Kevin Tong Illustration Kevin Tong Illustration

Aardvark- Letterpress and Typography Studio

On a lovely Wednesday afternoon, I paid a trip to Aardvark Letterpress on 2500 West 7th St, in Los Angeles. I went for two reasons, I wanted to look into letterpress prints of my own art and I also wanted to learn about what letterpress was, as it had remained a mystery to me until recently.

I want to share with you my experience, a basic run through of what letterpress is (from a layman), and how Aardvark has fit into all this for over half a century. In conclusion, I want to impart the importance of the survival of old school printing.

The shop is filled with all sorts of antiquated and seemingly complex (to me) machinery that could be adjusted to hairline settings. Every other available space was occupied by inks, metal type, paper, and devices I can’t explain.

Brooks, the man who runs the establishment, was kind enough to sit down with me, despite their insane deadlines and workload, to access my project and explain the finer points of letterpress printing with me.

To explain it briefly, letterpress uses magnesium engraved plates to both print and impress the image into the paper. Extremely specialized machines (Chandler and Price Co) are used to set the registration for multiple colors and to apply the extreme and even pressure required.

I sincerely enjoyed talking shop and he was interested in my experiences as a screen printer and poster artist. My trip was very educational as I am a self proclaimed print fetishist. I couldn’t describe the feeling I get when I run my fingers over a freshly printed and cut print. I love the smell of paper stacks and I put ink in my coffee. Give me registration or give me death I say.

Lots of people all over the world can offer letterpress services, but Aardvark offers something very special. Luis Ocon established Aardvark in 1968 and his sons Brooks and Cary have taken the reins. Brooks himself has been steadily working the business for the last 21 years. He and I could talk shop forever, but you can’t simulate the expertise gained for two decades of hard work. They do all the printing in house, so the work speaks for itself.

Aardvark still uses movable type cast metal sorts, sorting sticks, and slugs.

Aardvark still uses movable type cast metal sorts, sorting sticks, and slugs.

I have never done typesetting with movable type, I am a youth raised in the era of digital desktop publishing, using vector programs like Adobe Illustrator to set the attributes of my typography. My father gave me some of his graphic design college text books which dealt with that (they were published before readily available computers). That began my fascination with the “old school”. I took some classes in college that taught me a little more, but this was my first experience being immersed in it.

Certainly, digital “typesetting” is faster and easier, but there is a special look to analog created typography that you just can’t quite nail the feeling of with Adobe. The spacing, the counters, the serifs, the leading (a term carried into the digital world from the ancient realm of printing), the thicks and thins, everything has a special look to it that I can ever seem to describe. Wait, I can- epic, breathtaking.

In summation, I urge you all to consider real printers for your business (products, identity, promos) and/or personal (photo albums, wedding invites, holiday cards) not Kinkos, not Staples.
In order for printers like Aardvark to do what they do, to maintenance their own machines, to breaks backs bracing trays of metal type, they must to have a burning passion for print. There are easier ways to earn a buck. Despite the relief from the aches and sores, I still don’t totally want other people to screen print me posters.

They do it because they love getting in the mix of things and their pay is handing you your project and watching as you take it in, oozing wonder. No copy shop clerk can care and wield the experience like these heroes of print do everyday. Even if Joe Kinkos could, his end result is laughably paper thin (pun intended) because process printing pales in comparison to the time tested marvel of solid color printing. When held up side by side, the digital print is flat and lifeless, easily discarded.

Of course, it would be silly to have Aardvark or a screen printer print invoice forms for you, that is what the copy shop is for, I am talking about the important things, personal things. If you go that extra step, you will get something that will last, be unique, and made just for you. Bringing it back, always.

I hope you found this informative. Please don’t hesitate to contact Aardvark with questions if you are considering letterpress for a project.

Please consult these sites for more information:

Aardvark, History, Services Offered, and General Info
Letter Press Printing
Letter Press Community Info and Involvement
Movable Typesetting
History of Printing
Letter Press Mania, a Great Flickr Group
Collection of Letter Press Related Photos

My Flickr Photo Set With More Pictures of Aardvark Letter Press

Finally, here is a great video that says everything I have said, but from an expert’s point of view.

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  • Alan D.

    August 13, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Kevin, thanks very much for sharing this info. The casting machine in the video is insane!

    I thought you might like to take a look at Yee-Haw Industries if you haven’t had come across them before They take a less strict look at letterpress and use lots of different fonts and create woodcut illustrations for their work. Very different take, just as beautiful.

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