Lead Type – Studio Move, Day 1

The last couple of days have been a whirlwind! Before I start to tell the story, I want to give a little context. If you just want the story of moving half a ton of lead, skip to the picture of the type cases…

When I posted these pictures on Facebook, a good friend reminded me that just a month ago I had said I would not become one of those crazy lead-collecting letterpress printers. Well, things change. I was already crazy. And now I collect lead type.

Since the middle of November I’ve been practicing letterpress printing and test marketing lines of merchandise at the Holiday Market in Eugene. It has given me the important experience that I needed in order to see the next steps toward developing a letterpress business. One of the things that happened during this time was that the only company that supplier the polymer plates that I use for my images had a glitch in their supply chain. I had to drop two whole product lines from my production plans because I just could not get the materials to keep printing. This, coupled with the expense of these plates, makes my business fairly fragile. What if this had happened right before a run of lucrative, time-sensitive jobs? You can trust that I will be storing up that polymer product when it becomes available, but I want more resilience than that.


I used my time in Eugene to test all kinds of things related to printing. In an attempt to buffer against polymer shortages without “resorting” to lead, I tried having a friend carve linoleum with a laser. The results were shockingly good, at first. After a few dozen impressions, the linoleum started getting mushy. After a few hundred, the type just broke apart. This is not acceptable. Even at its best, the linoleum type could only render larger type sizes. Clearly, something harder than linoleum would be a much better answer.

There is another fantastic technology which adds weeks of lead time and many dollars to the job – custom metal dies. They solve many of the problems of polymer and lino, but add weeks of time and potentially hundreds of dollars to the cost of a job. There are time when I will use them, but not for quick, less expensive jobs.

[Laser-carved Linoleum vs. Lead]

Then, I started thinking about the big picture. Lead type is very versatile. I could typeset and print a set of business cards in half a day. This brings the cost down to what normal people can afford, and increases the number of customers that I can please. With the decision made, I contacted a woman who had approached me at the Holiday Market about buying her entire letterpress studio. I had initially said no because I wasn’t interested in all of that type. When I changed my mind about the type, I called her up and she made me one unbelievable deal with one caveat. I could have the stuff for an incredible price if I would take it ALL.

 
[Two of the three cases]
 
[Closeup of the third case]

I quickly agreed. When I arrived and started moving things around, it quickly became clear that I had taken on a HUGE project. Some of these cases only contain 5-10 pounds of lead, but some of them are back-breakingly heavy.

 
[A “light” type case]
 
[Ornaments are heavy!]

There are so many amazing things to discover that I think I’ll be exploring these cases for years before I really understand what I’ve inherited.

 
[Calendar font]

She had previously moved these cases several times in the past, most notably from Texas to Oregon. She highly recommended wrapping each case separately so that bumps in the road don’t cause letters to jump from one slot to another. (NIGHTMARE!) Her husband and I did exactly as she said and it took several hours.

 
[Wrapping one of 72 cases.]

(My sinewy forearms in that photo give a little idea of how much work it was to lift and manipulate these cases, one at a time, all afternoon.)

[Most of the cases are ready to go.]

In the end, though, we had stacks and stacks of cases, ready to go.

 
[Into the van!]

We plotted and strategized how to get everything into the van and very stable while keeping it at the lowest possible center of gravity.

 
[All packed!]

And, that was the first trip. There is still another trip scheduled for Friday to get the cabinet top, two more cases of lead spacing material, a table-mounted lead saw, and, by means yet to be determined, a massive paper cutter.