Letterpress That Changes the World

With tidings of good cheer and peace on earth to all men in full swing, we thought it’d be fitting to celebrate the holiday season with a tribute to the remarkable letterpress pieces of truly talented & dedicated printers giving back to their communities. We gathered some of letterpress’s finest for this installment of our  roundtable series. Check out the uplifting responses this immensely talented group has to offer and find out how they’re changing the world, one card at a time. Be sure to tell us about your own charitable projects in the comments section below!

Kathryn Hunter – Blackbird Press

The notebooks: Madeline Ellis of Mimosa by m.e., a local jewelry maker, in town (Baton Rouge, LA) and I started a conversation about collaborating on a project together. So after conversations we decided to do something focusing on our US states, a handmade notebook and necklace. We started right before Hurricane Sandy, but we also knew from living in many hurricane seasons in Louisiana (and felt the impact) that the “state” sets had potential to help with relief whenever the people of a state are affected by some sort of hardship. We started with the states Louisiana and New York (because I was going to exhibit at an Indie craft market in Rochester). As soon as Hurricane Sandy made landfall we agreed to make a New Jersey set as well. At that point when the New York & New Jersey sets were ready to sell we decided to give 50% of the sales to Hurricane Sandy relief. So far we’ve donated to the Red Cross and to the Humane Society to help with recovery (we are both big animal lovers too).

The community reaction so far has been good. Most people are amazed that we are giving anything to charity which is so strange to me. But I think it makes people feel good when they spend money on things that help in some way.

We’ve also had a month long sale in the past to help Tsunami relief in Japan, where we gave 50% of sales. We’ve also given a percentage to the Natures Conservatory or other groups that help restore the Louisiana coast from the sale of our last three limited edition calendars.

Basically, it’s my intention to always give back. And letterpress is such an amazing way to do that. With the history of manifestos to Constitutions, letterpress printing has spread the word of progress and restoration. Honestly, I haven’t had the time to do more projects like this (hustling to keep this small business growing keeps me busier than ever) but we try wherever we can. I’m excited about the “state” notebook/necklace sets because I think they will be able to help when places need it.

Jennifer Parsons – Tiny Pine Press

I got involved with the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2008 when I designed their first Gala invitation. I had worked with Mariska Hargitay (founder and president) in the past on her custom stationery orders, so they reached out to me to see if I would be involved. It was a very simple invitation which was printed digitally because of the quantity and scope, but I was honored to help such an amazing group get the annual fundraising started. It was obvious from the get go that the Tiny Pine Press aesthetic really meshed perfectly with JHF. I quickly became friends with everyone who worked at the foundation. I went to the first Gala and was incredibly touched by their message and vision for helping heal, educate, and empower.

Jen Parsons Joyful Heart

Joyful Heart particularly spoke to me and my own personal healing as a survivor of abuse. One of the things that JHF focuses on in its programming is art therapy: working with your hands to express yourself. They put a lot of emphasis on the healing effects of being creative and putting things on paper. Journalling and collage help the mind relax and in a way focus on self healing. When I learned about this, I realized that printing and graphic design does this for me. Once I am focused on the press, I am able to feel free–which is the ultimate goal.

As I got more and more involved with Joyful Heart, I noticed they focused very much on gratitude. And what way to express gratitude but through the old fashioned mail. So as a gift for the 3rd annual gala, I designed the gratitude cards (it’s my handwriting!) and printed them up on my Chandler & Price 10×15 press. Loving every one. Then I glued rhinestones, as a nod to the sparkle of life in each of us and the element of fun and silliness. After the response from the gala, I decided to produce them in bulk and donate all of the proceeds to Joyful Heart. It was the least I could do after they helped me so much in my healing.

In life it is important that even though things are tough and overwhelming sometimes, we have to keep breathing. This is another message that Joyful Heart has given me that I wanted to give to everyone else. So a couple of years later, I decided to create the “inhale peace, exhale joy” cards, and we put them on Etsy with all the proceeds benefiting the foundation as well.

Overall, the response to the Joyful Heart cards has been great. Sometimes people buy them for themselves and some give them as gifts. Either way, I am happiest when lots are selling so I can keep making more. It makes me feel really great to give back in a way that comes easy to me.

Another special project that I’ve worked on was creating one-of-a-kind pieces for a Japanese letterpress project to benefit orphans of the tsunami n Japan last year called Letterpress of Pray by Bluemoon Letterpress. For this one, I was in a stamp store and so inspired by beautiful vintage Japanese postage stamps that I created a letterpress piece around that. I wrote in my handwriting my prayer for the japanese orphans, and I put a Japanese stamp and an American vintage stamp in “to:” and “from:” boxes. I made twenty of these and shipped them off to Japan with hopes that someone would value this little piece of art enough to help a worthy cause.

Maggie Cambell – Campbell Raw Press

I’ve wanted to build giving back into our business for at least the last year. When I heard Harold talk about the way Boxcar & Smock have made this into part of their business, I felt like I had found a model and wanted to do the same, sooner rather than later. I think making beautiful stationery is as noble as any other pursuit you love, but I also wanted to give something to folks who were doing the hard work in the world, making life better for whoever they could.

Maggie Campbell Autograph

There are a couple of areas that appealed to me right off the bat. I knew I wanted to do something with women and children who needed more than they had or were in bad situations. I found Safe Horizon through Charity Navigator and we support them now with 5% of the sales from our Autograph Cards. They assist victims of domestic violence and child abuse and have offices in many of the NYC courthouses, so they’re very present and accessible.

Maggie Cambell Over Through Woods
Maggie Campbell Joy

We also had a dear friend from high school, Josh Casteel, who died this past August of stage 4 adenocarcinoma lung cancer almost certainly because of his military service in Afghanistan, tending burn pits, after he became a conscientious objector. 5% of the sales from our new holiday cards (Over the River & Joy to the World) go to Iraq Veterans Against the War in his honor.

Maggie Campbell Calendar

Finally this year, my mother in-law was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, which has been a pretty terrible way to put all of our priorities front and center. $15 from the sale of each 2013 cyanotype + letterpress calendar and $5 from the sale of each Book of Days perpetual calendar go to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, which funds research to prevent and cure Alzheimer’s.

We’ve gotten incredible feedback about all of these donation initiatives. My mother in-law is extremely proud of our contribution to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund and that organization actually interviewed me recently and will feature our calendars in their upcoming newsletter! Also, customers who come up to my table at craft fairs and who buy my cards online are excited to find out that they’re doing a little something extra good with their purchase. It’s incredibly rewarding, and I’m excited to write some substantial checks to all 3 of these organizations at the end of this year!

 Shauna Rue – Purple Ink Press

Shauna Rue Purple Ink Press

I had the Boston card available for sale in my etsy shop, so when I heard about Owen Carrignan, I knew the card was a perfect fit. Owen was a 6-year-old boy from my town who passed away from complications related to a sudden E. coli infection. The Owen E. Carrignan Sports Scholarship Fund was established to keep alive his love & spirit, and to celebrate his love of Boston sports; 100% of the proceeds from the Boston card are donated to the fund in his memory. To hear that a young boy died so suddenly was heartbreaking, but I was shocked to learn that he was actually my cousin’s wife’s nephew–although I had never met him.  Selling a card in his honor was the very least I could do.

Shauna Rue

The card has been very popular, despite only being available on Etsy.  I look forward to selling it at next year’s fundraisers, which will certainly generate more sales.

In terms of other projects: just last week I sold an assortment of letterpress cards at Kai’s Holiday Village, a fundraiser that was held in memory of a local 2-year-old boy who recently lost his battle with an inoperable brain tumor. 100% of the sales went to support Kai’s Village, a newly founded, (truly!) grassroots group that provides support to families affected by a serious illness.  Kai’s mother, Kerri, expressed an interest in creating a line of stationery that can help support some of the organizations that were invaluable to her son during his fight, so I look forward to making that a reality for her in 2013.

Additionally, I will be adding a donations section to my wedding suite offerings (sometime in early 2013): when couples give a designated amount to a registered charity, I will print coordinating reception cards, coasters, etc. for free.

I love what I do.  And when I can help others in the process, it makes my amazing job even better.  Sometimes I feel like one card sale isn’t going to help much, but then I remind myself that following is worth remembering: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margret Mead)

Tess Darrow & Kara Yanagawa – Egg Press

We have donated to organizations large and small, all to organizations that we believe in. We teach an elective class on letterpress and screen-printing to one of our local schools, the Metropolitan Learning Center. The class had fun learning about business, technique, and art while having fun with hands-on training and talks of the printing industry. Cards sold at a sale in March, 2012 went to benefit the MLC.

Egg Press Mercy Corps
We have proudly printed pieces for American Foundation for Equal Rights, Tie The Knot, Mercy Corps, Operation Hope and Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. Last December, Egg Press was able to donate their time and printing expertise while partnering with Mercy Corps on their holiday card. A piece that supported the Mercy Corps vision of worldwide education, providing communities with emergency response, conflict management, micro lending, and more.

Egg Press Breast Cancer

In addition we have donated countless gift baskets for fundraisers to benefit public schools and local organizations. Last year, Tess designed a “good luck with your boobs” card to send to friends with upcoming mammograms or those dealing with breast cancer. A percentage of each card sold is donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Tia Blassingame – Primrose Press

Tia Blassingame Blues Print

I approached musician and composer Dave Eggar of Deoro, whom I had met during an artist residency at MacDowell Colony, about collaborating on a project. I really wanted to work on a piece about blues music, which I adore and constantly have playing in the studio. He was amenable to such a piece. He was on tour and I was in graduate school at the time, so we tried to conceive of a collaboration that would work despite our schedules and distance. I felt it would be interesting for people to hear a musician verbalize the significance of blues music, particularly a musician that is not specifically a blues musician.  The idea that this music would affect musicians across genre seemed intriguing to me. I particularly liked this idea of an artist expressing themselves in a manner outside their discipline. In this case, we have a musician writing a poetic piece about blues music.

From its inception, Primrose Press has had a charitable aspect to it. A portion of all sales are donated. Over the years, Primrose has donated to local organizations like the Connecticut Food Bank, as well as international charities like HelpAge. Dave and I talked about donating the sales proceeds to a music-related non-profit organization. He provided invaluable input regarding organizations that were not only reputable, but whose mission we might wish to support. The Blues Foundation with their Hart Fund (Handy Artists Relief Trust) just seemed like the perfect organization for the project. As a lover of blues music, it always bothered me that those talented blues men and women are too often forgotten as they age. In the scheme of things and in relation to the joy that their music has given me, it is a tiny thing to print these cards and donate the proceeds.

This piece [, the Blues Letterpress Note Card,] involved an extended print day of playing around with metal typefaces, ink, and sending probably too many photos and text messages to my collaborator. The text that Dave wrote was so beautiful. I always enjoy setting type for poetry. Usually it is my own poems that I am setting, editing, and obsessively re-editing, so it was a pleasure to pick a subtle typeface and set his writing.

I mixed up a blue ink, printed a background layer, and then realized that I wanted to build up the background with multiple colors before printing the text. Knowing that I had a limited time on the press, but not wanting to short change the piece. I figured the best way to do this without losing time cleaning the press, and re-inking was to add and mix colors on the press. Obvious for most seasoned printers, but at that time I was a bit of a purist wanting a clean press between color changes. So the piece started from one blue, and then builds into several that are all within the same family with just the addition of blues and blacks. During the print run as I was texting photos of lock-ups and pieces in the drying rack, Dave announced that he had just been nominated for the Grammy. So after my “Shut up!” text had been sent to him, I nervously locked up the final layer of the piece: his text.

People have reacted amazingly to the piece. It was a limited edition piece, and is almost sold out. I printed some additional small postcard size prints on variety of blue-colored Crane’s papers, and those are still available at the Print Center in Philadelphia.

I recently discovered Black & Missing Foundation, Inc. This is an organization run by two woman in D.C. that helps publicize the plight of missing African American children and adults. Basically, they give a voice to invisible people whose stories are not featured in the media. A percentage of purchases made during the month of December from Primrose Press’ Etsy shop is donated to Black & Missing. I look forward to offering additional collaborative limited edition prints that will benefit ailing musicians.

Tia Blassingame Al Mutanabbi

Other charitable projects: [I am a part of] the Al-Mutanabbi project. It has several parts, and the first was letterpress broadsides. The current one features artists’ books. It involves letterpress printers/bookmakers from across the globe. I created a print (handset letterpress & etching) for the broadside portion; and am finishing up my artists’ book (letterpress). The project was inspired by the bombing of the bookselling street in Baghdad. The broadsides have been exhibited internationally, and soon the artists’ books will be, too. The artists’ books will also become part of the permanent collection at the National Library of Bagdad.

Jennifer Larkin – The Paper Peony

Jen Larkin

I’ve been designing and printing wedding stationery and invitations since 2002.  In 2006 I began taking letterpress classes in the evening at Columbia College here in Chicago.  I, like many, became smitten.  I enjoyed the time intensive task of pulling each card, by color, off the Vandercook. Inspecting every lovely unique print. For over a year I rented time through the college printing custom cards and stationery. In 2007 I opened The Paper Peony on Etsy.

Excitingly in late 2007, with the help of Briar Press, I acquired a sturdy well kept Chandler & Price Pilot press from Milwaukee. For $1,000 I considered it a gift, and luckily my supportive husband Shaun agreed.  It came with ink, cotton paper, 2 drawers of metal type, tympan and more…we were able to carry the 250 pound press to the basement to the sweet little studio my husband built for me. In 2009 we began searching for a larger press. By October ‘Gretchen’ was delivered in the rain to our garage from KY at 7am.  An 1,100 pound Vandercook #4 that needed tons of care.

A few years later I released the lettersass™ card line including sassy sayings, petit cards and simplicity with rounded corners and stripes.  The cards bring some humor to life milestones like marriage, having a baby, birthdays, graduations and more.

In 2011, I found out my lovely college roommate Jenny was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had no risk factors, she did everything right. Her cancer had been forming for a while, and was only going to get worse. It was an easy and an instant decision to create a lettersass card that would spotlight breast cancer.  Most importantly, because I could donate a part of the profits to help find a cure. I’ve had amazing feedback locally – especially from sisters of cancer survivors and the ones still fighting. One of the things Jenny most wants women to know is how ESSENTIAL it is to have mammograms, as SOON as possible. Her cancer would never have been felt. A mammogram is the only way she would ever have found out.

If you’ve got photos online of your letterpress work that is for a great cause and you’d like to share them, please include a link in your comment!

The Letterpress Roundtable VI: Letterpressing the Issue

With the 2012 election just a week away, we thought it’d be fitting to poll some of the printers we admire to see how they’re using letterpress to inspire political change. The results are in, and they’re poignant, humorous, intelligent and – above all – stimulating. We gathered some of letterpress’s best for the sixth installment of our letterpress roundtable discussion in an effort to light the way for what is yet to come. Read the stirring responses this group has to offer and be sure to tell us about your own projects in the comments section below!

Sarah Meyer Walsh & Erin Miller – Haute Papier

We love our political coasters – which represent both sides of the current political culture – because they are fun and flashy.  No matter where any one person falls in the political divide, it’s important to vote and that was our focus with the political coasters!  Plus, we think they’d be a ton of fun for an Election Night Party. And we just can’t call ourselves proud Washingtonians without getting a great product to market that represents our area’s past-time – national politics!

BONNIE THOMPSON NORMAN – THE WINDOWPANE PRESS

My artist’s books often relate to political content and encourage change. I have been creating them collaboratively in weekend workshops that I teach for beginning letterpress printers. The classes are taught in my home studio through the University of Washington Experimental College. The books are conceived, designed and directed by me with the participation of whoever shows up for the workshop that weekend, so there is often a surprise element in the content and direction of that content. At the end of the two-day workshop, each participant gets five copies of a finished book which has been produced in at least two, if not more, colors/press runs.

Pictured above is my “Homeland Security” artist’s book, and the project below is “A Primer for Democracy”. The primer’s main theme, VOTE, is repeated and reinforced: CALL and/or FAX your elected representative, often, because your voice – and everyone’s voice – matters. Essentially, this alphabet book [printed on a 10 x 15 Chandler & Price] can be constructed, reconstructed and deconstructed in countless ways. Like democracy, as a completed structure, “A Primer for Democracy” is a little bit wobbly and requires care in constructing and maintaining.

EMIKO WATANABE AND KOICHI SATO – BIG BANG FUN SNAPS

Our first project, “PARTY PEOPLE IN THE HOUSE: Who will it be? Presidential Election 2012” is a set of 11 coasters, bearing the faces of American politicians. We thought it would be interesting to capture the facial expressions of these desperate politicians during this US presidential election, and create a coaster set which could appeal not only to those who are interested in politics, but also to those who couldn’t care less one way or the other…or better yet, to people who hate politics, but can find humor in it. Our intention is to make people think and talk about serious issues with a little humor, or even just to look at them.

The expression, “PARTY PEOPLE IN THE HOUSE” obviously stands for the political parties and the White House. (It is also intended to portray these characters as party people, who you may invite to a house party…and that they would be “in ‘da house!”.. which has been borrowed from street slang, but is cleaned up a bit in spelling). This product is not to be taken too seriously about political opinions, but with irony and humor. When you open the box, all the party people come out and sit with you while you drink! You can make a toast to your favorite politician, or make a stain on your least favorite one.

Each original illustration was hand-drawn and printed on a vintage letterpress (Adana 8×5), then edge painted by hand.

PATRICK CRUZAN

As far as my own work in letterpress, I use it almost entirely to support my photographic work, which is centered around recording local farming traditions and preserving local history as it is slowly stamped out (from an on-the-ground perspective that is, whilst the City of Portland would call themselves great preservationists…).  There is this idea that in order to move forward as a city and as a county, we have always to be looking ahead and shedding our skin, and what nobody realizes is that the system that accomplishes this on a base level, also runs family off their land and out of houses that they may have had for generations and generations.

My family has been on the same land that I live on since 1863.  Within my lifetime, I expect to see our ability to stay here challenged and quite probably yanked from under our feet.  Most immediately, my passion is to record everything I can about the small community that I live in, stories, images, [letterpress], textures, etc., and further down the road, I’m tinkering with some legislation that I’d like to see passed that would give protection to longstanding farms and encourage them to become centers of family identities. It is my hope to raise social awareness of immigration laws and their immediate effects.

Within all that, printmaking and photography in various forms play a central role.  The ability to capture just about everything but sound and taste is hugely important, as all the work I produce will eventually become key to my argument for protective legislation, as well as a dedicated record of the existence of everything that exists here, should it ever fall away.


KYLE VAN HORN AND KIM BENTLEY – BALTIMORE PRINT STUDIOS

We don’t print shirts.

No really, we just don’t do it. We’re a strictly paper-based shop and we like it that way. But, every 4 years, we arrive at a time that we feel is important enough for us to break this hard and fast rule. So, for the second election in a row, we printed PLEASE VOTE and PLEASE F*CKING VOTE shirts (and this year, totes too). Election posters have a rich history in the world of screen printing and letterpress, but we wanted a more mobile, thought-provoking item and T-shirts fit the bill.


Our message was deliberately simple, nonpartisan, and clear. Just VOTE. And if you REALLY felt strongly about it, “Please F*cking Vote”. By making shirts and totes, we found ourselves reaching an audience in a completely different way. The message became a quick reminder to the public and often, a conversation starter. We support the idea that everyone has their own stance, reasoning, and beliefs that will shape their vote, and that’s great. We have our preferred politicians and so do you. At best, we hope the shirts open a dialogue and encourage everyone to stand for what they believe in, and take it to the polls on November 6th.

Please Vote.

Jill Morrison – Ruff House Art

We here at Ruff House Art are proud to offer an eco-friendly line of letterpress products that push the boundaries of traditional stationery. When we decided to launch our line of political coasters (which are printed on 100% biodegradable paper) we just wanted people to get excited and involved in the upcoming election. It is important to stay knowledgeable & involved, and if our coasters can act as a reminder to vote, a conversation starter or merely a touch of patriotic decor, then we high-five that! Our entire election coaster line is on sale right now, too — 35% off while supplies last!

If you’ve got photos online of your work that stirs the mind and you’d like to share them, please include a link to the photos in your comment! We are taking the inspiration one step further and offering 10% off election-related plate orders retroactively until November 30, 2012.

The Letterpress Roundtable, Part V: Ink in the Blood

For the fifth installment of our letterpress roundtable discussions, we asked some of the printing and designing world’s die-hard denizens to show off their love of all things printing via their tattoo work as well as the stories behind the ink. And trust us, there’s always a good story to be told.  As always, we’d love to hear of your own stories embodied in tattoo-form in the comments section!

Mark Herschede – Haven Press Studio

I decided to get a Fuchs and Lang litho press tattooed on my back as a kind of homage to what is no longer made, and had plans to compliment it with an old style C&P 10X15 eventually; obviously not two at a time. These were by no means my first tattoos, and so I knew what I was getting into and knew what I wanted out of the artist. I found the appropriate engravings and took them to a few tattoo shops and talked to some folks/had consultations, and eventually settled on a fellow named Josh Egnew at 3 Kings who I had worked with before. Firstly, he did such a great job with the Fuchs and Lang that I was excited to bring him the drawing of this C&P; he kinda balked at it at first, as it was even more of a p.i.t.a. than the litho press, but after taking the time to trace it out for a transfer – he seemed happy enough, but a little bit reluctant. It took 2 sessions: one to outline and handle some of the shading, and the other to finish up the shading. By comparison, the litho press took him one session. I’m sure I squirmed a lot more for the C&P.

In the end I know he was very happy with the results, and the work is slightly out of character for him, but it was first rate work and the whip shading he used was top-notch. I can honestly say I will not be very likely to get anything as ornate or difficult to work with as this press, but I feel it is a commitment to what I love to do – and a fitting illustration as homage to this lovely breed of art that, if you are reading this blog, you undoubtably know and love yourself.

Stephanie Laursen – StephanieLaursen.com

When I was about to graduate from CCA (California College of the Arts) with a degree in Graphic Design, I knew I wanted a bit more of a hands-on approach to design in my life than most of my classes had emphasized (I took a lot of letterpress and bookmaking on the side to make up for it). On a whim I applied to the Hatch Show Print internship program for the month after graduation, and I got accepted! Thus, my boyfriend and I relocated to Nashville, Tennessee for 6 weeks.

While at Hatch I got some AMAZING experience playing with type, designing and printing, and learning about the history of letterpress. I knew I had found my calling, and I felt that it was such a milestone experience that I wanted to get a tattoo to commemorate it. I have always loved the Caslon ampersand, and ampersands in general (my cat is even named Ampersand), so when I saw a Caslon ampersand woodblock at Hatch I knew it was the tattoo I wanted. My other tattoos are kind of hidden, so I also knew I wanted it in a place I would see (and others would see) all the time, which is why it’s on my wrist.

I pulled a print of the woodblock, and took that to the tattoo artist to copy. I specifically wanted it to have some woodgrain texture so it would look more like woodtype, and less like digital type. Overall, though getting the tattoo hurt a lot, I absolutely LOVE my tattoo. It is a constant reminder of my passion for history, letterpress, and things that are well crafted and handmade.

Nicole Monforti – Headcase Press

While I was at the Ladies of Letterpress conference this year, I decided to get a type related tattoo as a souvenir. It’s a less obvious version of mind your p’s and q’s. When I look at it, it is a p and q within curly brackets and from the perspective of someone else, it is a b & d.

My part time employee at the shop Bill also has a p’s and q’s themed tattoo. His is much more obvious with the actual moveable type forms tattooed with the wording of “mind your” I’m not entirely sure why he got his, beyond a love for letterpress.

Roberto Hidalgo – Unrob.com

I had the tattoo done just a few months after dropping out of college here in Mexico City. My job back then required me to do a whole lot of print work for the company I used to work. However, being so inexperienced and contact-less after dropping out, I had to try quite a lot of print shops, most of which produced less-than-stellar results.

One thing I never got to learn while in school was color matching and the whole printing process, since most of my education was focused around digital output. It took me a really long time to get the hang of these concepts, trying out an endless list of shops and ruining, I’m sorry to admit, quite a bit of paper in the process. At the time, I chose to have the tattoo done since it was very useful to have this comparison point readily available, almost at my finger tips. Now a days, it’s more of a welcome reminder that learning about anything is more akin to a practicing a craft than carrying out a job.

Mark Cooley – Graphic Designer

I’ve always been a fan of type. The obsession started early, practicing the “Metallica” lettering style over my folders in 5th grade. The natural gravitation from music and art eventually led me (narrowly dodging guitars altogether) to a career in graphic design.

It was only natural when planning for a tattoo to use a ligature as my trade symbol. After a bit of research and  exploration, I found this italic ampersand an allegory of my life: … always looking to what comes next...  Over the years I’ve see a few other ampersand tattoos, but something about the way this one’s shaded and the subtle wrap of the terminals around my forearm have kept it distinctive.

Keegan Meegan – Keegan Meegan and Co.

I have many tattoos large and small, some of them pertain to printing and the rest are Victorian Luddite sentiments. The first and second printing tattoos I got at the same time: an ink brayer and a copy of a “poison” skull from ludlow specimen book. The third is the now famous “apathetic ink knife” of which is a bit cathartic now since some how it proliferated the web a bit after I got it. A friend of a friend drew it (lithoshop) and one of my tattooing friends convinced me to get it. The next one will be a little guy of a windmill……

Do you or someone you know have ink in the blood? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

The Letterpress Roundtable, Part IV: Printing Dilemmas

No one knows Murphy’s Law better than a printer. Rarely does a day in the print shop or studio go by without some hiccup or problem to be solved. And while most problems are a speed bump, there are those doozies that hit us, challenge us, and make us wonder why we ever thought printing should be our career choice. For this next discussion, we asked a handful of printers for their ultimate letterpress disaster stories. The one that can now be looked back on with some humor and possibly even a good lesson learned. So read on, enjoy, and please share your own “oops” moment with all of us. You’ll feel better for sharing.


Mark Olson – Innerer Klang 

My worst letterpress disaster occurred in September 2004. I had just moved my shop from Charlestown, Massachusetts to Asheville, North Carolina in August. The move itself was traumatic enough, but it got done. I had just finished painting the shop, getting everything moved into place, and was ready to go when, on September 7, the remnants of Hurricane Francis moved up from the Gulf and it began to rain, and then it rained some more, and then it continued to rain. My shop is about 100 yards from The French Broad River. The water rose on its banks, and continued to rise until the water made it over the banks and flooded the entire area. The next day I tried to drive to my shop but the road was blocked about 2 miles away. No one was allowed in. The entire area was under water. A week later I could finally make it to my shop. Opening the door there was about 6 inches of muck and water on the floor. Looking at the wall you could see the water line at about 4 feet. Everything in the shop below that line had been submerged in water. The fun was about to begin…

I have a few pictures after the flood and a broadside that I eventually printed titled Flood to “commemorate” the event.  The broadside was a poem by Robert Gibbons (a friend from my years in Boston). He sent me the poem shortly after the flood in my shop.

The photo of my office chair shows some of the muck that was left everywhere. The photo of the chipboard is the one redeeming piece of art from the flood. I had stapled chipboard over each typecase to keep the type in place during my recent move. After the flood I pulled this piece of chipboard off one of the cases and found this impression of the case transfered to the chipboard. The chipboard is framed and hangs on my shop wall.

Richard Kegler – WNY Books Arts Center

In late 2010, I was excited to see a Facebook posting for a show by Carlene Carter at the home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Carlene Carter is the step daughter of Johnny Cash (daughter of June Carter Cash) and ex-wife of Nick Lowe. Kleinhans Music Hall is a modernist/deco building desiged by Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Being a fan of them all, I thought it might be great opportunity to do a poster. The Western New York Book Arts Center had been doing outreach to other cultural organizations to create posters (at no charge) for events as a way of getting our name out in the community and showing off our work, and as a good will gesture to help
other cash strapped cultural organizations who could not budget for a letterpress poster. I had emailed the marketing department at Kleinhans Music Hall but hadn’t heard back. We always try to get permission for
gratis posters (or even better, get hired to do actual paying jobs) but rarely would do a poster without some nod of approval from a promoter or artist. Since I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do yet did not hear back, I figured I would just print it, go over and show them one, they would love it and say “yes, we would love for you to print us a poster.”

The main idea was to use an assortment of oversized wood type that was particularly distressed as overlapping shapes in combination with a stylized guitar fretboard made from the backs of wood type blocks. The fret markers were made by drilling a shallow hole with a cordless drill into the back of a few blocks. The holes would not affect the the printing of the other side, and wood type often has some sorts where an industrious printer needed a letter so the back is hand carved; dilemma averted.

The combination of the homage to Hatch Show Print posters a la Johnny Cash and the Art Deco caption text evoking the Kleinhans Music Hall seemed to be a good fit. I confirmed the info from the Facebook posting and
then went to work to set up the poster in the bed of our Vandercook SP-20. To render the guitar strings, various width of printers rule was set to have a full bleed and printed in metallic silver/blue. After getting about halfway through the first color (chocolate brown), something made me double check the show date. Instead of Facebook, I went to the actual venue website. Sure enough, the Facebook date was wrong. Oh well, glad I checked before the second color went on. So in changing from Saturday to Friday, I discovered there were not enough letters to spell everything out that was needed. In fact there were not enough ‘A’s for the Saturday setting so there is a V in BUFFALO. Friday had to be set in the other color – again, not a major problem, just one that needed a solution. On day two, when the second color was underway, some old acquaintances came by the printshop. They loved the poster but rather shyly pointed out that Kleinhans was spelled wrong. At that point I figured this poster was not meant to be since I never heard back and I decided it would all be put away and never discussed again.

Within a couple of days, I heard back from the people at Kleinhans and they loved the idea of the poster and were looking forward to it. I somewhat reluctantly reset the type, fretboards and the strings and tried to mix the colors…and make sure everything was spelled correctly. In the end, we gave the venue and Carlene Carter copies of the poster and she signed one and sent it to us with a nice note. Lesson hammered home once again — proofreading: not overrated.

Kyle Van Horn – Baltimore Print Studios

This is a story about a press move. These are always stressful, especially when it is a DIY operation. It starts when a woman named Virginia Sheard agrees to give me her C&P 8×12 NS for free. I convince three friends to help me, and we show up on a Sunday afternoon with some tools and box truck.

We were, of course, grossly under-prepared. I don’t recall how exactly we did it, but somehow we picked the press up onto blocks and placed it onto a dolly. After removing the doors from their hinges, and just barely squeezing it past the door frame, Virginia mentioned that “Ah yes, I remember now, it came in in TWO pieces.” Once out the ground-level basement door, it had to go up the hill to street level. We opted for the long way around the house, an uneven hill rather than up the steps.

With two sheets of plywood to roll on, and a lot of unorganized pushing, we finally made it to the truck. Here’s where the story gets interesting. The press was strapped to a very large dolly, upon which it moves quite smoothly. On level ground, one person can move it with little effort. And so logic would then dictate that TWO people could easily keep it steady as the lift gate lifts it up. We all agree and push it onto the lift.  I head up to the cab to turn on the engine of the truck (and the lift hydraulics).

In the amount of time it takes to walk back from the cab, the following has happened: The lift gate has lifted and slanted under the weight. The press shifted, and 2 wheels slid back onto the ground. Top heavy, and past its center of gravity, the press smoothly tipped off of the lift to land squarely on its back on the pavement.

We dropped the press.

One friend (wisely) let go, and the other (stubbornly) held on and was thrown 5′ from the lift. Miraculously he landed in a somersault and somehow jumped to his feet completely unscathed. The only fault of the third friend is that he didn’t take a photo.

Since I’m not insured for any of this, I’m not paying anyone, and I asked them all to help me, I can’t be upset. I calmly unstrap the dolly, winch the press back to vertical on the lift, and into the truck she goes. A handful of broken pieces came off with the fall, none of which are critical to printing mechanics. We move the press “temporarily” to the school where I work “for a few weeks”. It remained there for 3 1/2 years.

Finally this fall, 4 years after dropping her, this press is finally being put back together and into service at Baltimore Print Studios.

Here’s the press, just before she fell:

Macy Chadwick – In Cahoots Press

I was working on a new book edition with a tight deadline of 6 weeks. The images were of maps so I wanted to use an antique map color like orange, rust or ochre. I mixed up an orange and printed the entire press run of all 12 pages, edition of 50, only to decide that the color just wasn’t right and I had to start over. I had to buy the paper twice. The orange pages still sit in a box– I just can’t bear to throw them out!!

Margot Ecke – Smokey Road Press

Three years ago, when I was looking for a house to buy, I knew that I  needed a place that could accommodate my letterpress shop. I found a sweet little mid-century brick house in the sleepy town of Winterville, just outside of Athens, Georgia. It had a lovely little L- shaped yard and a decent sized workshop, which had been used as a  tinkering station for the mechanic who had previously lived in the house. Two birds, one stone. I was excited.

I closed on the house and moved my presses into the backyard shop. I  knew immediately that I had shown a lack of judgement when it came to the studio. Wind whistled through the cracks in the walls, which were
made of pallets and plywood. The cement floor was at such a severe slope (an 11″ discrepancy from wall to wall) that every press had to be shimmed, and the ceiling was too low to stand up completely. There were termites in the walls and the place was never clean. Plus, the previous owner had used the small patch of earth behind the shop as a compost and trash heap and so the ground was soft and full of building debris.

The building clearly had to be torn down and a new one would have to be built. However, with the recent move and the financial strain of starting a new business, I couldn’t afford much. I lured friends and past students over with the promise of beer and pizza and in one afternoon, we tore down the original structure. One wall was so termite ridden and water damaged, that it simply peeled right off.

I was lucky to find a carpenter who would to do the work for about $1500 and a trade (for business cards). Next, I hired an electrician who was willing to do the electrical work in exchange for a lasagna-a-week for six months. That trade also appealed to the guy who painted the workshop’s exterior. (Tip: the lure of lasagna even works for non-home-improvement trading: a haircut for a lasagna and hair coloring for an apple pie! I will add that it definitely helps when the person you are trading with is way too used to eating Ramen Noodles for dinner.)

I purchased windows and doors at Habitat and Southern Surplus (the guy gave me a discount when he turned down my offer of the lasagna trade). Lights were purchased from IKEA. And, of course, I did lots of the work myself: from the design, to the removal of debris, to helping the carpenter and pouring concrete. Pressroom patience paid off when it came time for me to operate the bull float…that floor is super smooth! The compost/trash heap was cleaned up and leveled and I brought in a bunch of white gravel and created raised beds. Enclosed within a tall white picket fence and shaded by the branches of a Chinaberry tree, that space is now one of the loveliest spots in the yard.

The total cost of the project came to about $5,000 and was well worth the price. The irony of this story is that I had only worked in the space for about a year before realizing that it was too small! Smokey Road Press will be moving to a new space in downtown Athens, Georgia in January of 2013.

Michael Schwartz – Czar Press

Way back in the Czar early days…one of my first decent sized projects was to print about 40 new greeting card designs.  Each card was two colors, with a one color envelope.  This was way back when I first started (and we weren’t cool enough to be using photopolymer plates : ) …we were using wood mounted magnesium.  These were new designs that were launching at the National Stationery Show.  As any typical important job goes…we were not given enough time by my customer to reasonably complete the job. We had about 10 days to print the approximate 120 different plates, which consisted of at least 30-40 different ink colors…so we had a lot of set up on our hands.

As the plates arrived, I quickly got started, and then noticed that just about every other plate was ruined.  Turns out…and as luck would have it…that the company we were using at the time for plates switched to a new washout solution, but didn’t have it quite dialed in. So the plates were basically being washed out too much and much of the copy was being washed away.  The real killer was, I could not tell if each particular plate was good until I had it on press.  I’m pretty sure I had an overnite shipment arriving every day with replacement plates to replace the bad ones.  So now we were having to do all new set ups for the replacement plates and reprint about half of the colors….so the job turned into more like 200 plates and 60 colors…in less then 2 weeks.  Kinda of a big deal, considering at the time, the company consisted of just me!  Lots of coffee ensued…

I finished everything, barely.  I like to think that I pretty much learn something new everyday that I’m printing…but I learned a lot on the fly from this disaster.

Mark Herschede –  Haven Press Studio

A while back, a printer friend of mine referred a friend of his customer to me. This was in the difficult first 2 years of being on my own and in business for myself. This customer – let’s call them “Customer B” from here forward – had designed a stationery/identity set for a writer.

While several “red flags” went off at the start of the courting, such as the designer being out of the country, as well as the actual end consumer of the production being in the country, but out of state, and the job was an ultra rush (2-3 days to turn around a 4 piece, 1000 piece per style, 2 color suite? Oh, not to mention multiple paper-stocks+envelope runs? Hand cranked on a Vandercook? And I couldn’t gang them up, because the designer sent pre-cut paper?!?!) WHAT was I thinking.

And even though I hadn’t been sent the paper yet….. I somehow decided that this would be a profitable endeavor and thought it would be okay to do the job. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t just turn it down, but I took the job because I like working under pressure, enjoy a challenge, and thought what the heck – it’s good money. When something is that difficult, but I still know I can accomplish it… I can’t say no! It’s a weakness, this can-do-attitude….

Unfortunately, while I did lay out rush terms and made sure the contracting party did tell me about her vision and collected proper direction/art/supplies, I didn’t have the foresight to request any kind of down-payment; I also failed to ask the designer who would be settling the tab at the end, and didn’t really lay out terms that were clear. It was a rush job! There simply wasn’t time for me to turn around and ask all these things of them. Or so I thought. I guess at this point I was green enough not to really thoroughly vet the ‘business side’ of things, and hadn’t really been taken to the cleaners by a customer yet. Live and learn!

I completed the job to the best of my ability, which is to say it looked and felt great! I was quite satisfied with the results, and hand delivered this boxed set of brand spanking new stationery to the actual end customer – who happened to be in New York City, where I’m based, for a conference. This is why it needed to be rushed! She needed to pass out calling cards and write notes during her stay. She pronounced it to be of a quality that satisfied her expectations and then some, and even complimented me on the work. She went through the sets, fanned the printed matter on a table at her hotel, and I went over the parameters and pointed out all the details, and made sure that she was not only happy with the printing quality, but I went a step further- I spent some time educating her about letterpress printing, ink spread, impression, pointed out the back of the sheets and taught her about the qualities associated with “good” printing versus fine printing, and what she was receiving for her payment. When I left, she was a happy customer and had praised my efforts and seemed very appreciative.

….. But I had still not been paid, and verbal appreciation is NOT currency.

This is where the lesson should be learned folks: Always get paid a deposit worth at least your materials and labor; the other half or portion should be the profit, the fat you are storing for the winter, so that in the case you’re put into trouble you at least retain your investment…..

In this case, I contacted the designer and was given a run around for about a week, at the end of which she informed me that I had turned over “poor quality work” and that her customer was dissatisfied with the results. How would this customer have actually been given the opportunity to look at the results and be as excited as they were, and then turncoat in this way? I was not sure how it worked, and after a lengthy email chain back and forth during which the designer failed to take any responsibility, I realized that SHE had not been paid up front by the customer either, and that we were probably BOTH being taken for a walk – no matter how sweet and appreciative this person was at the time! What a PEST!

Moral of the story is, lay out your terms carefully in a contract looking official invoice format. Do not fudge this or leave wiggle room. Be clear about pricing and commitments/requirements, and ALWAY ALWAYS ALWAYS require a downpayment or a validated form of payment on file, because you never know how it will go at the end of the transaction – even with referrals and friends of friends. Never turn work over, especially hard work – rush work – unless you know you’ll be paid and have been paid a portion up front. It also really helps to know when you’re maybe out-gunned, or when too many red-flags actually do pop up – if you don’t recognize these things, it’ll maybe come back to bite you, referral or not!


We know you must have a disaster story or two that you can share, so tell yours in the comments section below!

The Letterpress Roundtable, Part III: Shop Tool Star

Thomas Carlyle, a satirical Scottish writer, is quoted as saying that Man is a tool-using animal. And what self-respecting print shop or studio isn’t filled with many necessary and important tools? We asked a handful of talented letterpress printers to tell us about the most valuable tool in their print shop, and we got some great answers to share with you (including tips and secrets for geting the most out of these handy tools). As always, we hope to hear about the tool you can’t live without in your shop, so be sure to add your advice in the comments section below!


Mary Mashburn and Steve St. Angelo (Shop Boy) – Typecast Press 

There are so many terrific tools that we’ve been given or purchased while building our business — and letterpress knowledge — that we had to think pretty hard about which is the most useful. Then it hit us at the same instant: Alignmate! (If you don’t have one yet, it’s a thin, see-through, gridded, somewhat-expensive-for-what-it-is and easy-to-lose-in-stacks-of-paper piece of plastic that makes checking the straightness of image to paper so simple, aligning addresses on envelopes such a snap, that you won’t be able to function without it).

But we figured everybody would say that, right? Not that they or we would be wrong. But it got us to thinking about tools at our printshop that have made the almighty Alignmate even better. Mary and Steve — alias Shop Boy — have very different roles at Typecast Press (she the registration, he the repetition) so it should be no surprise that we have a strong difference of opinion here.

Mary went with the loupe. A photographer friend bequeathed to Typecast Press not just any loupe but an adjustable black metal Fuji 4x job that the company had once given away as a promo. It’s overkill. Any loupe will do for magnifying the precision of the Alignmate. By pressing the loupe directly against the Alignmate, Mary can see all the way to straightness heaven. Side to side, centered. Top to bottom, ditto. Stray dots cannot hide. Of course, even without the Alignmate, the loupe is a wonder for looking at ink density (“Get me 30ccs of mag carb, STAT!”) and consistency across the printing area, or for evidence that the rollers are too high or low. And checking those things again. And again. And again.

Steve’s running joke is that Mary looks for reasons to stop the presses; he looks for reasons to keep them going. She insists her tweakiness is the real time saver. Fair enough.

But as his most important tool, Steve votes for those little double-stick foam scrapbooker squares — Uhu is our brand. These dumb little things let you print funky-sized envelopes or pre-cut coasters on the C&P in a hurry, using a Boxcar base and a polymer plate, without the fear of a nicked base and smashed metal gauge pins. Say Mary’s letterpress class from the Maryland Institute College of Art has stopped by for a tutorial on the C&P. They work exclusively on Vandercooks at MICA. About 15 students. Each has a polymer plate the size of a 4-inch round coaster. And we’ve got 90 minutes or so in which to get each kid the experience of creating 25 samples of his or her printed design. No sweat. Pick a dependable spot on the platen. Peel one side of two little squares (it’d be three squares set like gauge pins for a rectangle) and stick them to the tympan, an inch or two apart and angled in just a hair. Tape the impression side of the polymer plate to the coaster and set the coaster between the squares. Press together. Bang. You should be pretty darn close to registered. (“Alignmate!”) The squares pull up and then re-stick for micro-adjustments if necessary. Done. And … next!


Ray Nichols – Lead Graffiti

I didn’t want to go with the obvious, such as one of our two micrometer composing sticks, but I wanted to get outside of the normal a bit. Hmmm. A roller height gauge is critical. Our electronic micrometer for measuring paper thicknesses and wood type height. Our killer old Boston pencil sharpener which puts a seriously long, tapering point to pencils. But overall I would pick Scotch tape. We use it to build up type (and once you get it right you can just leave it on) or woodcuts. We also use it a lot on the mylar on our Vandercooks to build up specific area a bit such as the names on a wedding invitation to give it a bit of extra punch. One small trick that is good if you have enough room around it is to double back one end (not under an area you are printing) so that you can easily grab it to pull it up after printing. We’ll often print right on the mylar, stick a piece of tape to the printed image we want to add impression and then pull it back up so we can see the exact printing area, and then cut the tape out in the right shape. This way you have a nice image to align against. Also we will often use an Xacto knife blade barely stuck to one or both sides to help us get it into position.


Mike Dacey – Repeat Press

After much thought I’d have to say the most valuable tool in my shop right now is my cutter, a Challenge 305 with power back and digital readout. It allows me to order and cut large parent sheets in bulk, which saves a huge amount of time and money. After printing, I can trim down orders with the precision and consistency that my clients demand. The cutter cost more than I paid for any of my presses but I’d buy it again in a heartbeat – I really can’t imagine running my shop without it. I don’t have many secrets for this one, it’s a pretty straightforward piece of equipment. Get some extra knives, keep them sharp, and you’re good to go!


Gerald Lange – Bieler Press

What I have to proffer is not the most valuable tool (in terms of expense) but it is one I rely upon and trust daily, and it has a personal history that I value. It is the lowly roller height setting gauge. I had always admired the long handled gauges used on production platen presses and when a friend of mine offered to make a dead on accurate gauge for me at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, what could I say but yes. They had made a bed plate for me a while before and it was dead on (I think they thought it was going to Mars or something).

Well, he tested the other gauges I had, historic and present, and said that they were not, um, in anyway .918 (he was a bit of a stickler) so off we went, hand-polished to .91800+/-. Somehow we ended up with about four or five dozen of these before he got sick and tired of the hand-polishing thing. I kept a couple and we sold the rest.

At any rate, I like to call it my magic gauge. Everything seems just so right when I use it. And that is just so, so reassuring on press.

Specifications on it are: Gauge is 15-3/8 inches long. Shaft is 5/16 of an inch in diameter. Mirror-polished head is precisely ground to .91800+/-. Head is beveled and measures 3/4 of an inch wide. Weight is 7-1/4 ounces. Knurled tail. Made of 303 high-grade stainless steel. Highly resistant to corrosion. Non magnetic.


Ben Levitz – Studio on Fire

Here are a couple things we use every project, every press:

Digital Thickness Gauge – Don’t guess at your packing. These are critical for knowing what you are placing in the press for packing to quickly and accurately achieve the desired impression. Ours cost about $70 from Amazon.

Depth Ruler – These little $2 rulers have a little sliding clip perfect for comparing the distance from crop to edge of sheet. Perfect for quick comparison side to side and head to tail of sheet to squaring things ups. Crooked printing sucks to correct later on the cutter.


Graham Moss – Incline Press

Back in the day there was a printing supply company in the UK called Cornerstone, and by the 1960s they were the bee’s knees when it came to ordering sundries for serious letterpress work.

They pretty much supplied all the goods you might need, excluding presses and type. They made sets of three narrow rollers with a uniform handle so you could pull two colour proofs with a single line of 10pt type in a second colour; type cabinets with cases that were made of ultra lightweight metal with plastic liners, that ran on nylon rollers and had a safety mechanism so it was impossible to pull the case too far out and drop it; their aluminium furniture was widely used, top quality page cord the like of which we won’t see again, and the make-up galley with a spring lever that told you how many points under or over your page was, another item still in use around here.

But of all their sundries the one I prize most is the type high measuring gauge. The 10 inch square steel base is engineered flat, and connected to one side is a five inch curving arm bringing a dial gauge to a spot over the centre. This has a spring loaded contact point so that a block, be it polymer, zinc, mag, or wood engraving, placed beneath it, gives the exact height, the dial showing .918 centred at zero, and one thou increments up to twenty five thou above or below type high each side of it.

I rely on it, and every block I prepare for printing passes under the gauge before going in the chase. Old blocks, purchased with all sorts of paper packing on the back, can be cleaned and rebuilt, checked and made ready for use with little trouble. Likewise wood type, notoriously various, saving a lot of effort by checking each letter for wear before setting and pulling a first proof. Eventually every piece in the shop will have been corrected through using the gauge, but that will take a while!

My biggest saving was with a book illustrated with ten original wood engravings – all were supposed to be machined to type high by a reputable supplier. One though was twelve thou over, and considering how much work goes into creating one wood engraving, I was delighted not to crush it!


Fred Hagstrom – Carleton College

I recently asked a student how large something was and the reply was “seven and three lines.” So my most essential tool is the ruler, and I am dismayed by the growing number of people–smart, well educated people–that don’t know how to read a ruler. When I do bookbinding with groups I ask them to measure 3/8 of an inch for the spine gap. I have to quickly look around the room. Some will have 3/16, some even 3/4 but they will have 3 somethings. It is not that they are dumb, it is just that they have never made anything before, so there is a huge gap in the physical and mental skills of how things are made. For instance, body mechanics. I can show someone how to cut something, or how to print something, but I can no longer assume a basic physical understanding of how to complete a task. I end up talking about how to stand, how to push down on something etc. That is something I did not have to do years ago. I have found my print tools spread around the building, mangled when used to do something inappropriate like opening a paint can. There is little reverence or appreciation for tools because they are not understood.

Learning these skills is not just a mundane thing. There is an intellectual dimension to knowing how to do things. Too many folks in education see this as devoid of intellectual content. Some highly intelligent people lack the basic ability to complete a task. They would be liberated in an intellectual sense if they had a better understanding of work. And the digital world has only increased this problem. I hope to increase people’s enjoyment of the process, and decrease their fascination with the results-only approach. I had a poor academic preparation, but I had a huge advantage in life experience from doing manual labor. I knew how to learn because I knew how to work.

 


So tell us – what’s the handiest tool in your print shop? Add your comments below!

 

The Letterpress Roundtable, Part II: Letterpress love affairs

For our second letterpress roundtable discussion, we asked some printers we admire to tell us about their favorite press to print on (and don’t spare the details!). The stories are sweet, poetic, and inspiring. Read these responses and then we’d love to hear in the comments about your own love affair with a beloved press.

Todd Thyberg of Angel Bomb Design: My most widely used and favorite press at Angel Bomb is a Heidelberg Windmill which I’ve named Kaiser. I purchased it in 2009 from a printer who had advertised it for sale on Craigslist. I wasn’t on the lookout for a particular press, but I had been using a Chandler and Price for all my printing and wanted to be able to produce higher quantities of printing at a faster pace so I was keeping my eyes open for a good production press. Kaiser is a rock solid workhorse and a marvel of German engineering with an almost Rube Goldbergian sense of complexity. Kaiser had been relatively well taken care of but was filthy and several pounds of oil soaked paper needed to be removed from his innards before being used. His serial number is 104012E, placing his build date at 1954. He bears a badge stating “Made in the U.S. Zone of Germany” which reminds me of the Cold War era where spies lurked in dark corners and the world was a very different place. I use Kaiser to print small and large runs as well as die cut and he is always a hit with open studio events; the chug of the air pump powering the suction is like a siren song to passersby who get drawn in and are amazed at this old equipment that is still being used. Considering that this press was designed around the time of World War II and is still working today creates in me a sense of awe of how things used to be built and joy that I get to use him most every day.


Michael Russem of Kat Ran Press: I’ve recently retired from printing, but the best press I ever ran was my Vandercook Universal IV (SN 21497). It took a sheet measuring 32-7/8 wide by 29-1/2 tall—which was just about large enough for the books I was printing. Not only did it seem to be free of the usual problems that often plague power Vandercooks, but the enormous size of the cylinder and bearers cut down makeready time. Whereas I would spend tons of time making complicated tissue makereadies on my SP-20 and Universal I, there was just no need to do so on this big press. In fact, once I installed this Universal IV, I rarely used the two smaller presses as they weren’t worth the bother. And as the Universal IV was a power press, I was able to print twice as many forms per day without being exhausted and in pain when I crawled into bed. Of course, it took much longer to clean up the Universal IV, so I suppose the press wasn’t perfect. It was close, though. Now it’s with Art Larson at Horton Tank Graphics, and I hope Art finds the press to be as life-improving as I did.


Thomas Leech of Palace of the Governors Press: It was a tough call, but out of loyalty I have to say that my favorite press is my own 8×12 Chandler & Price Old Style that I’ve had since 1979. It’s not the best press I’ve ever run, but it is like a member of my family. The serial number is 26099, which according to the APA website puts its year of manufacture as 1890 – old enough to be my grandfather. It is driven by a leather belt and ancient motor that hums like a lullaby. Its comforting hum and rhythmic clanks put my kids to sleep when it lived below their bedroom.

I’ve owned it now for a quarter of its lifetime. I bought it from a guy who bought it from his brother-in-law, who bought it from a deaf man who printed cards with the American Sign Language alphabet. I still have a photoengraving of the manual hand signs, and printed it again only last year.

On November 23, 2008 the automatic counter, which I’ve never set back to zero, and which only counts to 99,999, turned over for the tenth time, which means that it had printed one million hand-fed impressions: business cards, book covers, birth announcements, wedding invitations, change of address notices, broadsides, poems, keepsakes, memorials, graduation announcements, wedding and baby shower invitations, clothing tags, bar mitzvah invitations, tickets, Christmas cards, Rosh Hashanah cards, art show invitations, book plates, keepsakes, and facsimiles.

While in my possession the press has printed under the names of The Fine Mess Press, the San Miguel Paper Workshop, the Smokebrush Press, and most recently, the Press at the Palace of the Governors. When a major building repair was required here at the Palace the press came back to my house, which felt something like having a grown child move back home. I regret I don’t have a photo to share of this press.


Eileen Madden of Evanston Print and Paper: That’s kind of like asking which of your children you like best. I’d have to say my favorite press to print on is the one I get to print on the least. Our big Vandercook 325 – serial number 6086. It’s my very first press. I bought it in 2007 from Columbia College. That’s where I learned to print, and I never saw anyone use it while it was there. It was mostly used as storage, I’m sorry to say. I guess I’d say it’s my favorite, because it’s the one I do projects of my own on – bigger posters or wood type collages. If I’m on that press it means I’m doing something just because I want to. As nice as it is to print with and for other people, it’s a treat to just play, too. After I acquired the press I found a metal tag on it indicating that it was owned at one time by the Cuneo Press – their press number 1024. The Cuneo Press was one of the large printing companies here in Chicago, and also had a fine book press that created some lovely and amazing work. Bill Anthony, who was a fine bookbinder who came out of the apprentice tradition in Ireland, worked at that press. I love having the connection with that history.

So. That’s my answer. In general I feel luck to be printing on any of our presses. I’m lucky to have this job, but I can say that the 325 is the one I’m the most personally pleased with.


John Barrett of Letterpress Things: The press that’s special to myself and the Barrett’s is B 57516, a new style C & P hand-fed with a Horton variable speed clutch. Manufactured circa 1920, Horace Moses purchased it in 1922 from an envelope company in Springfield, Massachusetts. Mr. Moses, a local philanthropist who founded Junior Achievement, Strathmore Paper Company and numerous other businesses, moved it to a building in Westfield, Massachusetts (formerly owned by the Westfield Whip Co.). There it was installed on the fourth floor as the first printing press owned and operated at Mr. Moses’ newest endeavor: The Old Colony Envelope Company. [The press still carries the original machine tag; a brass plate deep stamped with the number “1”.] It was removed from operations in 1967, about the time my interest in letterpress began to develop. Several years later, for the sum of $50, it was mine. Took it home and therein began my “second” career, Letterpress Services Co. From the beginning my interest was not so much in printing but in perfing, scoring, die cutting and imprinting; a trade service for offset printers, quick copy centers and in-plant printing departments. Old number 1 and me spent many, many hours together cranking out the impressions. Presently, “No. 1’ is semi-retired; eight Heidelberg Windmills carry the work load. But once in a while there’s a job best done by hand. And we step up, wipe the dust off, flip the on switch, coax the hand lever up to engage the clutch. And get goose bumps listening to the clack, clack, clack of the spliced leather belt. B 57516. . . ninety plus years and still pressing the letters.


Mark McMurray of Caliban Press: Well… my favorite press is really my first press, the one I bought with a deep breath, thinking: “in for a penny, in for a pound” after finishing just a week or two of letterpress classes at Red Ozier Press in lower Manhattan in 1985. It’s a 1947 Vandercook model 4T, serial number 10903, which is now tattooed over my heart. It came out of a commercial printer’s shop in New York that I was doing other business with at the time. Although it had been pushed to a corner and was not in use it had been well maintained over the years—which I’ve tried to continue. I remember my horror when suddenly one day one of the inking rollers started to wobble, then shock when I discovered that this was caused by a cracked bushing that was made out of wood (!), then relief to find that I could actually get a replacement (also wood) and fix it myself. (Thank you, Fritz, at NA Graphics).

But my other favorite press (come on, life is too short for only one love) is a R. Hoe Washington. As I recall, Hoe began making these in the early 1830’s when he somewhat unscrupulously appropriated the famous “figure 4” toggle joint from another manufacturer. Most of the Washingtons that I’ve come across have had serial numbers cast on them. Mine does not. Therefore I’m assuming it’s early in their production cycle and I date it somewhere around 1835. I suspect press historians may have some views on this matter. I acquired mine from the late wood engraver Frank C. Eckmair who got it not far from his home in Gilbertsville, New York. A local Northern New York printer, Jim Benvenuto, helped me set it up and adjust the platen height and I’m always surprised at how well it prints, given its age and technology. So there… my two favorite presses.


Brooks Chambers of Mamas Sauce: My main squeeze is an Original Heidelberg. Serial # 49582.
We adopted our Windmill from her original owner a couple of years ago. “Heidi,” as we’ve come to call her, was the workhorse of a family-owned basement print shop in Buffalo from the day she rolled off the line. We found her lovingly entombed with a host of tools, spare parts, and other presses that had been with Heidi since day one. The whole gang came with us to Orlando (no toy gets left behind) and Heidi still sits at the heart of this menagerie. Every time we give a tour, people react to her the same way that I did at our first meeting: they stop, stare, and smile. At that point in the tour, I’ve learned to shut up and get out of the way.

She isn’t the first Windmill I’ve had the pleasure of running, but she’s the best. If I had to put words to it, I’d say she’s delightfully invisible. She’s invisible in the way that every good interpreter ought to be. Other presses often interject, leaving the marks of their own idiosyncrasies throughout the run (even if their operator is the only one who knows). Heidi does exactly what I ask her to. Every. Single. Time. That kind of control gives you the freedom to defer to the artwork for inspiration. That kind of control forces you to become a better printer. Before we got Heidi, I could blame a lot my shortcomings on the press. Not anymore. Now the press gets all the blame for my success. She’s teaching me a lot about knowing when to shut up and get out of the way.


Brad Ewing of Marginal EditionsMy favorite press is the  Vandercook Uni III.  It has an adjustable bed and its rollers are super dialed in!! The serial number is #26318.  It’s currently located on 6th avenue and 29th street in Manhattan.

Leslie Miller from Grenfell Press told me that the press came from Middletown, New York about 20-25 years ago. It was large enough that it was taken apart and brought up to the 7th floor by placing the press on top of the elevator.

I have been printing lead and polymer plates on the press since 2005. I have also printed laser cut plexi, etched copper plates, leather, and even potatoes on this press. The ink splatters that have built up over the years on my Vandercook serve as a happy reminder of many beautiful print projects accumulated.


Is it any surprise that we love our presses? All of these presses have earned our love and loyalty and even a name or two. Now it’s your turn to tell us about the one that grabbed your heart and makes you a better printer. If you’ve got photos online of your press and you’d like to share them, please include a link to the photos in your comment!

Introducing the Letterpress Roundtable: Essential Books about Letterpress

Welcome to the first Letterpress Roundtable Discussion – a new “venue” where we’ll ask a group of letterpress experts for their experienced opinions on a whole range of topics, one question at a time. We’ll ask the question and gather some answers to start things off, but we want all of you to chime in to keep the discussion going. This will be a fun learning exchange as more and more of the extended letterpress community participates, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below!

Let’s launch with our first question – What is the one book on printing that everyone should read?


The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

Recommended by: Jenny Wilkson of Wilkson

Why: Not a letterpress manual per se, but it’s still a book that every printer should absorb early on in their career, as most of the information therein applies to hand composition as much as computer typesetting. In one compact paperback, we have a well curated history of type, principles of typographic rhythm, proportion, and hierarchy, and Jenny’s favorite: a fascinating chapter on the geometry of page proportion. The book is beautifully written, but perhaps what makes it most unique and compelling is that Bringhurst draws parallels between typography and music, literature, and the natural world throughout. This book is readily available on line.


Letterpress Printing, A Manual for Modern Fine Press Printers by Paul Maravelas

Recommended by: Casey McGarr of Inky Lips Press

Why: This book speaks to printing on a Vandercook and platen presses, and references printing, makeready, typography, vocabulary, ink, presses, platen, proof presses, and much more. This was the text Casey used in Texas when teaching a letterpress class, and a printer would enjoy this book since it talks about current letterpress practices. Available at Oak Knoll and other online outlets.


Printing Digital Type on the Hand-Operated Flatbed Cylinder Press by Gerald Lange

Recommended by: Casey McGarr of Inky Lips Press

Why: For the practicing graphic designer that wants to print without having typecases full of metal and wood type, this is a must have in the print shop and by the computer (currently out of print- Ebook available soon).


Printing Types: Their History, Forms and Use by Daniel Berkeley Updike

Recommended by: Michael Bixler of The Press and Letterfoundry of Michael & Winifred Bixler 

Why: Bixler calls the two volume set a terrific history of type. He admits it’s a little dry and not everyone will find it interesting, but it’s a #1 must read for anyone interested in type. It was printed in 1922, is very scholarly and worth it for the reproductions of 14th to 18th century type.


Paragraphs on Printing by Bruce Rogers

Recommended by: Scott Vile of the Ascensius Press

Why: Scott’s opinion is both poetic and practical:

To be somewhat glib, the one book on printing that everyone should read is all the books on printing. But if I had to choose one, it would be. Though focused primarily on book design, the amateur with ink in their blood would benefit greatly from the snippets of information on what makes a beautifully printed page. We all have access to an overwhelming number of typefaces, borders, decorations, and patterns. We can, in a day or two, receive a Boxcar plate with our own mental signature of what we believe good design to be, and then print from the plate with bottomless impression. What we desire, as letterpress printers and designers, is a beautifully printed page; this requires much more than a deep impression. It requires study, patience, character, and a careful examination of how design problems were solved in the past. Does the design look as though it were inevitable? That is success in printing.

I cannot state it any better than Rogers:

“Finally, it may be said that the decorative value of a simple page of beautiful type, beautifully printed, is a value quite apart from the esthetic pleasure given us by any other of the graphic arts. So elusive it is that it becomes difficult to analyze or describe; printing in its essential simplicity occupies a compartment all its own amongst the graphic arts. . . . You may be assured, however, that there is no golden road to fine printing. One must continually give his best effort, and only his best, to every piece of work he undertakes. The result will be a lasting thing of beauty—or not—according to his capacity as a workman and his taste as an artist.”


Daniel Keleher of Wild Carrot Letterpress

Recommendation: I cannot name just one book – my printing education came from many different sources. My advice? Seek out basic instructional texts and look for that one little hint that you have not read before.


General Printing: An Illustrated Guide to Letterpress Printing by Cleeton, Pitkin & Cornwell

Recommended by: Peter Kruty of Peter Kruty Editions

Why: Well, here is the book that everyone used at one time or another in their ‘apprenticeship’ to be letterpresser. It was used to teach highshoolers a trade in printing when all was hot metal. I was tickled to see that it is back in print and available from Amazon for $24.95 in a smart new yellow hardcover. No other book is going to show you the right way to tie a form for galley storage using kite string. My only concern is that every other contributor to this blog will recommend this book too, but hey, maybe in the end we are all just big highschoolers slaving away at the machines like it was still the 50’s.


Printing on the Iron Handpress by Gabriel Rummond

Recommended by: Peter Kruty of Peter Kruty Editions

Why: Everything, and I mean everything, about handpress printing, paper dampening, metal type handling, the works. Since nearly all of what we do at the studio is polymer, text and image, it’s interesting that the two books I’m recommending are for hot metal. Ah well, I guess plastic printing is a mast we all tie ourselves to at our own education and peril.


Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type by Geoffrey Dowding

Recommended by: Carol Blinn of Warwick Press

Why: It is a classic. One can still get the best education by looking at books designed by the best – W. A. Dwiggins, Bruce Rogers, Giovanni Marderstieg and his son, Martino, and don’t forget all of the private press people who have gone before – plus new(ish) designers – all of these people were considered great for many reasons – use of classic typefaces, clean use of white space, delicate arrangements of type on a page just the right size for a project – open your eyes and look. And another thing, read your heart out to become educated in how words are put together to make sense. Read books by authors whose work and words you love. Immerse yourself with language. A good printer/designer should be educated in all things dealing with printed pieces – so don’t just become a worker bee, become a well-rounded professional printer/designer/editor/artist.

Having a good teacher is still the best way to learn how to do most things. Books with instructions are fine up to a point, but particularly in this world of ours – if you can’t get to the teacher, at least study their books. If they are still alive, contact them, pester them, and ask your questions. Bring them cookies and ask to stay for a day or two to learn how to make decisions in type and space and materials. Be grateful and thank them. And then go on to make your own mistakes and learn from them.


Do you agree, disagree, or have your own must-read book for printers? Tell us in the comments section below. We all hope to take away some great suggestions to add to your printing bookshelves!