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For Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum of Wales' craft week, we've been asking our teams to share their passion for craft. Here, Head of the National Waterfront Museum, Steph Mastoris shares a little about his passion for letterpress.

Throughout my working life (and a bit before) I have been fascinated by the craft of letterpress printing –that messy process of covering metal and wooden type with ink and then squeezing a sheet of paper onto the surface to make a beautiful, clean impression. Although it sounds a simple thing to do, it actually requires much trial and error before a uniform and correctly-positioned impression of the type can be made repeatedly to create a leaflet or book. This also doesn’t sound very relaxing, but like most crafts it is totally absorbing and a wonderful way to give your mind a break from the day-job.

The biggest problem for anyone wanting to print by letterpress is that there is quite a lot of equipment needed just to get started, and it took me about ten years to find an affordable little press, type and all the bits and pieces to hold the assembled words together for printing. But printers are a friendly bunch and generous in giving advice and help to people like me who had no training in this inky art.

Steph Mastoris' work at the On the Brink show.

Like many amateur printers I started by making my own Christmas cards or type-works for special occasions such as weddings or christenings, using lovely old wooden type that is easy to set and gives a very textured impression, especially when printed on dampened hand-made paper. These I printed at first on an old office ‘nipping press’ (designed originally for copying hand-written letters before photocopiers were invented), then I acquired a proofing press from a prison workshop and then, in the early 1990s, a beautiful cast-iron Albion printing press came my way. This had been made in the late 1860s from an original design of about 1820 and still prints perfectly today. 

A few years after I moved to Swansea in 2004 to help set up the National Waterfront Museum I was lucky to join the Elysium Studios –a dynamic artist-led co-operative in the heart of the city. The additional space this provided meant that I could use proper metal type in my work. More importantly, having somewhere to print that was not on the kitchen table, which had to be cleared away for meals, meant that I could my take time to think through my work and move beyond just making pretty texts.

One of Steph Mastoris' letterpress triptychs displayed at an exhibition

As a result of this new-found freedom and the opportunity to talk with practicing artists I have become interested in using letterpress printing to explore the subtleties of language where punctuation, form and layout can change or create ambiguities of meaning. At its simplest the aesthetics and tonal impact of hand-printed wood type can be radically altered by enlarging it several hundred per cent. More subtly I use small typographic triptychs to draw the viewer’s attention to the three-dimensional quality of language that arises when similar-sounding words and the different silences between them are exhibited in plain, hand-printed type.



Angharad Wynne

Acting Marketing and Communications Officer


18 July 2020, 18:10
Fascinating. I used to dabble in Litho printing and found 'real' printers a friendly and helpful bunch

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