Printing for Pleasure, by John Ryder

Printing for Pleasure by John Ryder

Phrases from John Ryder’s Printing for Pleasure run through Small Printer like an inky sort of DNA – if, like me, you’re a fan of the book you’ll spot them cropping up at regular intervals throughout the year. I’m fairly sure that at least 80% of fellow members have either read the book or have it in their collection. Its continuing popularity shows that it’s so much more than “a primer on printing for the amateur”, so what is the book’s enduring appeal?

First of all, it really is the best introduction to letterpress printing for the beginner. Chapters 2 to 4 guide readers through the important early decisions – finding a suitable press and choosing type – and then how to compose and set type, inking and of course printing itself. John Ryder does all this in just 63 pages with a lightness of touch and a gentle humour. As Francis Meynell wrote in his foreword to the first issue, this is “reading for pleasure as well”.

Such brevity can only introduce printing techniques, though it is incredible how much ground John Ryder covers in these few pages. He introduces correct printing terminology, provides some historical context to the choice of typefaces, offers practical examples of setting type and even presents an introduction to typography with advice on letter-spacing capitals. At the same time he hints that there is so much more to find out and suggests other books for further reading. It’s a delicate balance that manages to enthuse readers without overwhelming them. He sets readers on the right path, and then pays them the compliment of believing that with the right attitude they will successfully make their own way forward.

These three chapters alone would make the book worth reading, but John Ryder does so much more. The twin themes of ‘pleasure’ and ‘experimentation’ run through the entire book and this, I believe, is what makes Printing for Pleasure so relevant to contemporary letterpress practice.

Rutt's Press: Pleasure or drudgery? From Printing for Pleasure by John Ryder

Caption: Rutt's press poses the problem: Pleasure or drudgery?

In the first chapter Pleasure as Profit John Ryder states that having the right attitude and the freedom to choose what you want to print is what makes printing a “pleasurable pastime” rather than “profit making drudgery”. By making pleasure rather than profit the driving force of the printing enterprise, the printer is freed up to experiment with design, inking, different papers, pressures… In fact John Ryder devotes an entire chapter to Developing a Taste for Experimentation, writing “it is here on the amateur’s workbench (a place from which the time-sheet and the wage-bill are absent) that experiments can be made and repeated without end and without fear of bankruptcy”.

Why this should be so important becomes clearer in the next two chapters, Sources of Inspiration and The Little Presses where the author shows that it is the printers of the private presses, not the commercial printers, who have the time, energy and freedom to promote quality in printing and engage in typographic investigation. This field of research, he believes, can “have a good influence on printing in general”. This is heady stuff! One minute you’re a letterpress beginner choosing your first typeface; four chapters later you’re part of printing history!

His introduction to the private press movement is full of fascinating fragments of history: Edmund Campion printing seditious texts (for which he was later beheaded), the nine year old Charles Daniel inking type with his thumb, and Cobden-Sanderson throwing the Doves punches and matrices into the River Thames. By following this with a chapter on Where to Buy Your Equipment the implicit message is that you too can be part of that movement. Sadly his lists are not as useful now as they would have been in the 1970s.

But where does this leave those who are printing for profit? Are they to be excluded? Not a bit of it! I don’t believe that John Ryder was anti-commerce. He was himself a distinguished book designer and exemplary typographer, and I am certain that it was the experimentation, research and the subsequent pleasure of working at his own private press that makes his work so great. The beautiful design and production of his book Printing for Pleasure is a lasting testament to that. What John Ryder does for all printers is to give them total freedom of the press… in every sense.


This article was originally written for the April 2013 issue of the British Print Society's magazine Small Printer. The BPS library holds the 1969 reprint of the English Universities edition. My copy is the Bodley Head edition, extensively revised and redesigned by John Ryder in 1976. For more information on the history of the book and the various editions see Paul Moxon’s website: