In the era of texting and tweeting, a centuries-old communication technique still has fans at the University of Arizona.
A few times a week, 20-somethings gather inside a former campus eatery, leaving high-tech behind for a world of wood and metal type and hand-mixed inks at the UA Letterpress Lab.
Here, they create books, cards, posters and whimsy using techniques that date back to the 15th century when the printing press was born.
It isn’t lost on the students that the methods they’re learning were just as revolutionary in their day as smart phones and laptops are today.
The earliest mass-printing marked the first time knowledge could be widely disseminated, a development that changed the course of human history.
“It’s like jumping back in time,” said student Travis Boswell, 21, who packs a laptop and a smartphone when he’s not inking the 1910-era Chandler and Price press.
Anna Cauffman, 23, a graphic design major, said the letterpress lab has piqued her interest in how communication developed over the last few centuries.
“Seeing how far things have come, from the hand-done to the digital stuff, is just crazy,” she said.
“It makes me have a better appreciation for what we have today.”
Part of the attraction of letterpress is that it tends to be slightly imperfect, giving the end product a feeling of authenticity, Cauffman said.
“When you print on a laser inkjet printer, every copy comes out exactly the same. With handmade prints, no two are alike.”
Not everything here is done the old way. Students also learn how to marry past and present, for example, by creating digital images that can be transferred to plastic printing plates for use on the presses.
The letterpress lab opened in 2011 after Karen Zimmerman, an associate art professor, procured a major donation of equipment.
A New Mexico printer, Jack Sinclair, started seeking a new home for his old machinery when he became terminally ill, Zimmerman said.
Sinclair’s widow followed through, bequeathing 15 tons of equipment to the UA, including three mid-20th century Vandercook presses and 10 cabinets full of type, ink and materials.
The UA also has an 1890s hand press that is being restored.
Zimmerman said she fell in love with printing as a teen while attending an East Coast high school with a graphic arts program.
“To me it’s like magic, the process of putting ink on paper,” she said
Though centuries old, “it’s timeless,” she said.