Boxcar Talk With Johnny Brewton

From mind-boggling multiple color runs to must-have limited editions, from vinyl to Hunter S. Thompson, the elusive (and quite captivating) Johnny Brewton of X-Ray Book and Novelty Co. has a great story — read on to find out how he got started in letterpress printing and where his business is heading.

Johnny Brewton of X-Ray Book and Novelty Co. wows with letterpress magic.

LETTERPRESSED FOR DETAILS I’m a letterpress printer, graphic designer & small press publisher with a focus on limited edition projects. I publish the assemblage magazines X-Ray & Bagazine plus assorted chapbooks, broadsides, artist books and miscellaneous odd print projects.

PRINTING AS A NECESSITY I was living in the San Francisco Mission district in early 1993 and began work on the first issue of X-Ray. It was to be a limited edition assemblage journal of sorts, non-disposable with original art and hand printing similar to a copy of Wallace Berman’s Semina.

Letterpress was the perfect tactile medium. So I began designing the inserts for letterpress, and paid printers like Artnoose and The Toxic Coyote to run them for me. Eventually – and out of necessity – I acquired my own press and began doing the printing myself.

WEST COAST WONDERS We go back and forth between our house in Grass Valley California and our apartment in San Francisco (lower Haight). My studio is located in the basement of the house my Dad built (in Grass Valley). We’re on 5 acres surrounded by Cedar, Black Oak and Sugar Pine trees. It’s a nice place to work & call home.

PRINTING MENTORS Jon and Louise Webb who published Outsider (Loujon Press), Wallace Berman (Semina), Graham Mackintosh (White Rabbit Press) and of course H.N. Werkman.

THE DAILY GRIND Step 1. Wrap my head around the obvious big idea and make a rough first draft – just to get it out of the way and grasp the concept.

Step 2. Take an abstract sideways approach, which is usually too wacky and avant-garde for a client. It’s always good to try something that’s the opposite of whatever seems obvious.
Step 3. I combine steps 1 and 2 and make a mutant third version. That process can change depending on who I’m working with. I’ll usually go with the one that’s the most appropriate for the integrity of the project.

DESIGNS THAT STAY TRUE TO THE CRAFT Sometimes I’m asked to design to look like letterpress when the piece is to be mass produced and offset printed. I avoid the exaggerated and over distressed look. It’s become overused and cheapens the craft. Once you see this used in a T.G.I. Friday’s commercial the jig is up!

FULL TIME FUN Not running the press full time yet but I print as much as possible and hope to be running it full time by the end of the year. Working out some details, website and getting ready to launch X-Ray Letterpress Service.

PRESS HISTORY Around 1994 while visiting my Dad I came a cross a little Kelsey 5 x 8 at a junk shop. I didn’t buy it but I told my Dad about it. He went down, purchased it and gave it to me for my birthday. I still have it.

Press List: Vandercook Universal No.1, Poco Proof Press, C&P 8×10, Kelsey 5×8.

Seeds on Hard Ground – Tom Waits
The Sudden Fart of Billy Childish – Billy Childish
Mistah Leary, He Dead by Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson – X-mas in Woody Creek
Richard Brautigan chapbook: Desire in a Bowl of Potatoes
POOP! – Charles Bukowski/Michael Montfort Box of Photos & Broadside
Bern Porter FOUNDS 1- 9
True Confessions – Tom Waits
The assemblage magazines X-Ray and Bagazine
Broadside of the Month Club. B.O.T.M.C.
Tom Waits Orphans LP and CD set
Neil Hamburger Heckle Cards 1 & 3
Neil Hamburger & Pleaseeasaur Souvenir Record
Instructions for Redemption – Mark Faigenbaum
Tanka-Toys – August Kleinzahler
The American Scene – F.N. Wright
Outrun the Blast – John Brewton Sr.
City Lights Bookstore 1969 – Michael Horowitz
In Search of Yage A William S. Burroughs Pictorial
13 Jazz Poems – A.D. Winans
The Ferlinghetti Arcane – Jack Hirschman
(to name a few)

BOXCAR’S ROLE I still use wood and lead type, but the Boxcar base and polymer plates have expanded the possibilities. It allows me to liberate the type and experiment in ways that I thought weren’t possible with multi color projects.

SHOP TIPS I’m probably not the best guy to be giving anyone business advice so here goes nothing: Don’t print anything you don’t want to look at for more than 15 impressions. Always be sure the project (at least) pays for itself.

If you’re not getting the desired result (no matter what you try and everything seems to be correct), clean off the ink, redo the tympan (packing) and start over. Always keep a keep roller gauge handy. Share your knowledge. Make the world a more interesting place with what you produce. Take your time. Have fun!

WHAT’S NEXT In addition to X-Ray Letterpress Service, we also have a few interesting projects in the works: Bagazine 5 which includes work by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, Richard Hell, Tom Waits and more. We have a few chapbooks and artists books lined up and are discussing additional projects with Richard Hell, Dan Melchior, Billy Childish, and maybe even a booklet + vinyl record of the Tim Leary, John Lennon, Yoko Ono conversation from the 1969 Bed-In. We’ll see…

Big round of thanks to Johnny for letting us get a sneak peek on X-Ray Book & Novelty Co.!