Boxcar Talk With Eric Woods

A year-long celebration commemorating the 10 year anniversary at The Firecracker Press in St. Louis, Missouri is in full swing. The beginnings were humble in a dirty old warehouse with a questionable freight elevator, but two moves later, they are thriving & pushing the limits at their present space. Owner Eric Woods and Print Shop Manager Matty Kleinberg confess they eat, drink, and sleep letterpress, and it’s a diet that has served them well.

HOMETOWN ROOTS I’m originally from the small town of Piedmont, Missouri. My close family is from that region and I still have close ties to the area. One of my grandfathers owned a lumber and hardware business, the other was a retired Missouri State Park Superintendent. I grew up with one foot in town and the other deep in the country.

THINK INK I had known about letterpress since art school in the 1990s but didn’t get involved until well after. I’d worked in New York designing book covers, had come home to work at the local newspaper, and then got recruited to St. Louis by a large ad firm. The idea of starting a letterpress studio had been percolating for 5-6 years and after feeling unfulfilled with my design career I came home to tell my wife I was quitting my job. At the time we called it “going off the grid” but I had a feeling it was the right thing to do. Within days of quitting, I had signed up for a letterpress class through a local printer and rented a studio space with a few mates.

Letterpress quickly proved the perfect combination of graphic design and hands-on craftsmanship. It was everything I’d been searching for and offered complete control from concept to production. In an odd way I’d been practicing for a career in letterpress my whole life. I bought a C+P 10×15 in 2002 and The Firecracker Press was born!

SPLENDOR IN THE SHOW-ME STATE We own a 2500 sq. ft. building in the Cherokee neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. The front of the shop is a mix of retail and studio space. We sell posters, books, cards, and stationery… all of it made in the back of the studio. If you stop by you’ll see printmaking in action and we’re happy to show visitors around. We have two C+P platen presses, a Golding Pearl, two Vandercooks (#4, SP20), a large sign press, and a variety of smaller desktop platens. I guess I’d call our decorating style functional chaos but we try to run a clean shop.

A WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE Dick Niehaus introduced me to the St. Louis Letterpress Society and helped me find our first press. We’ve learned a lot from Dick and others in the Society and they’ve been a great resource over the years. We’re lucky to have such a thriving group and a rich history of letterpress printing in St. Louis.

THE DAILY GRIND We work with a wide range of clients but most jobs start out the same way… with a conversation. We research the project, draw out ideas, and then build designs on the computer.

Once we’ve got a tight mockup we’ll go through a round of changes with the client and work toward final approval. We use the approved mockup as a road map to construct hand-carved woodblocks, lead or woodtype, and/or photopolymer on press. There is real magic that happens from the digital realm to the tangible, printed form and that’s what keeps us hooked. After 10 years I’m still surprised at the moment of creation.

FULL TIME FUN We’re open 6 days a week and print full time. From the beginning it was important that we jump in with both feet. We eat, drink, and sleep letterpress.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT Technically our first press was a Nolan Proof Press that my father helped me dig out of an old school. But the press that launched The Firecracker Press was a C+P 10×15 that we rescued from an old printshop. The owner was retiring and had sold off all his other equipment. The only thing left was the C+P . My friends and I moved it across the state and onto the second floor of our first studio. It fit through the front door and into the elevator but was larger than the door to my studio by about 6 inches (a rookie mistake). We tore the wall down and put up new drywall before morning. My landlord never suspected a thing.

INSPIRED BY THE PAST We love rescuing old equipment and giving it new life. We have studio tours for all ages that pass on the knowledge we’ve gained. We’ve got a robust internship program and have hired several interns as part-time and full-time employees. Our connection to history through the methods/techniques we use inspires us. It’s always a pleasure to meet people that have old stories or are somehow drawn to printing. We’re
proud and feel lucky that we’ve been able to do what we love for so long! Our clients have been generous and amazing.

BOXCAR’S ROLE You guys used to make photopolymer plates for us on a regular basis. We now make our own but do use your services for plates that are over-sized. We’re inspired by Boxcar’s size and reach.

SHOP TIPS The question we hear most from young artists and printers is: “How much do I charge for my work?”, and our answer is this: letterpress rarely comes easy and is often accompanied by hard work that our clients never see. As a result, we continually educate our clients and communicate with them throughout the making process. We set expectations early and work hard to deliver quality work. We developed a cost schedule in the early days after researching new and old methods of structuring prices. We’ve updated it over the years but it’s a system that’s served us well.

WHAT’S NEXT We hope to expand the studio and are working on plans to build onto our current location. If all goes well, we’ll more than double in size, with a venue for performances, a larger retail shop, a garden, and of course, more studio space.

Lots of thanks out to Eric for letting us get the full scoop on Firecracker Press!

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