Printing In the Mitten: an interview with Lynne Avadenka

Following the hum and surge of industrial buzz that abounds in Detroit, Lynne Avadenka uses letterpress printing to create distinctive mixed media works in the forms of prints, artist’s books, and personal art. Coming from a printing background that boasts over 35 years of passion, printing curiosity, and a love for type, Lynne re-crafts the components of being a power printer in today’s market by combining these sought-after traits and being able to share the joys of printing by pioneering Signal-Return — a community based print shop. We caught up with Lynne between print runs to get the scoop on how life with letterpress keeps one’s heart skipping a beat.

Lynne Avadenka of Detroit, Michigan and of Signal-Return Press.

FALLING FOR LETTERPRESS I have lived in the Detroit area all my life and I studied art and printmaking at Wayne State University. I’ve always loved letterforms, books and prints, I’ve worked as a professional calligrapher, and I fell in love with letterpress printing while in graduate school.

DETROIT INK When I graduated with an MFA in 1981 there was very little communal printmaking activity in Detroit, so I set up my own studio/print shop. I now have an SP-15, but began printing on a small platen press, moved up to a Vandercook #4, and then traded that for the SP-15 around 20 years ago. I also have an etching press. I love the fact that my studio is steps away from the rest of my house and that I can go to work in my pajamas.

A look inside Signal-Return Press in Detroit Michigan

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT When I was in graduate school, Susan Kae Grant came to teach photography at Wayne State University. She learned letterpress and book arts at University of Madison-Wisconsin and wanted to share it with Wayne students, so she set up a shop (one Vandercook #4 and some type) in the basement of the Fine Arts Building. I took her class and everything I loved ‐ books, letterforms, making multiples, and hand printing ‐ all came together.

Letterpress work samples from Lynne Avadenka of Signal-Return Press.

left: Gone I, 2014, letterpress from wood type and photopolymer, powdered graphite
right: Gone III, 2014, letterpress from wood type and photopolymer, powdered graphite

I was in graduate school before there were degrees in book arts and printing, so I learned by printing on my own, reading as much as I could, and taking workshops (thank you Center for Book Arts New York).

DESIGNED TO PRINT I am artist/printer. I use my press to create limited edition books and prints, but I also consider it a crucial art-making tool to create unique mixed media works.

Letterpress work samples from Lynne Avadenka of Signal-Return Press.The Solutions to Brian’s Problem, 2011 (written by Bonnie Jo Campbell), pochoir, letterpress from photopolymer, wood veneer

PRINTING FEATS My limited edition books and prints have been acquired by institutions all over the world: The Library of Congress, The Meermano Museum, in the Netherlands, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Biblioteck zu Berlin, The New York Public Library, The British Library, The Jewish Museum NY and numerous university special collections libraries.

For the last three years I have served as Artistic Director of Signal-Return, a community letterpress studio in Detroit. I am one of a talented team of four sharing the beauty of letterpress printing with a wide community of artists and arts enthusiasts across the Detroit area.

Letterpress work samples from Lynne Avadenka of Signal-Return Press.
The Solutions to Brian’s Problem, 2011 (written by Bonnie Jo Campbell), pochoir, letterpress from photopolymer, wood veneer

BOXCAR’S ROLE I started using Boxcar plates on a particular limited edition project, the first in a series of works devoted to contemporary Israeli writers. I didn’t have enough Hebrew type in metal to produce the edition, so I designed the book pages using a digital design program and then had Boxcar make plates from my files. I can’t remember who first recommended Boxcar Press, but after trying several other companies, I have been using Boxcar Press exclusively for years now for both text and image photopolymer plates.

A look inside the Signal-Return Press shop.

PRESS HISTORY My first press was a small Chandler Price platen press with an 8 x 10 chase.

SHOP TIPS Years ago an excellent Detroit letterpress printer, Leonard Bahr, shared an invaluable trick with me — and although the better-trained letterpress printers might frown at this, I’ve found it to be invaluable. If you want to set type in an asymmetric shape, or “sprinkle” type on the bed, roll up snake like coils from oil based modeling clay and form them around the type to hold it in place on the press bed.

Letterpress work samples from Lynne Avadenka of Signal-Return Press. Letterpress work samples from Lynne Avadenka of Signal-Return Lamentations 2009, (Chapter 5), woodcut, pochoir, letterpress from photopolymer
bottom: Lamentations, 2009,(title page) letterpress from photopolymer

WHAT’S NEXT I intend to make some real progress on limited edition projects that have been languishing: one is a tribute to the Dutch letterpress printer/artist H. N. Werkman, and the other is a book project based on a prominent contemporary writer’s story written and published totally on Twitter.

An immensely large round of applause out to Lynne for letting us get a look inside her wonderful printing world!

Following the Trail To Deep Wood Press

Huddled in between the breathtaking white pines of the Northern Michigan forest perches the letterpress and fine bookbindery of Deep Wood Press. Chad Pastotnik, opens the door to his peaceful printing retreat to let us take a tour of this Antrim County gem.


THE PRESSES Hmm, 9 presses. A 10×15 Windmill, 8×12 C&P OS, C&P Pilot OS, 3×5 & 5×8 Kelsey for platens. A Little Giant & Vandercook 219 OS for cylinder presses. A BAG 25.5×47″ intaglio press along with a 18×36″ Blick for my copper engravings. Also a standing press, book presses, lying press, foil press’s, 26″ guillotine and 150+ cases of type.

SIZE OF PRINT SHOP The bindery is 340 sq ft, pressroom is 360 sq ft and in another building I have a 220 sq ft partition that houses the intaglio presses along with my Linotype model 31 and a couple hundred matrice fonts in galleys. It’s all pretty tight.

THE LOCATION The buildings are on the same property as my home in the middle of nowhere, nice to be accessible to the family. There’s a beautiful trout stream about 30 feet from the shop and plenty of others near by. I’m surrounded by about 450 acres of woodland and swamp protected by state land and Michigan Nature Association holdings. About 9 miles away there’s Short’s brewery, a meadery, a smokehouse and fine dining fun + Lake Michigan is a short drive away. Oh, and Detroit is 5 hours away, that’s a bonus. (N. MI humor).

FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE SHOP Everything. Prized possessions – too many to list but probably my books about books and printing collection.… or perhaps the sound system.  It’s very homey, lots of light. Nature is right outside and that’s the root of my creativity.

NUMBER OF PRINTERS IN SPACE One, though it is a private space. I do take one apprentice a year for an 8 month stretch from fall-spring.

MOST VALUABLE TOOL A plate gauge is a must for good press work if you want to get experimental with repeatable results.

FAVORITE INK Oil base for most everything, current favorites are Graphic Chemical and Ink Albion Matte Black or Litho Roll Up Black. Raw Umber is a very versatile accent color in various opacities. I make my intaglio inks myself or use Graphic Chemical’s.

SOLVENT OF CHOICE Kerosene is pretty much the standard here, too many different presses to streamline a universal system. I have an oily waste can for used rags and a pair of rubber faced work gloves for the clean up process.

PLATE AND BASE SYSTEM OF CHOICE I’ve had a 9×12″ Boxcar base for about 5 years along with another 9×12 I had made at a local machine shop. I order KF95 plates but rarely use polymer for much. If it’s a repeat job it’s done in copper by Owosso and I have various base systems for 11 pt., 16 gauge and ¼” dies.

OIL OF CHOICE 30 weight non-detergent motor oil does most all of it for the presses, scotch for me.

WHAT TYPE OF RAGS DO YOU CLEAN UP WITH Anything that’s mostly cotton works just fine. There are usually 3 grades of rags in the shop: mostly filthy, moderate and mostly clean.

FLOORING MATERIAL Maple hardwood in the bindery but concrete floors in the pressroom and Lino annex with work mats around the machines.

FLOOR PLAN TIPS Have a large central island for a work surface (imposing stone for pressroom, table in bindery & and the intaglio bed does it in the Lino room) and the equipment and other counter space around the perimeter – less walking more working. Oh, and don’t do what I’ve done – decide early on you’re going to need a ton of space and keep it all in one building.

PIED TYPE Some, but that’s what apprentices are for.

ORGANIZATION ADVICE Keep it clean! You can’t work on surfaces covered with crap. Put things away when you’re done with them and put them in the right place.

PRINTING ADVICE Tough one as I’m self taught with letterpress so all I knew is what I brought with me from my experience in printmaking and bookbinding – not much! Order every paper sample book you can, try all kinds of ink and from different manufacturers, visit special collections libraries and view printing as it has been done these past 500 years and read about the history of your craft.

Oh, and if you’re still in school take some business or marketing classes!