Getting into the fine print

Report and pictures by: 
Phyllicia Wang

It dates back several centuries.
But letterpress printing — a printing technique where reusable letters are inked and then rolled or pressed onto paper to form an impression — is seeing a small revival here, thanks to a small group of young entrepreneurs.
Compared to offset printing, which uses an automated process to churn out printed materials, letterpress printing is slow and messy and it requires a lot of elbow grease because the machine has to be manually set up for each print run.
But that is exactly why it appeals to enthusiasts like Ms Jacqueline Goh, founder of The Fingersmith Letterpress.
She said: “I love working with my hands. Also, I am actually quite old school. I don’t really enjoy using technology and I miss the days when technology wasn’t driving us all. I wish things would slow down.”
Letterpress aficionados also prefer this technique for its raw quality, tactile finishes and effects such as embossing, where raised impressions of letters and patterns are made on the paper.
Ms Goh, 27, bought her first letterpress machine, which weighs a tonne, for about $6,000 in 2013. She got interested in the art after attending a lecture on it in 2011 when she was studying at Lasalle College of the Arts.
“Letterpress feeds that old soul in me and gives me gratification that I won’t get if I were, say, a graphic designer working on the computer all day long,” said Ms Goh.
Her orders mostly come from expatriate couples who want hand-lettered or illustration-based wedding invitations.
Another enthusiast who also has her own printing studio is Ms Michelle Yu, who started The Gentlemen’s Press in 2011.
Said Ms Yu, 26: “I fell in love with it because of the therapeutic printing process and also, it brings out the value of my artwork.
“I always think designs that designers put hours in deserve a better treatment than just being sent through a digital printer.
“With letterpress, you can actually feel the tactility of the print and it brings out the beauty of both the paper and the artwork.”
Enthusiasts like Mr Sun Yao Yu, 33, hope to raise awareness about this art form.
Mr Sun, who set up Typesettingsg in 2014 with this aim in mind, said: “As traditional letterpress is a fundamental of graphic design and typography, there is a growing interest among the design community.”
He conducts about three letterpress printing courses a month.
Still, some like Ms Goh, who have turned a hobby into a career, say they remain realistic about letterpress printing going mainstream any time soon.
She said: “I would say more Singaporeans are starting to know about the craft as they are more well-travelled.
“That said, I do not foresee the number of letterpress operators increasing exponentially. It’s probably not considered a stable job for most Singaporeans.”
Ms Goh said she can earn up to $2,500 a month, but in some months, she may not earn anything.
Mr Aervin Tan, 27, director of Print City, agreed, adding that modern print shops are likely to remain the mainstay for most printing needs here.
He said: “Letterpress printing shops will find it hard to compete in Singapore’s high-speed and cut-throat print marketplace.
“You have offset printers pumping out large quantities at a fraction of the cost. You have digital printers producing high-quality prints for clients who require a fast turnaround time.
“However, there’s no doubt that letterpress printing shops will still thrive because there are customers who like the art form for its imperfection, personal appeal and craftsmanship.”