Liz Samways meets letterpress printer Bec Gilray of 'Do you Punctuate'. Inspired by tradtional printing methods, printer Bec uses moveable lead type, photopolymer plates, printing blocks, and wooden letters to create unique greeting cards.
Please tell us about yourself and how you got started.
I use a traditional print method known as letterpress printing, which usually involves setting wood or metal moveable type and imagery into a printing press. I started printing about 10 years ago, during my degree and I fell in love with the structure and rules of typography and setting type. It was during my MA that I bought my first printing press, which was an Adana 8 x5. As I have continued to print I’ve increased my collection to two more presses and lots of printing blocks and type.
Of the tools of your trade, which is your favourite?
I use metal type, wood blocks, vintage printing presses, printing blocks and exquisite fine papers. I love my tools because as I’ve bought them, I’ve tried my hardest to meet the sellers who are usually retired printers. It’s amazing the stories they tell and tips you can pick up. Sadly, few print shops remain so the knowledge isn’t being passed on as it was when apprenticeships existed.
Do you have any formal training which applies to what you do?
My degree was in Graphic Arts and Design. I had access to some of the most fabulous letterpress machinery; huge printing presses like a Vandercook and an Albion. During the course of the degree, I chose to specialise in typography.
It was during this time that I learnt about acid etching and I started to experiment with transferring type to flat plates. I wasn’t happy with the outcome so this lead to letterpress printing. I did various print workshops and then started to play about on my own. I found an affinity with it plus it’s very therapeutic so I picked it up fairly quickly. I have attended other courses and workshops to fine–tune my skills and being a part of the British Printer’s Society, you have access to a wealth of tacit knowledge that sadly is dying out.
What do you love most about what you do and what do you find the most frustrating?
I am a fairly nostalgic person with an old soul. Letterpress printing embodies a time where simple machinery could produce beautiful results. I love old blocks with knocks and dints because they tell a story of a previous time. For me, it’s about the relationship of historic working type or blocks and fine beautiful papers. There is nothing more satisfying than running your fingers across the debossed surface of something you have printed and feel the bumps and groves of the impression.
Time is the most frustrating element of my work, I always run out of it! People tend to not realize it can take a good day of just setting the press and getting a good clean print. Due to the historic nature of my tools, you have to do a lot of coercing and packing out areas so that you can create an even impression. I find it sad that some people when presented with my work often ask if it’s digitally reproduced. It’s only as I start to tell the story of the process that they realize just how special the prints are.
Can you tell us a bit about where you make your products?
I work from home now because a press I bought back in February was restored in my dining room. So I am very much a ‘cottage industry, table-top working mum!’ I also have a small room where everything is stored and where I do a lot of my work. It’s a south facing room, so the light is fantastic.
Running your own business is hard work. How do you balance your work and home life, and what do you do to wind down?
Housework wasn’t too difficult to give up! I delegated and became less precious about areas of my life. Once I did this, I was able to relax! I hired an accountant and she deals with my books and tax returns. If I need extra help, I rope my mum in as she is an incredible perfectionist.
I also fit work in first thing in the morning before the school run, after school run and then at night. We have a rule at home though, no working on a weekend (unless extremely necessary!) and that applies to both my husband and I.
What is your main goal for future?
Having just completed the Country Living Fair at Harrogate, I would like to try an even larger fair, and I would also like to have a go at a print festival or something similar. I would like to grow 'Do You Punctuate?', so that more of my work is available in shops and also move into personalised stationery and products.
Which typographers do you admire?
Jan Tschichold who is the godfather of all things typographic! He worked out grids and changed how we used type from the early 1930’s. The other is Ken Garland who I have had the pleasure of meeting a couple of times. He has such a succinct way of looking at a design problem. His work is simplistic but speaks volumes.
If you had time what new craft would you like to learn?
Not really a new craft but I would love to have a go at improving my book-binding skills. Though I can do it fairly well, I would love to just improve on what I know already.
You're a self-confessed paper geek so if your studio was on fire, which paper would you rescue? Who is your favourite supplier?
Oh my gosh…I have a beautiful handmade cotton paper I bought in Venice from a beautiful shop called Il Prato. They usually will not sell individual sheets but I spent a good two hours talking to the owner who was as passionate (and crazy!) about paper as I was. My favourite suppliers (as I can’t choose) are Shepherds Fine Papers based in London. They stock some of the best paper and book binding materials I have found. The other is GF Smith, they too have some beautiful papers.
Do you have any pet hates when it comes to typography?
Yes! Please don’t use hyphens for word breaks. A lovely EM or EN dash makes a line look so much better! And hang your punctuation (or optically align it!) because messy punctuation drives me mad!
How do you get the word out about your work and where can we buy your work?
Social media is a fantastic tool for getting the word out. It’s a hard slog but once you find the right spot, the world is your oyster. So I use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, flickr and my blog. I try to post every couple of days and interlink each outlet so I’m covering as much as I can. You can find my products predominantly online at www.notonthehighstreet.com/doyoupunctuate.