It is tempting to situate modern letterpress printing in opposition to digital technology. While printing moveable type was once the most efficient way to print text, today it is much cheaper and easier to print text digitally. However, artists began using letterpress printing in their creative work, to exploit the processes subtle and humanistic qualities. Letterpress connoisseurs are often interested in the embossment that moveable type creates on the paper that it is printed on and the quality of oil based inks. These are unique effects since most people are only used to handling images and text that are printed using planographic processes, or interacting with images on a flat screen. But while in some situations digital technologies have replaced the need for letterpress printing, in other instances digital processes can be used to help reinvent movable type and ensure continued innovation within the field of letterpress printing.
For example, many artists and designers have began looking at the possibility of using 3D printing to create moveable type. 3D printing is a process that works by printing two dimensional images using a material such as plastic to give the image thickness. The printer then moves vertically and prints another two dimensional layer onto the layer that was previously created to build up another layer and create vertical depth. The printer continues this process until the whole three dimensional object is built. This process is ideal for creating movable type because it can print letters very precisely and make them exactly type high. Furthermore, there are a variety of materials that can be 3D printed. Therefore, designers can experiment with which materials hold and transfer ink best. Finally, it is possible to control the pattern in which a 3D printer lays down material, which effects the texture of type face, and ultimately the impressions that it leaves. These are all qualities that designers can manipulate to create new typefaces that have different qualities than traditional woodblock type.
A23D is a 3D printed font that was created in collaboration by New North Press, A2-type and Chalk Studios. The type was fabricated by using a printer that printed photopolymer plastic and then cured the material with uv light as it was printed. Photopolymer is a material that is familiar to most letterpress printers, and is ideal for creating type because it transfers ink well and stands up to many impressions. The design of the type is reminiscent of a wireframe that it is used to display 3D objects in 3D modeling programs such as Rhino and Maya. Therefore, A23D is a typeface that “merges the newest and oldest forms of printing.” Visually and technically it is a typeface that is unique to the current era, but it is printed onto paper using a centuries old process.
Futhermore, Peter Bella, a professor at Purdue University, and Caleb Fairres created the 3D printed typeface Fusion800. The used free Tinkercad software to create their design, and printed with PLA on one of the more inexpensive models of 3D printers in order to use a process that would be more inexpensive and accessible to others and that could be built upon and expanded by others. Bella writes, “This moveable type exploration embraces the 3D printer as a machine to create a typeface never intended to meet the standards of perfection, but to embody the inherent artistic and humanistic aesthetics of the machine by pushing technology to its limits and discovering how human a 3D printed movable typeface can become.”
There is a lot excitement around how 3D printing can be used to create new moveable typefaces, and create continued innovation within the centuries old craft of letterpress.