bit you can sort of see under the ink plate. You can’t see the roller, because it’s hiding at the bottom of the press. The basic mechanism of the press works like this—the roller picks up the ink from the plate at the top of their swing, spreads it across the type as it moves down, the type is pressed against the paper with the roller out of the way at the bottom, and the cycle repeats. Perceptive readers will note that this means the plate is inked twice, once on the upswing and once on the downswing.

APO’s letterpress is a circa 1922 Chandler & Price hand-fed full-size platen job press.

Chandler & Price, Cleveland, Ohio

It’s made of steel, powered by an electric motor, and weighs a few tons. Presses aren’t the kind of thing you move frequently.

What follows is a layman’s description of the process of printing—I’ve glossed over some very important steps because they’re not that interesting, and you shouldn’t actually use it as a set of instructions for how to operate a letterpress! Want to learn how to print for real? If you’re a current MIT student (undergrad or grad), you should join APO!


The process of printing anything starts with a design, scratched out on a piece of paper or, these days, prototyped on a computer, sometimes even in a real desktop publishing program. It can be challenging to fit all of the information you need to provide onto the tiny amount of paper you’re trying to print, to say nothing of making it look good. Thankfully type comes in standard heights, measured in points. (A point in metal type is approximately 1/72nd of an inch. There are twelve points to the pica and six picas to the inch. Points are still how font heights are measured in eg. your word processor, though they’ve been standardized to exactly 1/72nd of an inch in modern computer typesetting—both 12-point Garamond in Word and on APO’s press should come out to be about a third of an inch high on the printed page.)

Horizontal spacing is a little harder, because letters in most typefaces have different widths (an ‘i’ is much narrower than an ‘m’, for example), but printers standardized on using the width of the character ‘m’ to measure horizontal space, so if I know how many of my typeface’s ‘m’s wide my sheet of paper is, I can gauge how many letters I can fit on it. (In practice I tend to just eyeball these things, and do horizontal layout as I set the type.) This is what someone means when they talk about an “em-dash”, for example, or an “en-dash”—a dash as wide as the character ‘m’ or the character ‘n’, respectively. (There, I just used one (an em-dash)! And not even intentionally!)

There’s another word I’ve been using which you may not know—typeface. Where I say ‘typeface’, think ‘font’. A font is not quite a typeface in physical typesetting (here’s Wikipedia on the history and the difference), but we do tend to use them interchangeably these days, even in the press shop.


Once we have done our design, figured out roughly where we want things to go on the page and what sizes and faces of type to use, we pick the type, one letter at a time, out of type drawers like this.

a type drawer

The type is made of lead, which is a soft metal, and easy to work and cast, so it takes the fine shapes of the type beautifully. It is also very poisonous if ingested, so we wash our hands after working with it, and we don’t take food into the press shop. (Food in the press shop is just a bad idea, period. Who wants hamburger on their wedding invitations?)

After we assemble a line of type, we surround it with leading (long sheets of lead used to provide space between lines of text). Eventually we end up with a block of type. Here’s the block for my new business cards:

a block of type

The block of type is locked into a cast iron frame called a chase, secured with wooden furniture and spring-loaded quoins, and the chase is what goes into the press. Getting your block of type to lock up properly, so pressure is distributed evenly and pieces of type aren’t falling out, is one of the several parts of the printing process which is error-prone, more art than science, and can get frustrating, especially for novice printers, when you have to unlock your block for the tenth time and add more tiny metal shims to get the lines of type to line up just right.

press setup

Next the press is inked, and you run a test impression on a scrap piece of paper to make sure that your type is okay. Because lead type is so soft, if you accidentally drop a piece, or misassemble your block, or have the press mis-set, or seemingly look at the type funny, it will deform and you will no longer have a proper looking letter. Sometimes it’s minor, for example one of the serifs is missing. (Serifs are the little extra lines perpendicular to the ends of big long strokes that letters in some typefaces have.) Sometimes it’s a bigger deal—your ‘m’ looks like an ‘n’, or your ‘e’ is printing more heavily than the rest of your letters (think a single bold letter in the middle of a word), or your ‘i’ simply isn’t printing at all. When these things happen, you have to take the chase out, unlock it, and use a tweezers to replace the bad pieces of type with better ones, before locking it up again and putting it back in the press to try again. Sometimes you have to iterate several times before you get a block of type that is free from errors the average person would notice.[1]

Now you need to set the pins (seen here holding one of my business cards).

hot off the press!

The pins hold the paper you’re printing on (in this case, a blank business card) at the proper location and at the proper orientation on the bed of the press so that the text prints where you want on the page and, as always, the text is straight. The bed of the press is covered with thick scrap paper. (We like the glossy textbook covers some organization was handing out on campus some years ago, and have a big stack.) The underside of each pin slips under the piece of paper on the bed and anchors it, and then the end nearest the paper is hammered (gently!) into the bed and taped down for good measure. Solidly anchored pins are vital to not losing too many pieces to misalignment and being able to feed the press quickly. You don’t have much time to take the printed piece of paper out and put a blank piece of paper in when you’re feeding the press, and if your pins shift on you, you will often print misaligned pieces or need to disengage the bed and reset the piece in the press. Setting the pins is another of the finicky attention-to-detail moments in printing, and on Sunday Matt and I spent a good half hour or more getting the alignment right.


Once you are printing test pieces you’re happy with, you’re ready to actually feed your job. This is the part of printing you’re most likely to think of as printing, and I enjoy it a lot. Put a piece of paper in. Take a piece of paper out. Repeat. It can be frustrating while you’re still learning, as you’ll flub pieces or get ink on the bed or otherwise screw up with some frequency, but once you get decent at it you can get into a rhythm as you feed and it becomes sort of meditative. The press has a rhythm, and it will speed up as it warms up, so you learn to listen to it and give it what it needs, when it needs it, so the whole process can proceed smoothly. With business cards I care that they absolutely not get smudged, and the ink we use dries exceptionally slowly (which is a good thing, believe me!), so I put my business cards in our metal output trays and let them sit out in the shop to dry overnight.

finished cards in output trays

After I had printed everything, all that was left was to clean up the press (I make it sound so easy! it’s not), fill out the paperwork to pay APO for the business card stock I had used, and deliver the grad student’s business cards to him at his dorm (around midnight) so he had them when he left for the conference the next day. (At no extra charge!)


Here’s what my finished business cards look like!

the finished card!

My name is set in 18-point Garamond, the tagline is 10-point Garamond Italic, and the web site and e-mail address are 12-point Garamond.

I set the type last fall, before I dropped the Electrical Engineering half of my major, so the tagline, “hacker, hardware and software,” is a bit more aspirational than I’d like, but I didn’t feel like resetting it and couldn’t come up with something better on the spot. To explain: at some point late last year I looked around and realized that my friends who had jobs in computer science seemed generally happier than my friends who had jobs in electrical engineering, and realized that if my electrical engineering classes were making me unhappy and seemed unlikely to lead to happiness in the future, maybe I should drop the EE half of my major and focus on CS. Yes, it took me six years to realize this. Some dreams die harder than others, and I can be stubborn to a fault, a trait I’m sure my relatives will recognize. The family resemblance is strong, and it’s a trait that has often served us in good stead. I can’t say it hurt me—it got me through MIT, after all! I’m still fascinated by hardware, know enough to be dangerous, and want to learn more, I just don’t really ever have cause to need to know the details of silicon doping. 🙂

I’m very happy with my business cards, and I’m happy to be able to say that I set and printed them myself on a nearly-century-old piece of technology. I’ve got a few other projects I’d like to try with the press, linoleum block printing being the next big one. And, of course, if you need business cards, or wedding invites, or something else it’s within our capabilities to do (full-color photographs are Right Out); you’re okay with an often-long and always high-variance turnaround time; and you would like whatever it is made on a letterpress—you should talk to us!

[0]^ hosed. MIT slang. “adj. (1) Bogged down with work, when referring to a person. (2) Bogged down with packets, when referring to the network.” —How to Get Around MIT 2006-2007, p.363. Compare general hacker usage, “Getting an Education from MIT is like taking a drink from a Fire Hose.”
[1]^ As with cue dots and movie projectionists, once you have started printing you will likely start to notice printing issues everywhere.