The Letterpress Collective: the makers that keep the heritage craft of letterpress printing alive

Nick Hand is keeping the heritage craft of letterpressing alive from his traditional printing room in the heart of Bristol

Letterpress printers Nick and Ellen in their Bristol-based workshop

The Letterpress Collective first began in 2013 – a year after the last commercial letterpress printer shut its doors in the city of Bristol after 600 years. Founder Nick Hand saw an opportunity to learn from the last of the printers and now, with the help of his colleague, Ellen, uses his business to give a voice to local creatives, producing exquisite letterpress print work.

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When did you discover letterpressing? 

It was in my last year of art college in 1977 – I spent a year in a letterpress room and it had an effect on me that I wasn’t aware of until much later. Letterpress is the old form of printing; the kind that Gutenberg invented in 1450. It changed the world forever because it finally meant that you could print in quantity. That way of printing became the way to do it for the following 600 years, until very recently…

Nick Hand of The Letterpress Collective sat outside his Bristol-based workshop
Nick Hand of The Letterpress Collective sat outside his Bristol-based workshop

What inspires you and your designs?

Inspiration comes from everywhere. I’ve just spent a few days in Madrid going to exhibitions and looking at art. The thing about letterpressing is that there is a really nice community – there are probably only 20 full-time printers in Britain. I’m really inspired by other people, and what I like about letterpress is that everyone seems to have a different take on it, each producing unique work. 

Tell us about your presses

When we first started, we had to dig around and find equipment. There have been one or two printer friends of ours who have offered us bits and bobs, and as we’ve gone on, we’ve been able to save money and buy one or two things. The oldest printing press we have is from 1832 and it’s an Albion press. It came from a printers two streets away, so it’s travelled 200 yards in that time! You can always tell an Albion press because it’s got lion’s feet. The type we use gets passed on and you just hope it gets looked after. Those letters come with a legacy and you’re just a part of their story. I have a huge amount of respect for the tools we use – you could handle a wood letter that’s 100 years old; you don’t know the words it has made or how often it’s been used. You can see the scars on it, but that’s exactly what gives it character.

A printing press at The Letterpress Collective; Nick maps out the design for a poster.
A printing press at The Letterpress Collective; Nick maps out the design for a poster.

Explain what you do at The Letterpress Collective

We do three main things. One is we teach people how to print and set type by running workshops. The other thing we do is print our own work and try to sell it – this is probably the least successful of the projects we do, but it’s great fun to be able to design organically. We also work on commissions, where people ask us to print a poetry book, a cover or a business card etc. I’m passionate about collaboration. What happens with print and the work we produce is that we become a voice on behalf of other voices – I love this part of it. I started making journeys on my bicycle about 10 years ago and I began to record the stories of people that I met along the way; their work and their lives. I’m really excited as we’ve just printed a book about one of my journeys on a printing press bicycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It’s called Journeyman and tells the story of makers I met along the way. 

Lampshade designer Naomi Paul

Tell us more about the letterpress bicycle

It came about because a friend and I were intrigued as to whether you could put a printing press on the back of a bike. He made the bicycle and we cycled from Bristol to Mainz in Germany, the place where Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with moveable type in 1450.

Nick Hand carefully sets type on a printer’s stone; Ink is applied to the type on the bed of the press
Nick Hand carefully sets type on a printer’s stone; Ink is applied to the type on the bed of the press

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far? 

Two things really. One is the pride that I have in Ellen and watching her become an amazing letterpress printer over the past six years – I’m sure she will print now for the rest of her life. The second is telling the stories of the makers that I’ve met through my journeys on the bicycle.

Any future plans?

Everything we do, we try and make it the best thing we have ever done. In January, I’m exhibiting at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey, showcasing the stories of other makers in pictures and audio. It will be quite a moment for me. I never intended to set this place up or to become a letterpress printer, but it’s happened and I take it one step at a time.

A coloured layer is added to a poster
A coloured layer is added to a poster
Nick Hand inspects a print that has been put through the press
Nick Hand inspects a print that has been put through the press
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Discover Nick and Ellen’s work at theletterpresscollective.org