Learning from Letterpress

In the next couple of weeks I plan to read Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers. I recently read an interview with Gladwell that focused on his discussion of how it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Since I haven’t read the entire book, I may be out of place in writing this, but some thoughts came to mind just reading the interview with him.

First, I would like to know more about the steps along the way to mastery. At what point do people tend to move from mere competency to proficiency? At what point do the tools used help the student? And finally, how much does innate ability have to do with a person’s success at a particular craft/trade/art?

Moving from competency to proficiency probably comes about 500 hours in. Now, this is an educated guess based on my experience in printing. My first 500 hours of printing consisted of getting ink on the paper a) without making a mess, b) in the right color, c) with the right amount of impression. Of these 500 hours, about 50 were spent on a particularly terrible hand press. The next 450 hours were spent on a better press. There were lots of mistakes made in this process. I went through a lot of paper, ink, and dies in order to learn how to line up designs and what designs don’t work particularly well on a letterpress.

Here at about 500 hours into letterpress printing, I am beginning to scratch the surface of learning how to print well. To put 500 hours into perspective, it’s about one year spent printing 2 hours a day, five days a week. I am seeing how changing the height of the ink rollers by a millimeter or two makes a difference in the final piece. This leads into the discussion of how much the proper tools make a difference in the perfection of a craft. The press I spent most of my time on was limited in the adjustments that could be made to it. Because of this, it wasn’t practical to make fine adjustments for each project. When I upgraded to a press that was 45 years old instead of 90, the door to fine tuning was opened.

The ability to fine tune has made my eye more critical. This has made the hobby of printing more interesting again, but it has slowed me down significantly. I take much more time setting jobs up because I want things to be right. Because I am primarily teaching myself, I learn by adjusting something and seeing how it changes the final output. Sometimes my instinct is right, and sometimes it’s wrong, but I’m learning along the way.

As I go, I take notes so I remember what to do the next time I encounter the same problem. I subscribe to a discussion list that brings together printers, from novice to master, and they’ve been helpful. Most importantly, I accept that I’m learning. I’ve gone from expecting perfection and being disappointed when things don’t go right to expecting things to take time to get right. Eventually, things turn out, I’ve simply learned to give myself more time to get there and to enjoy the process more.