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Printing River Town: Behind the scenes at Letterpress Collective

A wide photo of a print workshop with hundreds of hand-printed posters hung on walls and large metal printing presses positioned across the workshop floor.

Limited edition Letterpress posters printed for River Town 2022

There’s something enticing and fascinating about objects with heritage. They have a personality.

Music made in the Americana tradition is rich in this feeling too. Musical heritage runs deep through this genre, whether a song has been written today or 100 years ago. Blues, soul, Appalachian folk, country, roots – these sounds come with audible heritage and carry with them authenticity and a feeling that’s both indefinable and irresistible in equal measures.

Perhaps that’s why with Americana music there’s such a strong love for, and appreciation of, other crafts. Hand-customised clothing, vinyl records, vintage machines – they all transport us back to a previous time.

And that’s why, when we had the opportunity to commission Letterpress Collective. to produce a limited run of hand-crafted letterpress posters and postcards for River Town 2022, we couldn’t resist! We knew this would be the perfect way to produce print material for the series that would be very special and faithful to the origins of the music itself.

This week we were lucky enough to be invited down to Letterpress Collective to meet Ellen Bills who’s been creating the poster and postcard prints for us and find out more about this fascinating craft.

Letterpress block on a worksurface
River Town letterpress block
A letterpress printing block arranged with artist names for River Town 2022
Letterpress block for River Town 2022 poster

The connections between letterpress printing and Americana

Letterpress printing is an authentic and traditional form of printing, closely associated with Americana and Country music.

“There’s a letterpress printmakers in Nashville, Tennessee called Hatch Show Print who have been printing for more than 140 years” says printmaker Ellen as she pauses to insert another ream of paper stock into the jaws of a vast metal Heidelburg printing machine whirring away in front of her.

“Letterpress posters from Hatch Show Print are the preference for country music artists and other “old faithfuls”.


“Letterpress printing is traditional – and so is country and other forms of Americana and roots music. In a way, they celebrate each other.”

Ellen Bills, Printmaker

“With letterpress printing you get a different texture and quality to the print than you do with other printing methods. For a lot of letterpress printers, it’s more about the printing process than it is the end image. In a similar way, country and roots music can feel like they’re more about the instruments and the process of creating the music than they are about what happens in the end.”

A woman stands next to a large metal printing press surrounded by shelves of inks and letter stamps.
Ellen Bills at Letterpress Collective

A potted history of letterpress printing and its connection to Bristol

Letterpress printing was invented in Germany in the 1450s and it remained the only real way of mass printing until the early 1900s when litho printing came in.

30,000 people used to be employed in the printing industry in Bristol alone – it was a really important trade and industry for the city.

“Nowadays, most people love the texture that you get with letterpress or woodblock printing, but originally it was the quality of the print that was spot on and that really took off” says Ellen.

“People love that the type holds its scars, especially wood type. Type isn’t thrown away and is re-used – it’s always interesting to think when you’re printing about all the different things that the type has been used for before.”

“It’s a blend of the modern and the traditional – reusing old type but also designing and making new plates where these are specifically required.”

A letterpress printed poster for River Town 2022 displayed on a worn wooden surface. Text reads: Bristol Beacon invites you to River Town
River Town 2022 Letterpress Collective poster

Love for the craft of letterpress printing

Letterpress started as a means for industries to mass produce printed material and has, over time, grown into a craft and widely respected art form.

Today there is a community of artisan printmakers who all bring their own personalities, artistic voices and ways of working to a method that was previously about uniformity and replication.

“My grandparents worked in the printing industry in Bristol” says Ellen, “so there is a family connection. And I love it. I love the machinery. I feel free when I’m printing – there are always different adjustments that need to be made.”

“Every letterpress printer is different, they all have different approaches. I am more of a perfectionist, getting every little detail right, but Nick (also at Letterpress Co) is more about the message of what is being said in the print.”


“A lot of modern (non-letterpress) printers don’t understand what we do or why we do it. You’ve got to do letterpress printing because you love it.”

Ellen Bills, Printmaker

Large metal printing presses arranged on a workshop floor
Letterpress Collective printing studios

A collaborative community

Nick and Ellen worked with Gemma Trickey to make the background water on the posters and the little boat, the John King, which is part of the logo. Gemma cut linos for the water background, which we wanted to look like the swirling water in the harbour in the centre of Bristol. Nick and Ellen played with overprinting Gemma’s lino in pale background colours, then the lino of the John King was dropped in on top. The linocuts work beautifully with the wood type.

Ellen speaks fondly of how working in letterpress printing connects her to a community. “It allows me to build connections and work with other small, independent businesses in Bristol. Like working with Bristol Beacon – the first gig that I ever went to was at the Beacon.”

“And this Heidelberg machine” Ellen continues as she pulls and manoeuvres levers on the lively metal printing press “used to be on display at MShed, when it was the industrial museum. I used to go there with my grandad a lot to look at this very machine, and now I create artwork on it! – so there is a really nice memory there.”

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