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Stepping back in time: Hand-set type and motor-free press add a bit to letterpress printing

Holding the hand-set type form for his 2013 Christmas card, Rick von Holdt stands amid his letterpress printing samples, and behind his favorite letterpress printing press.
Holding the hand-set type form for his 2013 Christmas card, Rick von Holdt stands amid his letterpress printing samples, and behind his favorite letterpress printing press.
This drawer filled with decorative type blocks is one of hundreds in von Holdt’s collection.
This drawer filled with decorative type blocks is one of hundreds in von Holdt’s collection.

Rick von Holdt traded a gum-ball machine for his first letterpress printing press. It came with a few cases of type.

“It was the mid-1970s and letterpress printing had given up the ghost to offset printing and phototype, the precursor of digital type,” von Holdt says. At the time, printers were unloading the space-eating fonts and storage drawers. “I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, and I got a lot of type from some of the better print shops in the city.”

In 1983, von Holdt moved to Iowa with a trailer-load of letterpress equipment, including letters and symbols for about 300 fonts. “When I started collecting, I thought if I got one complete cabinet with 25 cases, I’d be happy,” he says. “When I moved here, I found the upper Midwest to be a goldmine of type.” Now there are more than 2,000 fonts in von Holdt’s Foolproof Press font collection.

Von Holdt picked up a little here and a little there from print shops throughout the heartland. A list details every font and its place in the vast collection. “But if I can remember the name of the font, I can walk right up to it,” he says of his shop’s organization.

“I do everything by hand; there is no motor on any of my presses,” von Holdt says. “I prefer to do it slowly.” And it is a lucky thing. With letterpress, communication is dictated by thought and space, and also by the number of letters in the font collection. “If you have a headline with four of the letter A and you have only three, then you rewrite,” he says, giving real meaning to the term ‘write to fit.’

After painstakingly hand-setting each letter, von Holdt puts the type form in the press. Then he hand-inks the form and feeds one sheet of paper, using exactly the right amount of pressure to run it through the press. The result is a message imprinted on thick, cushy paper. “I can print three pieces a minute,” he says. “People are fascinated, but it is not a time-efficient way to print.” The process of letterpress printing is much the same as in the mid-1400s, when Gutenberg’s first book rolled off the first such press. But one thing is vastly different, and that is the bite. “A letterpress uses a raised surface. You ink the top of that surface and press the paper against it,” von Holdt explains. A digital image, on the other hand, basically spits an image on a flat surface. “If you use a thicker paper with some texture, you can bury that type to a degree right into the paper. Not to show through on the other side, just enough to make a little ‘bite’.”

Of course, it is only the young sprouts that use the bite. “Older printers were taught never to bury the type,” von Holdt says. “They were trained to give the paper a ‘kiss’ impression, to reduce resistance and wear on the type.” Rick von Holdt’s Foolproof Press is housed at his home, just south of Perry. You can see his work at Mary Rose, 1215 Warford in Perry; maryrosecollection.com. Or keep an eye out for local posters such as those for fire department fundraisers. “I like to print posters,” von Holdt says. “With 25 or so, you can pretty much plaster Dallas County.”

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