The Alphabet Press: All about making an impression

Cliff Leong, Fidella Ch’ng and Zeejay Wong are best friends who share the same passion for the art of letterpress. - Pictures by Choo Choy May
Cliff Leong, Fidella Ch’ng and Zeejay Wong are best friends who share the same passion for the art of letterpress. - Pictures by Choo Choy May

PETALING JAYA, March 7 — Everything old is new again. Or so it seems when you look at some of the trendy cafes in town upcycling old furniture, people paying money to learn how to take photographs with film and others even going as far as to revive letterpress printing as an art form.

Take The Alphabet Press; it’s a contemporary letterpress company founded in Malaysia a few months ago by best friends and colleagues Zeejay Wong, Cliff Leong, Helios Loo and Fidella Ch’ng.
Letterpress printing is an old printing method where paper is inked and impressed simultaneously manually. The Alphabet Press currently employs the modern letterpress method instead of the older movable type method.

With the movable type method, a lead type is used instead of ink and it is limited to fixed fonts and sizes. You would have to play around with a fixed set of words.

The contemporary letterpress method involves designing an artwork on the computer first then the PDF file is sent for film making. The digital designs are output to a film as a negative then exposed to a polymer plate using UV light, resulting in a raised surface on the plate in the shape of the design.

A separate plate is produced for every colour being printed. High quality cotton pulp paper is then cut to fit the design and ink is mixed by hand. Each colour is accurately produced by matching the specific colour recipe.

After that, the plate is aligned to a metal base which is then locked into the press. The machine is then inked up manually and the printing process begins when the paper is fed through.

Using a suction, the machine picks up the paper while the rollers are inking up the plate. A clamshell-like action happens where the ink and impression are made on the paper at the same time. The finished product is then delivered to the delivery tray and when the prints are dry, the paper is cut to its desired size.

“Back then, good craftsmanship meant making a kiss impression on a thin sheet of paper with ink. A kiss impression is a light indent on the paper. Making a deep impression, what we call a punch, is considered a bad job,” said Wong.

Nowadays, printing companies have something similar to punching and they call it de-bossed but it is actually different. Offset printing and digital printing became very popular in recent years because it is cost-efficient, fast and it does not require being hands-on.

Letterpress printing was used only for invoices and receipts back in the day and only red and black ink were used.

But letterpress printing became popular again in the 80’s and 90’s when Martha Stewart introduced a series of wedding invitation cards made using the letterpress method. Since the revival, a lot of people in the US started buying old machines and it became a trend again. In the US, women are the ones who operate letterpress machines.

Zeejay Wong loves the letterpress machine so much, he calls it ‘Darjeeling’, which sounds like ‘darling’
Zeejay Wong loves the letterpress machine so much, he calls it ‘Darjeeling’, which sounds like ‘darling’

“We started having an interest in letterpress printing three years ago when we wanted to make name cards for our design studio. We went all over Pudu, asking if they could design our cards with a deep impression but they only had the de-bossed method,” said Wong.

Curious about letterpress printing, Wong and his friends started doing research online to find out more about the technology. They found out that a letterpress printing company in Melbourne was conducting workshops so the four of them went to Australia to learn more about the craft.

Their instructor was a woman who had spent 10 years learning letterpress printing in New York. She taught them how to use the older movable type model.

These limited edition Thank You cards are beautifully made and they are originally designed by The Alphabet Press
These limited edition Thank You cards are beautifully made and they are originally designed by The Alphabet Press

“When we came back, we wanted to get a letterpress printer of our own but we couldn’t find the older movable type model. Finally, we found a Heidelberg Platen (also known as the Heidelberg Windmill) after searching through Pudu, Brickfields and Salak South,” said Wong.

The Heidelberg Platen was previously owned by an elderly man who was very reluctant to sell his beloved letterpress machine. After two months of getting to know the man and coaxing him to sell the machine, The

Alphabet Press team managed to buy it for RM30,000. It is the last of its model and was made in the 70s.

Wong, Leong, Loo and Ch’ng knew each other 10 years ago as university mates at Multimedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya. They started a media innovation agency working on digital platforms for eight years before starting The Alphabet Press. Their design studio is still up and running while they run The Alphabet Press.

Wedding invitation cards are popular among The Alphabet Press customers
Wedding invitation cards are popular among The Alphabet Press customers

“We were doing web design at the media innovation agency. Letterpress printing is an artistic, creative craft and it’s a shame if a designer does not know the process of printing. With letterpress printing, you have freedom of expression rather than be limited to client expectations,” said Wong.

Even though the letterpress printing market is small in Malaysia, the team behind The Alphabet Press are not worried. In fact, they were pleasantly surprised when customers commended them for reviving this dying craft.

“They have never seen this in Malaysia and we wanted to show them the real thing. People are actually looking for letterpress printing and they tell us, ‘Finally, there is letterpress printing in Malaysia’. Malaysians know what letterpress printing is,” said Wong.

Currently, The Alphabet Press’s most ordered item is custom-made wedding invitation cards which costs about RM6 to RM10 per piece, depending on the colours and design. The minimum order for cards are 100 pieces.

The process of aligning the design onto the plate before putting it into the letterpress machine
The process of aligning the design onto the plate before putting it into the letterpress machine

On an average day, The Alphabet Press produces 200 pieces on the letterpress machine.

The reason why nobody else did letterpress printing in Malaysia was because it is not cost-effective and the cost of operations is too high. The machines are no longer in production and when there is a problem, it is difficult to find anyone to do the repairs.

“All of our letterpress products are our own original designs. We want to create our own brand. One of the projects we are working on is to document the culture of Malaysia. We want to come up with a series of postcards where foreigners and locals can learn about places like Malacca and Penang on maps printed with the letterpress machine,” said Leong.

In the pipeline is also a set of templates for wedding cards as custom-made ones can be costly. Each design by The Alphabet Press is only available for a limited run with only 200 pieces per design.

The Alphabet Press also releases greeting cards like these Chinese New Year cards
The Alphabet Press also releases greeting cards like these Chinese New Year cards

The company started off with Christmas cards, followed by Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day cards that sold very well.

“What we like about The Alphabet Press is the power to create anything we want. The best thing a designer can do is to control the whole process of the work flow, from design to printing. We don’t sub it out to anyone else,” said Wong.

There are plans to acquire an older model of the Heidelberg Platen to speed up the process of production. Most of the letterpress machines in Malaysia are from the UK, China and Germany. It would be too pricey to import one from the US.

“Our mission is to salvage the craft of letterpress printing. This year we plan to start workshops for letterpress printing,” said Wong.

Find out more about The Alphabet Press on www.thealphabetpress.com or visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheAlphabetPress. You can also follow them on Instagram at www.instagram.com/thealphabetpress

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 6, 2014.