Debra Barclay of Ancora Press is a well-travelled printer who was inspired by the work of William Blake. She creates in her garage-turned-printshop and shares with us her lifelong printing mentors / friends she’s made along her print journey (as well as a favorite printing moment involving a Girl Scout Troop and a Vandercook).
WASHINGTON STATE PRINTER
My name is Debra Barclay, and I am a letterpress printer in Woodinville, WA. I live in Woodinville with my husband, 7-year-old daughter, 6-year-old son, 6-month-old Labradoodle, and two pretty lucky black cats, Uno and Tres. I’m a New Jersey transplant by way of Brooklyn, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Oregon. My favorite color at the moment is PMS 310 (light teal).
THE LURE OF LETTERPRESS
For my undergraduate degree, I attended Providence College in Rhode Island. My degree is in English Lit/Creative Writing and Printmaking. My senior year, I took a course on Romantic Literature and fell deeply in love with William Blake’s work. William Blake was a poet and printmaker who developed techniques to bring his poetry into a more visual realm. He combined text and image in a way that I had never seen up to that point. His poetry became visual as much as text-based, and he made it so the poem’s meaning was directly enhanced by the calligraphic lettering, colors he chose, and the overall design. In this way, he elevated the printing of information into a visual experience rather than just a transfer of data. At that point, I knew that I had to integrate my two passions: creative writing and printmaking.
After I graduated, I started looking into bookmaking classes. I found a school that had a very small but well equipped Book Arts Program. This was when I found the Oregon College of Art and Craft. I immediately enrolled in a few classes, packed my bags, and moved to Portland.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into, as far as letterpress printing goes. But there I was, learning to handset type and run a Vandercook under the tutelage of two women. Kathy Kuehn is a master printer at Pace Editions in NYC and Caryl Herfort, a letterpress printer from Texas who was there as the Artist in Residence. Many may know of Caryl from Roto Press (Rest in Peace, Caryl). Both of these women inspired me to experiment and play with the medium.
A CREATIVE ADVENTURE
As I continued to set the type for a short story I had written, my mind exploded. It was so crazy to be able to touch thoughts and ideas – letterforms as material objects with a history and life of their own just struck me on a very philosophical level. I then locked up my form in the school’s Vandercook Universal, and ended up a bit deflated. This was off course from my Blake path, as Blake didn’t use handset type in his work, possibly for this reason. Yes, typesetting is intimate, but once it gets on press and you print it with great craftsmanship, it does not show any of the depth or meaning that it had taken on when I handled it.
It was much more sterile and generic than I had envisioned my piece to be, given how emotionally and physically closer I had become to the words. This created some friction between me, the machine, and process. I moved my printing over to a hand rolled proof press, where I was determined to get the “hand of the maker” involved. Then, I hand-inked each pull, and ran the pages through one by one, skewing the registration so they would all be unique.
I actually still have a scar from this very first print run I did, as my thumb got caught in the cogs of the press as I was enthusiastically running pages through. The end result was a very artistic interpretation of letterpress! I created an art installation with the small edition of books I made with this experiment. I filled three walls of a gallery with the pages, and set up three of the spiral bound books on pedestals where viewers could flip-through the pages. The only requirement was that they wear white gloves, as is common practice when looking through fine press books.
However, the white gloves I provided were covered in black printers’ ink. So, the viewer/reader added and changed the book as they engaged with it – a visual representation of how we all change and alter language as we use it. It becomes a relationship where both parties – the ideas/text/ poetry and the reader/viewer – are changed through the interaction. We are all changed in sometimes undetectable ways by every interaction we have.
I then began to approach letterpress a bit differently, and started to think more about how words are laid out on the page, how the colors might interact with one another either through size, proximity, or overprint. I also started to notice the beautiful impression that letterpress machinery gives to the paper, making the text both a visual AND tactile experience for the viewer/reader.
A LETTERPRESS CONNECTION
Through this experience, I reconciled and truly fell in love with the exacting nature of letterpress machinery. It was through these experiments that I concluded that when I create, I am collaborating WITH the machine. With this finely engineered letterpress machinery, the ability to disseminate information in a way that allows for the content to be given the entire spotlight would now be possible. We are true partners. With that, my deep connection with letterpress continued to grow and develop into where it is today. I utilize the impeccable precision of the machinery to allow me to elevate letterforms, words, ideas, and everyday life moments into experiences with tactile beauty and time-tested craftsmanship.
HOME GROWN PRINTING
Ancora Letterpress is a custom letterpress print shop located about fifteen miles Northeast of downtown Seattle. We do custom designs working directly with clients as well as printing for graphic designers and other print shops who come to us with a pre-existing design of their own.
My shop feels like home. Mostly because it’s attached to it – in my garage! I have two 10×15 Heidelberg Windmills and an 8×12 Chandler and Price. I also have a photopolymer platemaker and a small guillotine paper cutter. My favorite thing about my shop is that I get to create there! Truly, it’s a dream come true. I also really like the commute.
Woodinville is a tourist destination, as we have over 100 tasting rooms, wineries, distilleries, and breweries within a stone’s throw from my shop. This can be dangerous, but it’s really quite convenient mostly. Chateau St Michelle is probably the largest winery in the area. They have concerts on the lawn in the summers and beautiful grounds to walk around and picnic on. In the summer, we can hear the music from our backyard, which is usually a good thing. We also have a really cool theatre production company in town called Teatro Zinzanni, which recently moved to Woodinville from Lower Queen Anne in Seattle. From their website: “Teatro ZinZanni…is a three-hour whirlwind of international cirque, comedy, and cabaret artists…”
I really love living here because it’s quiet and we have lots of space. Our house is nestled into trees at the end of a cul-de-sac, yet we are incredibly close to the city. Woodinville is described as “subrural” as it is somewhere between suburban and farmland. One of our neighbors has a horse grazing in her front lawn pretty regularly, and the one across from her has over a dozen chickens on his property. We have a growing Arts community thanks to the Woodinville Arts Alliance in town.
Oh gosh! This is a hard question! So many people have helped me get to where I am today. Esther Smith and Dikko Faust of Purgatory Pie Press were my first inspirations, as they were my first apprenticeship out of school. Dikko’s skills as a printer always inspire me, and Esther’s vision and ability to draw inspiration in the everyday is joyous.
My former boss Scott Hill of Workhorse Press is a great mentor as I continue to build my business. He’s readily available to help me with any questions I have about presses, printing, or the business side of things. I’ll be forever grateful to him for taking me on as an employee and teaching me so much about the production side of letterpress. Scott is a printer by trade, with a very keen eye for how to bring a design to life on paper.
Jami Heinricher of Sherwood Press is my most recent mentor and inspiration. She taught me how to run a Heidelberg platen, and for that I am forever grateful. She helped me troubleshoot one of my presses’ weird quirky problems, and even helped me back out my stuck Windmill, after my press pulled 6 sheets of 236# Flurry Cotton paper! I admire her business model, and her tips and tricks have saved me hours of time. My friend George Feakes of Impressive Inkreations has been an incredible mentor, giving me both sage printing and business advice, insights on efficiency, and an amazing amount of support.
All of my local letterpress trade guys are all absolutely my savior. After running letterpress for 40 years a piece, they collectively know everything, and there’s nothing they can’t make run correctly with just a little bit of tape and 18 point card stock. They’re also really down to earth and easy to talk to, and I love hanging out with them.
My husband, while not a printer, has been an amazing source of inspiration and strength. He single handedly moved my C&P and first Windmill up from Portland and got them situated on the garage floor. He also gave up a large portion of his workspace to allow me to have my studio. We are now looking into building him a lovely shed in the backyard for his woodworking tools for when I get a few more pieces of equipment this coming year.
GROWING THE DREAM
My business works out to be part time at the moment. I bought some equipment in early 2018, and spent about 6 months getting myself up to speed on the equipment and its particular quirks and what-have-you. Technically I’ve only been available to the public for about 7 months. I do plan to continue to solicit work and build relationships with designers, as well as develop a personal line of designs that I can offer to clients. Full time is my goal. I want to generate enough consistent job and print work so that I can take on an employee. There’s only one thing better than being a letterpress printer, and that’s sharing the workload!
THE CREATIVE FLOW
My process always begins by sitting down with the client and getting to know them a bit. I love getting to talk to people about their vision and translating that into a printed piece. I spend a fair amount of time gathering as much information as possible from the client. If it’s a wedding invitation, for example, I ask the bride to describe the ceremony and the type of event they’re going for. Is it modern, traditional, minimal, outdoor, etc? This narrows things down a bit. I get their wedding colors and match them to a PMS color that we all agree on pretty early on. I show them samples of my previous design work and see if anything stands out to them, either by way of technique (blind emboss, overprinting, etc) or if the tone of anything resonates with them.
At that point, I will begin a preliminary design. I find that this is really when the fun begins. It’s important to have a jumping off point, even if the design itself isn’t the final vision. It’s much easier for people to point out what they don’t like and for me to come up with alternatives to that, rather than envisioning something out of thin air. This has really worked well for me so far. I really enjoy the collaborative process during this stage of design.
I was the Arts Director of the Virginia Center for the Book from 2001-2003. While I was there, I helped run workshops and host events that built community involvement in the letterpress shop. I also created panel talks and art installations for Charlottesville’s annual Festival of the Book, which is a week-long event covering all aspects of books, from publishing, illustrating, designing, and reading. I also taught a class in the Art Department at the University of Virginia.
What I loved most about my time there was introducing the history and craft of letterpress to so many people in a variety of settings. One of my favorite moments was teaching an outreach program for a local Girl Scouts troop. I had the girls (who were all about 7 years old) run a pass through the Vandercook Universal. While I was in another room showing a group how to fold and slit the paper into a book, a girl came running out of the print shop in tears. Her mom asked her what was wrong, and she said through her sobs, “My print is over-inked!”
The very first presses I owned are my current ones – a 10×15 Heidelberg Windmill and an 8×12 Chandler and Price treadle that’s been converted with a motor. It’s funny that my first presses are both platens, since I learned to print on Cylinders. By the time I was ready to buy and had the space to have presses, Vandercooks were way out of my price range. Before this, I had always managed to access community print shops or presses belonging to friends.
Boxcar has helped me in so many ways! Mainly, making resources readily available has been key. It’s a one-stop-shopping kind of place. They have given me the luxury of going slowly in building up my knowledge by offering a place to get it all done, and with such ease! The Boxcar Base has made life so much easier.
Before the Base, I was using magnesium plates. I found them to be much softer and more unpredictable, requiring more make ready due to being mounted to wood (not consistently flat on the bottom, and easily prone to warping). Being able to have predictable quality in my tools has allowed me to focus on perfecting my skills as a craftsman. The ability to buy paper, envelopes, order plates, and pick up a random thing I might need here or there (can of ink, roller gauge) has been fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about the Boxcar Press website flow. It is extremely user friendly, is quick and easy to navigate, and borders on foolproof!
I also love the How-To tutorials, which have increased my knowledge of my presses. Also, I cannot say enough great things about the staff. I have had random moments of panic where I’d forgotten to upload a small file for platemaking, only to call out an S.O.S. to Rebecca Miller, who swiftly and promptly put out the fire and saved the day! Working with Boxcar Press is like having a staff of knowledgeable and kind pre-press geniuses just an email away!
Get the crop marks! This is something I don’t always do myself, and pretty much every time a two or three color cropless job goes to press, I spend twice as much time trying to get position. Even with one color jobs, I like crop marks once it gets to bindery. They seem like a luxury, but really they save you a bunch of time. And time is money, as well as a whole lotta frustration!
Spend the money! I’ve been there…I have tried to get away with a short cut, or making do without a particular tool or gadget (the Swing Away Lay Gauge comes to mind here). In the end, I end up spending way too much time having to figure out a “cheap” way to do something. Again, I’ve spent money, and potentially compromise the quality of the end result of the printed piece.
If you’re running a blind deboss on a stock that isn’t 100% cotton, or super plush, you can achieve a similar effect by adding a small amount of color that matches the paper stock with a ton of transparent white. Or, if you’re running a bright white sheet, opaque white right out of the can will do the trick.
I’ve also added a touch of yellow to gold ink in order to give it the punch it needs to stand out on an absorbent stock.
Letterpress is a lot of troubleshooting and problem-solving. Isolate problems, ask for help from fellow printers that you know, or reach out online. One of the things I love about letterpress is how knowledgeable and helpful the community of printers is. Also, a motto I like – Stay modest, do good work, enjoy life outside the shop.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
For the upcoming year, I will continue to grow my clientele. I also plan to add equipment so that I can add foil and emboss to my skill set. Currently, I am creating a design line, more of my own greeting cards, and some stock offerings that can be semi customized, like monogrammed note card sets and Holiday cards. I also hope to learn to paddle board!
A decade has passed and the creative gleam in Jason Wedekind’s eye still outshines even the brightest of metallic ink accent in his impressive printing portfolio. The Colorado-based printing realm of Genghis Kern has grown from two dozen cases of lead type & a single press to setting-up camp (and shop) in his dream workspace (not to mention acquiring a drool-worthy collection of hand-set and metal type). With one foot rooted in both the design & job world, Jason and his exceptionally gifted team have repeatedly pushed letterpress printing boundaries and amped up the creative oomph to their printed work. We stopped in to chat with Jason about the joys of printing, working with his mentor Tom Parsons, balancing life with two wonderful kids, and keeping up with the flow of community workshops.
(from left to right: Jason Wedekind and Jeff Shepherd of Genghis Kern)
DECADE OF PRINTING INGENUITY I founded Genghis Kern 10 years ago this May when I started printing for friends while working as an art director for a small design firm in Denver. I still remember the day when I bought my first press, leaving with 24 cases of lead type banging around in the back of my SUV and saying “what the hell did I just do? I don’t even know if I like this?!?!” I had been introduced into this wonderful world by Tom Parson, Denver’s poet/printer grandfather of letterpress, and founder of the Englewood Depot Letterpress Museum. The letterpress bug bit hard and hasn’t stopped biting yet. I spent many a night printing all sorts of fun stuff while learning the trade.
The firm I worked for got hit hard during 2009 and I was thrust into the world of self employment. With an 18month old daughter, it was stressful, but the payoff was rewarding. From day one it’s been a nice mix of design work and job work, with the goal being producing tactile work that makes both us and our clients proud. “One foot rooted in each world” is how a recent shop visitor described what we’ve built.
CREATIVE IN COLORADO Our current shop is my dream space. I drove by it in 1999 and said “That’d be a cool place to work” and now we do. It was a Hispanic Furniture and Record shop 2 blocks from my house. We have 2,000 square feet up front which we turned into a co-working space for creative types, and our 1,000 square foot print shop is in the back.
When I brought my current pressman/designer Jeff Shepherd on over a year ago, he mentioned he had a windmill in his folks’ garage. My garage shop was full to the gills at that time, but I knew growth was in our future. You see, I had moved my design arm of Genghis Kern out of my bedroom 2 years prior into a shared work space with 4 other creative firms. When I brought a pressman on, they worked in my garage and I ran back and forth the 5 blocks from the new “office” to the print shop. It worked, but grew tiresome. Let alone having to keep my house clean in case they needed to pee. I started looking for a new space that would allow us to combine a print shop and office space, and reached out to the owner of the furniture store blocks from my house. It had been vacant since 2005.
He agreed to my crazy plan and we broke ground in January of 2015, gutting the space and crossing our fingers that our floorplan for the pressroom would work out. Then the dominoes began to fall. We started with my original 10×15 C&P, an Asbern ADR-1 (German SP-15 Clone), a 10×15 Windmill, and a 30″ Challenge cutter. While doing the buildout Jeff saw a Heidlberg KSBA at auction that had inkers on it. My “dream” press. So we added that to the mix, quickly shuffling our floor plan to be to make room. Then one of the printers from our bimonthly printer’s lunch in Denver walked into our garage and said “Did you guys see that Vandercook for sale on the western slope?” Jeff ran inside and put an offer down on it. HIS dream press, a Vandercook 4.
We figured we’d deal with the floorplan when we had a floor to plan. SOON. So that became our current shop. We set the two proof presses up in our “type alley” where we host an occasional workshop. It’s fun having different presses to turn to when something goes south.
TL;DR: Our shop started out in my garage 10 years ago. 1 C&P and a cutter. I then moved 3 blocks and built my second “garage” shop, large enough to fit a C&P, Proof press (not yet owned), and a windmill (not yet owned), a stone and a cutter. What I neglected to tell my wife when we were designing the floor plan, was that if the presses were to move out one day, my dad’s vintage BMW motorcycle collection could slide right in where the presses once stood.
INTRIGUED BY LETTERPRESSWhile working as an art director back in 2003, someone brought in a beautiful custom duplexed letterpress/foil stamped card and said they wanted to add 3 initials to their name in 6pt. I looked at my print broker and asked “How the hell are we going to do that?” She told me letterpress. Hand-fed letterpress. I was intrigued. I knew of letterpress from the design annuals but had never been up close. That was about to change in a big way. I walked into the printshop of Tom Parson, our local “godfather” of letterpress and was transported to a different time. Tom printed that job and I said “I want a press (like every designer in the mid 2000s)” and he put me on the list. I asked him to teach me the process and he showed me how to do everything from hand washing plates to treadling. When it came time to print, he started kicking and I asked if I could try. He let me. The rest is history. I ended up kicking 600 cards in 40 minutes to which Tom asked “where did you learn how to do that?”. I told him my childhood was spent working in a decorating tool factory in Chicago, our family business which was started in 1908. Slave labor at its finest. But that slave labor instilled some hand eye coordination that I surely don’t complain about now.
FIRST PRESS 1922 10×15 C&P
PRINTING MENTORS Tom Parson will always be my first mentor, but my inspirations are the people out there pushing the boundaries and keeping the art of letterpress alive like Jen Farrell of Starshaped Press in Chicago. A day rarely goes by when I’m not wiping drool of my phone thanks to her instagram feed.
DESIGNED FOR PRINTI’m a designer and a printer. I’ve been hiring designers and printers. And we’re on a quest to turn some designers into printers. Feet in both worlds.
THE CREATIVE PROCESSMy design process has been greatly influenced by the door that letterpress opened to the typographic world. Being faced with a design challenge and combining passions when applicable is the best feeling. Whether it be typographically or texturally, or both.
FULL TIME FUN, ALL YEAR ROUND Lately I’ve been printing a little more, but as the workload grows, I find myself printing less and less but enjoying the time in front of the presses even more. I’m also a member of the Amalgamated Printers Association, which is an incredible group of 150 printers from around the world who print 4x or more times a year. Each member gets a monthly envelope with everyone’s work in it. So creating for that keeps me on my toes and up to my elbows in type.
PRINTING FEATS I’m proud that I’ve been able to grow a business from a passion, and employ people with similar passions. I’m also proud to keep these ancient machines and type from the scrap heap. Those two kids I’m trying to instill a work ethic in before it’s too late? They make me proud on a daily basis. I think I complained more about “helping Dad” when I was their age. Eva and Jasper? Thanks for putting up with me!
BOXCAR’S ROLE The quality of Boxcar plates are unparalleled in my opinion. We have local photopolymer plate makers but letterpress isn’t their main focus. I know that if I get my artwork in on time, I’m going to get plates back quickly. And when there’s an issue with my plates, the help that the staff provides is top notch.
SHOP TIPS Embrace your local community. The amount of knowledge gained by the “olds” out there who aren’t getting younger, by the way, is invaluable. And most of them love sharing. If there’s no active community that you know of, start one by inviting over some old printers for coffee and donuts.
WHAT’S NEXT Just keep on organizing our new space. Offer a few more workshops. Streamline work flow. And continue to produce work we’re all proud of.
A huge round of applause (and thanks!) out to Jason of Genghis Kern for letting us get a sneak peek at his wonderfully creative printing world.
Striding through The Red Door Press brought us to the warm & welcoming cheer of Tammy and Adam Winn, shop owners that love soaking up every little morsel of printing they can. The printing duo shared cherished printing advice (and stories!) with us from the Great Northern Printer’s Fair, the Ladies of Letterpress and with the Amalgamated Printer’s Association. We caught up on the tale of their first press (a rescue mission) and what makes their shop oh-so-charming.
PHOTOGENIC PAIR We have been married for almost four years, but have known each other for almost fourteen. Our studio, The Red Door Press, was officially founded in 2012. We had been tinkering with presses and type for a few years before that, but decided to make it official. We became known as “The Red Door Press” because every year we go to the same red door to take a photo. We plan on carrying on this tradition until we’re old and gray.
IN THE SHOP We currently have seven presses – an 8×12 C&P New Series, a 10×15 Windmill, three 5×7 Kelseys, a Vandercook Model One, and a showcard press. We spend most of our studio time working on prints and greeting cards, but also keep a fairly steady stream of clients wanting business cards, wedding invites, and other custom projects. We’ve only just recently started doing craft shows, and are enjoying the experience tremendously. It’s a great joy to be able to share our work with the public at large.
A LUCKY BREAK Tammy has a background in printmaking and design from her time at Colorado State University, and had long expressed interest in letterpress. Adam comes from a technical background which makes him incredibly handy to have around the shop. When an unexpected opportunity to get a press came up, Tammy didn’t think twice.
HEIDELBERGS IN THE HAWKEYE STATE The best feature about our shop is that it’s located about 15 feet out our back door. We converted a two-and-a-half car garage into our shop, so we’ve got plenty of space and it’s VERY close to home. We’ve learned that whenever we get a new press or lockers, we need to rearrange to make the most of our small space. Over the last year and a half our shop has changed quite a bit from acquiring equipment and type. We’ve also been working on getting a spiffy red door attached to our shop.
PRINTING MENTORS We have received so much great printing advice from all over. But since our journey into letterpress is fairly new, some of our most cherished advice is from a LOT of long-time printers in the Midwest, but most notably three names stand out: Arie Koelewyn from Michigan was the first person we met at the Great Northern Printer’s Fair in Mt. Pleasant in 2012, who has always been so helpful to teach us tips and tricks around printing. Jim Daggs, owner of Ackley Printing, who has been an invaluable friend to our shop as he helped to answer so many random questions and moved in our first Heidelberg. And Dave Peat, an avid type and print collector and long-time member of the Amalgamated Printers Association whose knowledge friendship has meant the world to us.
DESIGNED FOR PRINT We do both. It was Tammy’s love of design that got her interested in letterpress in the first place, so those skills have proven invaluable in our studio.
THE CREATIVE FLOW One of the most wonderful things about working with hand-set type is it forces you to remain flexible in your designs. You can’t be rigid about your designs when you find out that you don’t have enough of a certain letter in a particular size or font. Being forced to think creatively on how to complete a project has led us to create things that are far more interesting than our initial design started out to be.
FULL TIME FUN That’s the dream, but right now we both work full time. We run our studio in the evenings, weekends and of course have that occasional middle of the night print session. Some day we hope to have a full-time shop to be able to share all the great knowledge about letterpress that we’ve learned with the community.
PRINTING FEATS We’ve only been doing craft shows for a short time, but the response we’ve gotten from the community has been great. Every time someone is excited to buy one of our prints and take it home, it’s a great feeling.
PRESS HISTORY Our first press was our 8×12 C&P New Series – Tammy rescued it from the warehouse of an old pharmaceutical company. They were going to send it off for scrap when Tammy heard about it, and she wasted no time in whisking it away to the safety. Adam was in for quite a surprise that day when he arrived home to Tammy’s new-found hobby. We call her “Minnie” and she dates back to 1926.
BOXCAR’S ROLE When we were starting to put our studio together, Boxcar was our go-to place to get us started — from ink to a base and everything in between. Since our start we have continued to use Boxcar for our base systems and polymer plates. They have some of the best customer service, hands down. We love that they will answer our silly to complicated questions and are so flexible around our odd schedule.
SHOP TIPS The best things that have ever happened to our studio happened because we got involved in the letterpress community – there are so many great people out there who are willing to share experience and expertise. We’ve met so many great printers and designers over the past couple of years.
We have loved being a part of the APA (Amalgamated Printers Association) and the Ladies of the Letterpress. We’ve learned things from how the process of cutting wood type works to how use a sheet of newsprint when cleaning your press to help reduce the amount of cleaner you use. We love the opportunities of being able to soak any little bit of letterpress or printing that we can.
WHAT’S NEXT Now that we’re done with craft fairs for the winter, we’re just going to get back out in the studio and print as often as we can. We’re really excited about doing more prints and one of the big things we’ve been getting into is printing on different/reusable materials, so we’ll keep experimenting. We can’t wait to find some more events to participate in 2014 and really start getting our products out into the public.
There’s nothing small about it; sisters-in-law Gina and Katie Vallecorsa of LittleOwl Lettepress are big on keeping their rollers inked. From helping plan each other’s weddings, to acquiring a 3000 lb Heidelberg affectionately named Berkeley, to the thrills of printing their first 3-color invitation set, the labors of their love show in each detailed printed piece. Gina & Katie took a break to let us in on the whirling world of their custom letterpress home.
A CREATIVE TWIST We are sisters by marriage and have a love affair with stationery design, paper, and pretty much all things wedding related! We’ve both lived in Arizona our entire lives, even attending college at rival schools Arizona State and University of Arizona. Since graduating forever ago, Gina has worked in marketing for a home builder and Katie is a teacher.
IN THE BEGINNING Our letterpress start involved our two husbands and a C&P Pilot. We really had no idea what we were getting into, but luckily Mike O’Connor at Letterpress Central was there to help us on our way. We also follow quite a few people on their blogs and social media that we’ve never met. Looking at the work they post is always inspiring.
GREATNESS IN THE GRAND CANYON STATE You know the saying “you’ve put the cart before the horse”? We’ve lived that one! After spending 35+ hours printing a friend’s entire invitation suite using our tabletop press we decided we needed to make a change if we were going to pursue a letterpress business. And this is where the trouble started! At the time we were printing on our tabletop press that resided in the dining room of Gina and Max’s condo. We went ahead and bought Berkeley, our almost 3000 pound Heidelberg Windmill, and realized he would soon be on his way with nowhere to go. Even if there was room in the condo, there was no way to get him through a doorway!
So began the adventure of finding a home for Gina and Max in a great area with a detached garage or shop. After some searching, the stars aligned and we found a house that satisfied all our needs. The original backyard garage with nothing but studs and some outside paneling has turned into a fabulous semi-girly workspace that Berkeley calls home. If you could see our before and after pictures you would be amazed at the transformation! We are so fortunate to be able to walk out the back door and step right into our custom letterpress studio
THE CREATIVE PROCESS Neither of us went to school for design, but all of our current pieces we feature on our website and Etsy shop are our own creations. We’re self-taught in Illustrator (we have the books to prove it!) and we tend to design things that we’d like to buy. We would definitely be broke if we purchased all the different invites we’ve printed since we started!
A LABOR OF LOVE We would love to say that we do this full time, but we’re not there quite yet. Both of us have full time jobs, which means correspondence and proofing happens in the evening and printing usually takes place during the weekends. Sometimes those weekends feel very long, but they don’t call it a labor of love for nothing! Running LittleOwl Letterpress full time is definitely one of our goals.
PRINTING FEATS Our first accomplishment has to be that we’re still at it together! It’s been a long road of trial and error and we are still enamored by the items we letterpress print. We think we’re going to be doing this for a good long time! Another accomplishment was when we printed our first 3-color invitation set for a mock wedding shoot. The invite was designed by Purple Nickel Studio and it was amazing; mostly blind impression with a just a couple items, including the Phoenix skyline, in orange and gray ink colors. When we nailed that third run, it was an amazing feeling!
PRESS HISTORY We got married a year apart and had a great time planning our weddings together. It was at this time that each of us fell in love with all things wedding related, including paper products. Gina’s husband, Max, found a 1910 Chandler and Price hand press and purchased it as a gift. We figured we’d found a new craft and set about learning how to use it. Gina took a 3-weekend workshop in Tempe and then came home to show off her new skills. The two of us started out printing some cards here and there for fun and that transitioned into friends asking us to create their wedding stationery!
BOXCAR’S ROLE Boxcar Press has been amazing to work with! We’ve used Boxcar since the beginning with our Boxcar Bases & for our polymer plates and haven’t looked back! One of our most popular invites gets sent in for a plate often and we always wonder if anyone sees it and thinks, “I’ve done a plate like this before. There’s another one for LittleOwl!”
SHOP TIPS Read, read, and re-read your manual! It will become your friend! Also, when frustration levels are running high, having good tunes coming from the speakers can work wonders!
WHAT’S NEXT Most of our business so far has been wedding related stationery and we’re always working on adding more designs for brides. Currently we’re designing greeting cards for the holidays and general occasions. We’ve recently added a corner rounder from the 1890’s that we’ll refurbish. We’re also working on a concept that we’re calling Pen to Plate that will allow us to partner with graphic designers from all over. No rest for the weary!
Two rounds of applause and big thanks to Gina and Katie for letting us a get the big picture of LittleOwl Letterpress.
Letterpress doing good! It’s happening everywhere, especially in the acclaimed shop of Spark Letterpress. James Watne, the printing buff behind Spark, shares with us how he’s growing his business and eco-friendly custom wedding line. We talked shop with James about Heidelbergs (his favorite subject), bringing letterpress to a wider audience, and of course, the alluring “green” nature of the press itself.
TWIN CITIES CHAMP I was born and raised in the Twin Cities and pursued a BFA in Design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
SWEET BEGINNINGS My wife and I wanted to pursue our own stationery line back in 2004 and decided it would be prudent to be able to produce our own work. After a lot of research into what print options would be a possibility for our business, we chose letterpress for all of the reasons people love it. The tactile quality of the impression, the vintage nature of the presses, the eco-friendly aspects of letterpress and more.
PRESS SHOP GOODIES Three Heidelberg 10×15 windmill platens, Heidelberg KS and KSBA cylinders, C&P10x15 New Series, C&P 12×18 Craftsman with Rice feeder, C&P Pilot new style, Challenge 305 cutter, and a bunch of other miscellaneous equipment and tools that help us to get the job done.
DESIGNED FOR SUCESS My background is in design; however, with the growth of our business, I am finding less and less time to design. I primarily print on a daily basis on all of our presses, along with all of the maintenance and repair that is needed.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS Since I do print full time, I have to admit that I can picture a time in the future where I am not printing full time. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself since growing the business is the stage we are in now. I think long-term I would like to get back to designing more along with helping others set up their presses and repairing/restoring them.
PRINTING FEATS Teaching myself what I needed to know to consistently deliver high-quality work and to keep our machines in top condition for the future.
PRESS HISTORY A Chandler & Price 10×15 new series which we are hoping to dust off and bring back from temporary retirement.
BOXCAR’S ROLE We use Boxcar bases on all of our presses and feel that they make modern letterpress printing a lot more attainable for more people.
SHOP TIPS Those around me will confirm that I can go on forever about Heidelbergs, but one core thing is to master the ink fountain. In addition to adding ink as needed for heavier coverage, it can also take ink away. If the fountain roller has less ink at a given point than the ductor roller, it will pull ink back to the fountain side. Set correctly, this can regulate the ink flow for long runs so it stays consistent end to end.
WHAT’S NEXT We released our new line of custom wedding designs on June 1, and we will be working on our next release right after we get the new line out there.
Huge round of applause out to James of Spark Letterpress for letting us get the full scoop!
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 Editions: My 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!