Sarah Ridgley, of Pheasant Press, weaves letterpress magic: from mixing a dash of UK love with her letterpress obsessed research to seeing her designs come to life on her presses. We caught up with Sarah at her Arkansas print studio to talk shop and the irresistible smell of ink and pulling the first perfect proof.
PRINTING ON THE PRAIRIE Hi! My name is Sarah and I live in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m married to a Texan from Dallas (Kevin) and we have one son, Finnegan. I’ve lived all my life in Arkansas except for one glorious year in London after I graduated college. I love traveling and try to visit the UK and Europe as often as possible.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT Like a lot of other printers I’ve met, I fell in love with letterpress while researching invitations for my wedding. I became obsessed with it and read everything I could find about printing. I decided the best way to really understand would be to get a press, so I bought one on eBay. Back then presses were cheap, and I got my Kelsey 5 x7 complete with a cabinet full of type for only $100. It belonged to a pharmacist and had lots of fun skull & cross-bone ornaments. I immediately ordered a Boxcar base and my first set of photopolymer plates.
PRINTING IN THE NATURAL STATE I love my print shop! We bought a house at an auction several years ago and the main attraction was the 1600 sq. ft garage. There’s room for our cars, my husband’s workshop, my studio and even a gym.
I have my C&P 8 x 12 and a Vandercook 1 along with my little Kelsey. I recently bought a C & P 10 x 15 that’s in pretty bad shape. I can’t wait to get it restored and running. I used to have a Windmill 10 x 15, but it was just too intense for me. I like hand feeding and I never do huge print jobs, so the setup was annoying. I stumbled across the Windmill at a local bank auction and got it for only $100! Luckily our family business is industrial so I had access to all the equipment (and manpower) needed to move it to my studio. And back out once I decided to sell it.
PRINTING MENTORS I’m not sure about this question. I can’t remember who printed all the wedding invitations that inspired me to get involved, but I do know that I first saw a letterpress invitation in the Martha Stewart Weddings magazine.
I am completely self taught, but I had a lot of help from people on Briar Press. I started my letterpress research by reading the book “Platen Press Operation” by George Mills. I was pretty startled to learn that he was from Fort Smith and had a print shop here. I think he died right before I started printing, so I never got to meet him. I always wondered what happened to his print shop.
DESIGN + PRINT I am both a designer and printer. It feels funny to call myself a designer since I’ve never had any formal training in design. But I love designing and seeing it come to life on my press.
CREATIVE PROCESS I get inspired all the time, so I keep track of my ideas with Evernote. Then I usually brainstorm with my husband to refine several ideas and see which ones I want to pursue. Next, I start experimenting with fonts and designs until I can get it to look the way that I see it in my head. That’s the most difficult part for me — getting what I have in my head to come out and look good on my screen or paper.
FULL TIME FUN No, printing is more of a hobby for me. It would be fun to be able to spend all my time printing and designing, but I am not pursuing it as a main goal. Once you have to do that much printing, it would just turn into work and wouldn’t be fun anymore. I still get excited about the smell of ink on the press and the first perfect proof, and I don’t want to lose that.
PRINTING FEATS After I got my first press, I practiced all the time. I was really proud that I was able to print my sister’s wedding invitations only a year later.
BOXCAR’S ROLE When I first started printing, I ordered all my plates from Boxcar. I love the Boxcar Base and I love the service they provide. I make my own plates now, but I never could have gotten where I am without being able to rely on Boxcar in the beginning.
SHOP TIPS I have experimented with my setup quite a bit and have found that thin lead spacers or pieces of rule work really well as gauge pins. I just tape them onto my top sheet with double stick tape and make small cardboard tongues to help hold the paper in place. The spacers are nice because they are thinner than the polymer plates so they don’t get smashed by my base. They are also very sturdy and give me a good ledge to help align the paper.
I use baby wipes to clean my hands while I am printing, but not on the plates themselves. You can get cheap ones from Aldi that are great. A giant bottle of hand sanitizer also works really well to get the ink off your fingers. I’ve used Burt’s Bees hand salve, but it leaves behind a residue that sometimes gets on the paper.
WHAT’S NEXT Lately I have been working on trying to create a cohesive style for Pheasant Press. I am usually all over the place with so many different designs that I don’t feel there is any connection in what I do. I have enjoyed trying different things, but I would like to focus on developing my own style. My favorite eras are Victorian and Midcentury modern, so however those can mesh together is where I want to be.
Big rounds of applause out to Laura for letting us get the full scoop on Pheasant Press!