St Botolph’s Letterpress teaches us to typeset

On Wednesday night, Rob and I were invited along to The Waiting Room in Colchester by Paul of St Botolph’s Letterpress to try our hand at typesetting. Wednesdays at The Waiting Room are Maker Wednesdays, with a range of open-access creative events taking place: Food Fight, Stitch & Bitch, Dorkbot, even floristry, and also a regular Letterpress Takeover. Each fourth Wednesday of the month, Rob and I also run Books (at) The Waiting Room, a sort of free community library, and this was a chance to combine the two projects by creating a design for a bookmark.

Paul suggested it would be fun to create a bookmark, as we hold Books (at) The Waiting Room at the same time as Letterpress Takeovers. Rob and I pop along to The Waiting Room and provide book recommendations to anyone who’d like to come in and chat with us. We also have three shelves of books which stay in The Waiting Room, for people to read, borrow and generally share. The bookmarks have information about the project, its twitter handle (@booksatWR) and the website, and will hopefully encourage people to share their thoughts about what they’ve read. Of course, all books were once created by hand-setting moveable type, so this was a brilliant chance to get a insight into a really significant creative process.

Neither Rob or I had ever had a go at typesetting before, and we were both amazed by the range of typefaces and the intricacy of creating even a small piece to be printed using a letterpress. There is a large press, a Cropper & Charlton ‘Acme’ press, however we were hand-setting the movable type to be printed onto a bookmark on the smaller Adana press. With excellent guidance from Paul, and Rob from Typoretum, we chose our typefaces, initially going for Albertus 24pt for the title line – Books (at) The Waiting Room – and Gill Sans 18pt for the three lines underneath.

Rob begins the first line of type
Rob begins the first line of type

The sizes of the individual characters relate to each other mathematically, so you can work out how much space your text (and spaces) will take up, depending on the typeface. As beginners, we were working more by eye! Our first estimate of how much space our section would take was a little small…

No room for 'Room'!
No room for ‘Room’

Our first line is set in Albertus 24pt – I really love the style of the lettering!

First line complete!
First line complete

Paul has created the Letterpress workshop at The Waiting Room based on donations and help from volunteers (find out more here) which means that, while he’s built up an impressive range of typefaces and two presses already, he doesn’t have an exhaustive collection just yet. After a little while, we found ourselves literally ‘out of sorts’.

A box of sorted type - one of many!
A box of sorted type – one of many!

We discovered, after setting the second line, that we were short on ‘t’s in Gill Sans 18pt, switched to Gill Italic for line 3, then realised there were no ‘p’s and switched again to Gill Bold 12pt for the final line of text. It does mean we have a different font for each line, but it looks fun, and, as Rob pointed out, it creates a hierarchy of information in the text block, with the title in the largest size, then instructions, and finally the website. We decided to improvise, using (at) to stand in for @ – I really like the look that it creates! Here’s our finished section…

Our section of the bookmark
Our section of the bookmark

While we were busy steadily putting together our four lines, Rob kindly put together the paragraph of text in 8pt, which was incredibly delicate. Paul and Rob then put the two sections together into a plate (I think?) that will be used to print to create bookmarks on Wednesday 28th January, at this month’s Letterpress Takeover. Here’s the finished piece:

Typesetting complete
Typesetting complete

The bookmarks will be printed at the Letterpress Takeover on Wednesday 28th January, and Rob and I will also be there. Anyone can have a go at printing a bookmark – we certainly will be – on the smaller Adana press. The Facebook event with all the details is here – we’d love you to come along if you’re free and in the area. You can even get pick up a book and get some recommendations from us while you’re there.

If you’d like to know more about St Botolph’s Letterpress, you can read about them on The Waiting Room website where you can also sign up to their newsletter, like their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter to keep to date with all their news.

Thanks so much to Paul, and also to Rob from Typoretum, for their help and guidance!


In reply to my request for any corrections, here’s the proper way to describing how the pieces were put together, from Paul:

Pretty spot on until the end – the completed sections got put into a Chase, locked up with Quoins, and the complete thing (type, spacing, furniture, quoins) is called a Forme, which then got stored on a Galley. Printing has a lot of jargon 🙂

Well, I’m happy with that – thanks for the clarification, Paul!

2 thoughts on “St Botolph’s Letterpress teaches us to typeset

    • Adventures With Words says:

      It was really fascinating. We’re lucky that Paul and the St Botolph’s Letterpress are just nearby and that Paul’s happy to teach people the basics, as he’d like more people to be involved. I’d recommend anyone who’s interested in books and making to see if there’s somewhere nearby to give it a try! – Kate

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