I wanted to create a Christmas card this year. Homemade. Handmade. Something special and personal. I remembered our letterpress (a Showcard Machine, model 7-11; it’ll handle 7×11″ print work), and that I still had a couple 2×3″ linoleum blocks.

So, in my foolish spontaneity, I took on the task of creating a carved and pressed card to give out this year. (Keep in mind, a press project can often take just a little longer than freakish-long; enjoyable, but time consuming.)

The first step was to come up with the design and layout of the card. I wanted to focus on the message, then build the art from them. Leaving out a lot of details of my thought processes here, I tried to focus on an image of the birth of Jesus from an African perspective. I found such an image and sketched this out (see left; click for a larger view) based on a Kenyan representation of the nativity. I found it simple, focused, and impressive.

The next step was to take the image, draw it onto the linoleum block, and start carving away. The block came mounted onto the cork board; very convenient. Three days later (yeah! 3 days) I finished. Click here for the final product. If you’ve never tried doing a lino cut, it can be very fulfilling and challenging. Once you get the hang of the carving tool (in my case it’s the red Speedball in the picture), you’ll think you can carve Picassos out of those things.

With the carving done, I was ready to bring out the press (click for a pic). Just because it’s a table top doesn’t mean it’s not heavy. Make no mistake: that sucker will not ask your permission before amputating your foot if it slips out of your hands.

On to the typography. I knew what I wanted to say on the card. I grabbed up the letters I needed, arranged the words on a metal plate, and set them aside. And this is precisely what will happen when you set your type a little too close to a two-year-old cookie monster: doom and gloom. For some reason, he was all smiles.

I rearranged the type and was ready for layout. As you can see in the image, I started by placing the type on the left and carving on the right. When printed, the image would be reversed. For now I wasn’t worried about word spacing or precise position. I needed to feel out the design, see if it’s what I wanted. It wasn’t, of course, so I did some rearranging. I ended up with the text on the right, image on the left…on the press that is. You can see that one here. If you want to see some closeups, have a look at these: a, b, c, and the important tiny tool in my arsenal: copper thin spaces.

Next up is locking in the layout. I grabbed my wood spacers and began the puzzle. If you’ve never done letterpress layouts, it’s like completing a puzzle that has no real end. There is no right answer, but there are innumerable wrong ones. You just have to keep putting in spacers, and moving things around, trial and error, until everything fits tightly. Have to keep checking the sorts (the individual letters) and the spacers to make sure nothing is wiggly. Here’s a couple shots of that: midway and finished.

When I was happy with the setup, I brought out the ink. I had two plates, two rollers, and my wife picked out purple and gold for the colors. Excellent choice. I ran a few test prints (click here for a look) to make sure everything was working: position, color, no movement of the type, no movement by the art, and proper impression of the art. I could tell the purple was going on too heavy, so I had to remedy that. I noticed the layout had to be moved about one inch to the right in the press. And it was obvious the linoleum block was not set tall enough; the paper was not able to reach the inked surface. So, when I moved the layout down (another pic), I took the chance to add some paper underneath the linoleum block, lifting it up. I ran some more trials, made a couple minor adjustments, and was finally happy. Here’s that pic.

Excellent! I printed up about 70, and called it a day.