If you are looking for a printer to work elbow to elbow with and soak up some letterpress magic, consider John Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Press in New Orleans. John works solo in his shop down in the Deep South, but he recently opened his doors for us to see his creative and functional printing workspace.
COMING BACK TO THE BEGINNING. Let me introduce myself by saying that I feel like I occupy a place in the ever changing print scene. When I was in Junior High School I took Print Shop. I was drawn to printing even earlier after seeing my older sister’s art class lino cuts. This was the 1960’s and the last of letterpress was still hanging on in the commercial print world. In Jr. High they still started us on letterpress, even though the advanced students were doing offset lithography. By the time I got to trade school it was all offset as was my career in commercial printing, until the digital takeover. By the late ’80’s jobs were getting harder to find and I never really liked offset printing anyhow. I’d always done little lino cuts and special letterpress jobs on equipment that I scrounged from old letterpress shops and could fit in the garage. So I turned to letterpress printing as a full time job as the ‘90s began. All this to say that I saw commercial letterpress die and be re-born as high craft. I never went to art school and my orientation is towards production. Still I treasure the artistic side of the trade and find myself right at home in this revived letterpress world.
PRINTING CHIC DECOR By far my favorite thing in my workspace is my old cherry wood handled copper riveted ink knife that I’ve had for 30 years. My space has two big windows that let in natural light. I also have an overhead fluorescent fixture and use these with a combination of clip lamps and floor lamps. I think of my shop as a working shop, and decoration is definitely an afterthought. I have prints and posters from friends and colleagues on the walls but that’s about it. Equipment and workspaces line the walls, and I have an island in the middle, that includes the proof press, pilot press and galley.
MEET THE FAMILY I have five presses – a C & P Craftsman, an original Heidelberg 10″ x 15″ (Windmill), a C & P Pilot 8″ x 10″, a Printasign Duplicator Model 40 Sign Press (that I use as a proof press) and a Kelsey 3 x 5″ (that I use to bring to shows for demonstrations).
HEAVY METAL HOME I rent space in a one story cinderblock building, on Saint Bernard Ave, in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, between the Treme and Saint Roch neighborhoods. My space is a 18′ x 25′ rectangle, and the rest of the building is occupied by the owner (Red Metal) who is a blacksmith artist.
DRESSING THE PRESS My most valuable tool is my C and P Craftsman 12″ x 18″ press. I have two Boxcar bases, one thats 7.5″ x 4.5″ and one thats 12″ x 9″. I use a jet 94 FL plate and I’ve been using this set up for about 8 years now.
GOLD IS THE NEW BLACK I use regular commercial offset inks (Zip Set). I mix custom colors using the Pantone system. My current favorite color is an improvised mix of dense black and 875 gold. This makes a super dense, warm and delicious black.
PROTECTING THE EQUIPMENT For clean-up, I scrape as much ink off the disk as I can, then run the press with a little kerosene to loosen things up. I do my major cleanup with kerosene and then finish the rollers with a roller wash (Varn V-120). I don’t like to use mineral spirits because it’s too strong. Kerosene leaves an oily residue that doesn’t seem to hurt ink colors and helps protect metal in this humid climate.
A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING THAT IS TYPE I have no pied type! Over the years I’ve rescued a lot of type – much of it is now stored in gallery trays, but I keep it all sorted. Pied type is an offense!
SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR ME In terms of organization, the main problem I have is that I’m a solo operator and I fly by the seat of my pants. Every active job has a file folder in a rack on the wall, so I don’t lose track of things, but that’s about as far it goes for organization.
PROPERLY ATTIRED When I come into the shop, the very first thing I do is put on my apron. It’s like being in costume – I know I’m here to work.
YOU HEARD IT FROM ME “Be attentive to ink roller height” is the best advise I have – getting the ink to contact the form just right is the key to good letterpress printing. I’d been printing for years before I really understood that.
Huge round of thanks to John for letting us take a tour of his wonderful shop!