LEBANON, Pa. — In a part of the country where horse-drawn plows are still used in farming, N. Claire Clawser’s printing business fits right in. Clawser operates a letterpress print shop out of a small space in a basement at 8th and Walnut Streets in Lebanon, Pa. Look for his shop, and you’ll probably miss it the first time ... which is okay with the printer. He likes to stay busy, but he’s mostly retired
Clawser graduated from Hershey High School — just down the road from Lebanon — in 1963. He had spent most of his high school years studying and working with letterpress equipment and tools under the tutelage of his vo-tech teacher, Eric Phillips. In 1963, the days of commercial letterpress businesses were numbered, as the offset printing process was rapidly taking over from letterpress operations.
Letterpress Versus Offset Printing
The letterpress process uses raised type, usually made of metal. The type is placed in a form, then the form is placed in a press where ink is applied to the type. Paper is pressed against the ink.
In the offset process, a flat metal plate is prepared from a negative — much like a photographic negative. The negative is placed against a light-sensitive plate. An image forms where light hits the plate. On an offset press, the exposed areas of the plate pick up ink, the ink transfers to a roller and the roller transfers the ink to paper as it goes through through the press.
Although a letterpress press can print anything an offset press can print, the kind of graphics you see in printed matter today would be expensive to duplicate in metal type.
Clawser did enjoy a career in the gradually fading letterpress business, and eventually retired from his full-time pressman’s job. But he never gave up the craft. He has two clamshell style Chandler-Price presses in his basement shop, and he keeps them busy. The two presses date probably from the 1920s, and are called “clamshell” because they open and close. When the press is open, the printer slips a sheet of paper into its jaws, while a set of rollers inks the type to be printed. As the jaws close, the type hits the paper, leaving an inked impression. Then the jaws open, more paper gets slipped into place, and the process continues.
Clawser is comfortable running his Chandler-Price at about 1,000 impressions per hour, which means every three-and-a-half seconds he sticks his hand into jaws of a machine that could squash his fingers into the thickness of a pancake. In half a century of working with this kind of press, he has always gotten his hand out of the way.
Not too many years ago, his part-time business had dwindled to almost no time. He kept himself busy with a couple of part-time jobs, one of which was, and still is, in the mailroom for Lancaster Farming, where he helps ready the weekly edition for the post office.
But he never sold his equipment, and business picked up again from its low point. His customers these days are mostly other printers — offset printers — who need him to do things they can’t do with an offset press. The jobs Clawser mostly works on don’t even require ink. His customers bring him already printed sheets, and he die-cuts them into various shapes. He also scores, perforates and numbers completed jobs for his printer customers.
And there is the occasional job that requires hand-set type. Setting type by hand is a skill, an art, a craft that takes many years to master. A type drawer may contain thousands of pieces of metal type, each piece a single letter. The letters are mirror images of the impressions they leave on paper, and they need to be placed in a composing stick, one-by-one, left to right and upside down. It gets tricky. But after a lifetime of doing it, Clawser can set type with ease.
The letterpress business is not a career path for anybody who’s serious about getting ahead in today’s world, Clawser said. It’s a nice hobby. And if a person has the right kind of customers, it can be a nice part-time business. But it definitely is not a livelihood.
Clawser recently completed a soft-cover book, “A Guide to Pennsylvania Towns,” in which he set all the type by hand and printed it on his Chandler-Price press. The book includes color photos, printed elsewhere, of many of the cast iron markers that stand outside the towns he lists in the book. The price for the book is $18, which includes tax and mailing. Clawser’s address is 423 W. 28th Division Highway, Lot 5, Lititz, PA 17543, and his phone number is 717-626-4796.