The art of fine printing


  • Focus
  • Sunday, 06 Nov 2016

M. Azhar Arif/The Star

Letterpress printing should have gone the way of gramaphones and typewriters with the advent of the digital age. But the craftsmanship and tactile feel of letterpress products can’t be denied, and that’s why a group of young people at The Alphabet Press have dedicated themselves to this old-fashioned business. DAVID TAN reports.

THE Alphabet Press (TAP), a company specialising in traditional letterpressed products like wedding cards, corporate stationery and calendars, is targeting some 20% to 30% growth in its customised products in 2017.

Founder and brand strategist Cliff Leong Kok Kit says his company’s annual output is about 100,000 cards.

“A 20% to 30% increase would translate to a 5% to 10% growth for the 2017 revenue, which is projected to be about RM400,000 for 2016,” he says.

According to Leong, there is growing consciousness in the business and social world on the need to create a good and lasting first impression with their name cards.

“They believe that handing out a proper card speaks to the style and taste of their personality or brand identity,” he explains.

Leong and art director Fidella Ch’ng recall TAP’s beginning in 2013.

Wong adjusting the paper feeding mechanism on the letterpress machine.
Wong adjusting the paper feeding mechanism on the letterpress machine.

“It started as a wish to make letterpress name cards, but after going to a number of old printer businesses, we realised that nobody was doing it. Then we found a letterpress workshop in Australia and signed up to learn more about it,” Leong relates.

“When we got back, we searched and eventually found an elderly man who wanted to retire and let go off his letterpress machine. He did not want to sell us the machine initially, as he could not believe youngsters were interested in such old technology,” he adds.

It took them two months of engagement with the man to convince him that they were indeed serious before he finally decided to sell the machine to them.

They have not looked back since. TAP went on to produce various local-flavoured cards, postcards, notebooks and even a limited edition game that features antique lead types, a further nod to their love for letterpress. The company’s services are a godsend for locals looking for something special and personalised, as well as expatriates and tourists looking for souvenirs.

“We have clients from Australia and Japan, who all have something in common — appreciation of quality craftsmanship and the values of well-made products that could be brought into their lives,” says Leong.

It takes a certain skill to mix the base inks to get the perfect colour.
It takes a certain skill to mix the base inks to get the perfect colour. 

“The interest and market for letterpress printing has surged recently in the US, UK, and Australia. In the Asean region, the letterpress printing market has grown significantly recently. About 70% of our orders are for business and wedding cards.

“The rest of the orders are for corporate stationeries and off-the-shelf products like calendars, greeting cards, postcards, note cards and notebooks using our 1960s German vintage presses,” he reveals.

The company has invested more than RM50,000 into equipment and tools since it commenced business three years ago.

“We will keep investing in our tools to perfect the craft,” says Leong.

The production cost to make a single letter-pressed card is steep, he admits.

“The material cost is about 30% of the production cost, while the labour and operation, which includes shipping, constitute another respective 50% and 20%. Letterpress is a labour-intensive printing process, but the quality of the print is something that sets itself apart from the modern offset and digital printing.

“However, we are still able to generate a reasonable margin to reinvest for growth,” he adds.

Using a loupe (magnifier), Wong checks the colour and impression consistency of the products.
Using a loupe (magnifier), Wong checks the colour and impression consistency of the products. 

Why is the cost so steep? It goes back to the nature of the craft.

“A significant amount of time and effort are essential to deliver the best quality print, as the letterpress machinery has to be partially operated by manual labour.

“We individually priced each bespoke order based on the artwork size, number of colours, and the labour works of our artisans,” Leong elaborates.

There are a lot of skills and complex steps involved in the letterpress printing process, which is essentially an antique way of printing paper products.

“For example, special skills are needed for designing the artwork used in letterpress, which requires fewer range of colours. The advantage of this process is that the colours come out brighter.

“A separate plate is produced for every colour being printed. We work with a few base inks to hand mix the perfect colours, which accurately correspond to the specific colour recipe.

“Skills are also needed to cut the paper down to correct size for the print job,” he says.

The photopolymer printing plate is checked to ensure its correctly oriented and error free before it is locked onto the press.
The photopolymer printing plate is checked to ensure its correctly oriented and error free before it is locked onto the press.

Then there is the maintenance cost for the machinery used.

“It takes a longer time to maintain the presses because replacement parts are often hard to find and are expensive. We take parts from another old press, if necessary,” says Leong.

So what’s the attraction then?

“The result is a beautiful, textured and delicate piece of print, justifying the efforts involved in producing the card,” he stresses.

Another plus point, according to Leong, is that there’s little competition in the letterpress printing market due to the high-entry barrier involving skills and craftsmanship.

Letterpress printing has not been popular since the late 1960s and 1970s.

“To allow the public to get a taste of letter press printing, we allow customers to be part of the printing process. You can see everything in action, and your cards are printed in front of you using the old presses,” he says.

TAP also constantly introduce personalisation services into its products to compete with other types of printing, he notes.

“We engage with our customers and invite them to be a part of the process of creation,” Leong adds.

Paper is cut down to size to fit the design requirement.
Paper is cut down to size to fit the design requirement. 

The company plans to set up a physical retail outlet at its printing shop to complement its online retail store business.

“We will let walk-in customers into the retail store to view the letterpress printing process and to create fully-customised products that would involve them in the creation process to ensure that the products are delivered as illustrated and described.

“Currently such live viewing experience is opened for select customers. The worst kind of online retail experience is to receive products that fail to correspond to expectations.

“In any form of unforeseen unfortunate events, we take responsibilities where seen fit as we want to address dissatisfaction and take proactive actions to resolve any issues,” Leong maintains.

On the export front, apart from Japan and Australia, TAP is also marketing its products to countries like Singapore and Brunei.

“At the same time, we’re taking baby steps to expand our off-the-shelf overseas,” he says.

Letterpress revolutionised the world back in the day by mass-producing books and written materials that are now made easily available .

“It dates back to 1450 with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and moveable type. Back then, for every single word you see on a book, each letter was manually typeset and positioned by a different wooden carving or lead casting.

(From left) Founder and brand strategist Leong, Ch’ng and printmaker Zeejay Wong. — M. AZHAR ARIF/TheStar
(From left) Founder and brand strategist Leong, Ch’ng and printmaker Zeejay Wong. — M. AZHAR ARIF/TheStar

“The paper would be carefully placed on top of the type and pressure was then applied to create a beautiful ‘kiss’ impression known as letterpress,” Leong says.

But in the beginning of the 19th century, there were other forms of printing that was able to “kiss” on paper more gently and efficiently, such as offset printing.

“Thereafter, letterpress lost its popularity and letterpress machines were used less and less, becoming nearly obsolete. In the 1980s, letterpress was revived by a group of people who appreciated the tactile feeling and craftsmanship of letterpress, which made a great impression on them,” he adds.

With TAP, who describes themselves craftsmen who aim to push the proverbial envelope, carrying the torch, the old-fashioned charms of letterpress printing lives on here in Malaysia.

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