Some things are wholly handmade: A carved wooden spoon. A hand-sewn leather wallet. A dreamcatcher. An Amish barn.
And some can be wholly machine made: The tube of toothpaste in your medicine cabinet, quite a few electronics, and possibly your car.
But in between is where most things are created. At what point does something cease being handmade?
Nearly every inviting experience we create is done with the assistance of a machine. Whether it’s a printing press, a laser engraver, or a sewing machine, mechanical advantage and electricity help us make better invitations. We believe in the power of machines to help us hand-craft your invitation.
Take letterpress for example.
So much of the modern popularity of letterpress comes from a romanticizing of the craft and the labor of handmade goods. You can practically see the pressman’s toil in the pools of light and color at the bottom of a deep impression. It provides a sense of righting our disposable wrongs by surrounding ourselves with things that took effort – took care – to make and will last, possibly even longer than our own bodies. It’s the antithesis of automation and efficiency. It takes time and care and we’re willing to pay extra for that connection to some great artisan past.
So, is an invitation printed on a foot-powered, hand-fed printing press any more authentic or handmade than one made on a motorized, automatic feed press? What if it’s got a motor, but it’s still hand-fed? Does that make a difference?
On a practical level, one of the things that distinguishes letterpress from its more modern replacements in the average printshop is how the project is handled after being printed. If you order a thousand business cards from your local quick print shop, they’ll either print them on an offset press or digitally. These are the two major subsequent technologies after letterpress. Both are more efficient and consistent. They’re “superior” and that’s why they replaced letterpress for printing checks and forms and brochures.
Back to your business cards. The printer that runs your cards (which go through the press once) will then take the press sheets over to a trimmer and cut them down to size. He may have printed ten cards on each sheet, so he can cut 100 sheets of printed cards (though he’ll actually run a few more) and cut those down into ten stacks of 100 – a thousand cards. He’ll likely thumb through them to look for any obvious misprints and then box them up.
The same project printed letterpress will require a pass through the press for each color on each side of the card. That makes two colors on each side four times through the press! Each time, the press has to be set up for the next color and sheets are wasted on register and color matching (those inks are likely hand-mixed). Once everything’s printed, she takes them to the cutter. If she’s running one of the more popular auto-fed presses (a Heidelberg windmill) she may have printed four or six cards per sheet – that doubles the number of sheets to run through the press and cutter. She also had to print quite a few more to account for any misfeed in the press that would cause colors to not line up or sheets that get dropped in the press. Because these things do happen, she’ll have to hand-sort the entire stack to ensure that the cards you receive are all printed perfectly (which includes minor variations, as almost every letterpress printer will tell you).
I don’t think there’s any loss of that blue collar or artisan romance in this. It’s a slow, labor-intensive process that requires great skill and hands on every single card. They’re still handmade invitations.
If your invitation has been embellished by lasers, does that diminish the romance?
Each one’s been laid into the laser one-by-one. It’s still hand-assembled. It’s still lovingly sorted and quality-controlled and packaged just for you. Do the magical robots that assisted me make them any less hand-made?
Every day, we strive to craft the best handcrafted inviting experiences available. Today, I’m running pieces that have been hand-glued and then laser-cut through a motorized, hand-fed printing press (made in 1917) to score them. I’m also using that press to die cut a pocket that I’ll hand-glue to each invitation. The actual printing happened on a 1960 automatic-fed press. I’ll pull the best of the best prints to assemble into 150 bar mitzvah invitations for my client.
If that doesn’t have all the romance of hand-made, I don’t know what does.