A Printing Tradition: Sargent Brothers Press

Since our last visit with ever-charming Ben Sargent of Sargent Brothers Printers & Typographers, we toured his wonderful Texas-based printing abode. A few printing treasures and tools may have been moved around & added to, but Ben’s cheerful demeanor while printing on his C&P 10×15 Old Series has never missed a beat yet. We caught up again with Ben between ink runs to see how the printing tradition still runs strong in his family (like father, like son), why the down-home feel of a good letterpress print shop can’t be beat, and scored some nifty inking tricks to use on an older platen press.

Ben Sargent smiles wide in his Austin, Texas-based letterpress print shop (Sargent Brothers).

INK IN THE BLOOD I was born and grew up on the windy plains of the Texas Panhandle, where I learned the printing trade from my father. After getting a journalism degree from the University of Texas and putting in a few years as a reporter, I spent the next 35 years drawing political cartoons for the Austin American-Statesman. Retirement from that job gave me ample time to pursue my original trade, and I am enjoying it hugely.

Beautifully letterpressed blue and white wedding invitation featuring hand illustrated flowers is printed by Sargent Brothers out of Austin, Texas.

TEXAN TREASURE I’m fortunate enough to have a big enough property in South Austin to have built a nice little house (my one architectural accomplishment) as a home for the printing shop, and it is very satisfying to have a space built just for printing, not in the way of anything else. (Okay, it does also include a model-railroad layout along the walls above the type cabinets.)

Beautiful signage hangs on the door for the Sargent Brothers press shop in Austin, Texas.

FOR THE LOVE OF LETTERPRESS My father and his brother (the original “Sargent Brothers”) took up the trade as teenagers in Fort Worth in the ‘20s, and while newspaper careers took them both away from printing for many years, my dad got back into the trade when I was 12 years old. He purchased a Kelsey outfit with which he taught the craft to me and to my brother. Three years later, he brought the C&P 10×15 Old Series job press of his boyhood back home, and that is still the press I use today.

DESIGNED TO PRINT I enjoy designing printing, especially if it’s with metal type, but for almost all my commercial jobs I defer to the excellent creative efforts of the several graphic designers with whom I work.

Eye-popping color comes to life via Ben Sargent's lettepress wedding invitation pieces.

FULL TIME Since my schedule is my own these days, I guess one could say that printing is not only full-time, but 24-7, since I can take care of a client’s needs whenever fits their schedule. It’s been thus since I left regular syndicated cartooning a year or so ago, freeing me up to devote more time to the trade.

PRINTING FEATS I see that as the goal, however imperfectly achieved, of every job we do, to give the customer something we’re proud to stand behind. Still, there are certainly some pieces we’ve done over the years that do stand out, and I have a particularly fond regard for the various little handset books we’ve published (including two editions of our specimen book, and a brief history of the platen job press, published to commemorate the centennial of my press back in 2005).

Ben Sargent of Sarget Brothers sets up his Kort Guage Pins for his next printing run in Austin, Texas.

BOXCAR’S ROLE Oh, goodness, since almost all my commercial jobs are printed with Boxcar plates, it’s fair to say Boxcar is the sine qua non of our business. The plates themselves are always flawless, of course, and the service always timely, but by far the best part is the personal touch by which the staff, particularly Rebecca Miller, are always available and cheerfully willing to help us through the occasional digital-file nightmare, etc. I know you must have other customers, but I am always made to feel like Boxcar is there just waiting to meet Sargent Brothers’ needs. Thanks!

FIRST PRESS I learned the fundamentals on a Kelsey 5×8 Excelsior.

SHOP TIPS I think every printer, particularly one such as I who mostly works by himself, probably comes up over the years with dozens of tricks and techniques as he puzzles his way out of particular problems and situations, until they become just part of the craft, and he forgets they were once experimental innovations.

I can think of a few we’ve come up with, and they are probably worth some separate blog entries, so I’ll just cite one we’ve been having some luck with lately. Everybody who uses one of the older platen jobbers such as ours knows that the relatively unsophisticated inking system sometimes requires a little ingenuity in the case of relatively broad inked images. (Not big, huge color floods….with those I have learned the wise adage of one of my colleagues that “in letterpress, sometimes it’s okay just to say no.”). But for reasonable-sized bold areas, I’ve found they can be conquered with a couple of drops of something like Smooth Lith in the ink mix, and with providing a soft place for the impression to land, either by putting a couple of sheets of newsprint between tympan and pressboard, or even pasting some newsprint directly on the tympan (particularly if one is just trying to cover some limited areas). Also helps to “skip-feed” the pieces, so the ink has a little extra time to recover between impressions, and in some cases to go to the trouble of making the design into two press runs, one for the bold areas and one for the finer images. And I’m always receptive to anyone else’s ideas for this conundrum!

WHAT’S NEXT Job work has reached a fairly steady and comfortable level over here, and we look forward to getting the word about our offerings further out by word-of-mouth and our website. I’ve also had the privilege of working with a few young newcomers to the trade, and hope to continue in that way to keep letterpress thriving and growing.

A mighty round of thanks go out to Ben of Sargent Brothers Printers & Typographers for letting us take another peek into his sublime printing paradise.

Workspace Spotlight: Sargent Brothers Printers & Typographers

Before you enter Ben Sargent’s shop, you hear the bustling clamor of the Austin, Texas landscape. Cars, freight, and distant chatter of the Austin natives pound in your ears but once you step over the shop’s threshold, the roaring city sounds snap shut and a soft melodious metal clacking and clicking takes over. Ben was gracious enough to let us take a winding tour through the fine workshop of Sargent Brothers Printers & Typographers and gave us the details on how he orchestrates such a gifted letterpress print shop filled to the brim of of musing, stories, and great design.

A look inside the letterpress shop known as Sargent Brothers Printers & Typographers

THE PRESSES: We rely on our dear old Chandler & Price 10×15 Old Series, which was built in 1905, acquired by my father and his brother when they were teenagers in 1928, and in the family ever since. Still runs like a watch.

SIZE OF PRINT SHOP: 289 square feet.

THE LOCATION: Our shop is my one architectural accomplishment; I drew it and a carpenter friend built it, back in the late ‘80s. It’s a little 24-foot-square house on the back of our property in South Austin.

FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE SHOP: I like that my shop is out of the way of all our other activities and makes a cozy, quiet and compactly organized place to pursue printing. Much of our equipment — including our press and most of our 245 fonts of handset type — I inherited from my dad (who was a lifelong amateur printer) so it’s a shop with many sentimental associations.

NUMBER OF PRINTERS IN SPACE: While we enjoy in-house projects such as little books and ephemera, we have a steadily increasing amount of job work, mostly done in connection with a growing group of graphic designers in Austin who ship us their letterpress jobs. While my son, currently away at law school, has shown interest in learning the trade, right now we have one printer and that’s me.

MOST VALUABLE SHOP TOOL: We treasure and enjoy all our shop tools and machines, but I think our most valuable asset is what I’d call the zen of letterpress, by which I mean assuming an attitude that’s calm, creative and useful to the work. That would include an understanding that a letterpress project is almost always a series of problem-solving exercises, planning carefully, and having a big helping of patience.

FAVORITE INK: We have used Van Son’s excellent rubber-based inks for as long as I can remember, though the testimony of some of your other bloggers has me very interested in trying out soy-based ink. As to color, it seems like when we’re printing something we’re designing ourselves, we sure do rely a lot on Scarlet red and Wedgewood blue; they make a nice combination on a page.

SOLVENT OF CHOICE: When I first learned to print at the age of 12, my father told me, “Now here’s the drudgery part: cleaning the press.” I guess if I did have a technique that seems to lighten the drudgery, it’s wiping ink table and rollers with a dry rag as you go, right after loosening the ink with solvent. And as to that, we generally use off-the-shelf roller washes (currently using Varn’s V-120) for applications requiring a water-miscible solvent (rollers, poly plates), and a stronger type wash (Rogersolite) for things like metal type and the mixing glass. And while we’d never want to return to the days of 90 years ago when my dad and uncle used gasoline for cleaning everything, kerosene is still the sovereign remedy for dirty, oily machinery.

PLATE AND BASE OF CHOICE: For almost all of our job work these days, we are using the Boxcar Press KF 152 (deep-relief) adhesive-backed poly plates on a Boxcar base. We became enthusiastic converts to photopolymer about a year ago and have been faithful enough that our old photoengraving vendor has inquired as to what happened to us.

OIL OF CHOICE: To lubricate the press and paper cutter, we have had best results with “way oil,” the lubricant used in machine shops for drills, lathes, etc.

WHAT TYPE OF RAG DO YOU CLEAN UP YOUR PRESSES WITH: The paint store near us sells conveniently sized boxes of cotton rags, which is certainly worth not having to find and cut up rags on one’s own. (If you go that route, remember that colored rags, for whatever reason, are much cheaper than white.)

FLOORING MATERIAL: Good sturdy concrete. When we built the building, the concrete contractor asked why we had drawn several 18-inch-deep piers underneath the slab. “You putting something heavy in here?” he asked. “Trust me,” I replied.

FLOOR PLAN TIPS: I always thought the best-designed newspaper office I ever saw was the old Globe-News building in Amarillo where my dad worked, because it was designed by the paper’s general manager instead of an architect, and was arranged according to the work flow of putting out the daily paper. We tried to use that principle in laying out our shop, and placing the various elements where the work could easily flow from one point to the next.

PIED TYPE: Oh, yes, a little bit, which I suspect is not uncommon in a handset shop, but we try to avoid it by making a habit of distributing type forms right after we’re through printing from them. Nonetheless, I think we may have a few galleys still holding a little bit of type set back in the late ‘60s.

ORGANIZATION ADVICE: Other than the principle mentioned above of placing different work locations in a logical order, one of the most useful things is getting into the habit of putting tools back where they belong just as soon as one is through using them.

PRINTING ADVICE: Once again, when things get challenging, take a deep breath and have patience. Plan each job carefully, “measure twice and cut once,” and keep faith that your materials, tools and machinery will do what you’re trying to achieve, even if they are making you figure it out step by step. (Not that there aren’t things that letterpress is simply unsuited for. In those cases, says one of my trusted letterpress mentors, a wise printer learns the value of the word “no.”) As another of your bloggers sagely observed, take care of your tools and machinery, and they will take care of you.

A look at the Sargent Brothers Printers & Typographers workspace