David Johnston is not your average printer. As a part-time printer behind the crisp impressions of Sharp Teeth Press, David has deftly intertwined his passion for bookmaking, typecasting and letterpress printing into a solid printing mecca inside his Oakland, California abode. Armed to the teeth with a insatiable craving of perfection and creativity, we sat down with him between press runs to catch a glimpse of the fun.
PRINTING WITH A WILD STREAK I’m 28 years old and I live in Berkeley California. I grew up in Walla Walla Washington, a town that has an odd mix of intellectual, agricultural and, at the time, punk influences. So I would work on the farm after school and then go downtown to the punk shows. I was into skateboarding and snowboarding and didn’t really think about art till I went to college and met Jessica Spring. After graduating college I spent four years as a typecasting apprentice at M&H Type in San Francisco.
THE ALLURE OF LETTERPRESS I took a design class to fulfill a course requirement at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington. The class was in the same room as the letterpress and book arts class, which are both run by Jessica.
I saw all the old stuff (a couple of C&P presses and some cases of type) and knew I had to learn about them. Jessica did an interesting thing with the class — she didn’t even tell any of us about photopolymer printing until the very end of the class, when I was trying to work out this complicated image and she let me in on the big secret. The whole class was handset type, carved blocks for images, and hand bound books. The coursework drew almost completely from an artistic and craft-based past, which I thought was an excellent way to be introduced to the field.
WEST COAST WONDERS My shop is in a large and crazy warehouse in Oakland. The building used to be the American Steel manufacturing plant, so it’s got lots of nice features like a few cranes and lots of power. The building is full of artists and entrepreneurs of all kinds. My equipment includes a Vandercook, Vandercook 1, Thomson Laureate, Challenge paper cutter, Monotype Composition Caster, Hammond Glider saw, Kensol hot stamper, and Potdevin glue machine.
DESIGN + PRINT The majority of my design is book design. Occasionally I do wedding and related stationery design for friends, and I do some large-format metal type and linoleum carving prints. But I do quite a bit of stationery printing for other designers.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS When designing for clients, I usually know them fairly well and can gauge what will please them, and draw from their personalities to direct the design. Designing for books is more fun, and carries a bigger risk because of the larger costs involved and the time it takes to make the things. I start with choosing a paper, typeface (I really only have a few that I can cast in-house), and an artist to accompany the text. Once those things are in motion, I can take a look at the title page and then the cover. It starts with the mundane and then I’m comfortable to work towards the interesting.
A 20,000 POUND HOBBY I do not print full time. I work full time for a construction company. I would love to print full time, but I’m still putting all of the pieces together to run an arts-based business. There are a lot of companies around this area that start off with a lot of capital and a product that may or may not make money. I’m trying to avoid that business model, building a company by first proving that it works as a business, and then trying to run it full time. It seems that when I reach some mystery amount of volume and velocity I’ll be able to take it on full time. ‘Til then it’s a 20,000 pound hobby.
PRINTING FEATS I’m most proud of the autonomy with which I’ve been able to set up a typecasting, printing, and binding shop. I took a small loan to buy my first press, which I had professional help moving into my garage. Since then, I’ve done enough business to buy all of my own machines, and I’ve moved a lot of large equipment. I’ve had a lot of help from friends, but I have a well-equipped shop that’s been set up by twentysomethings, including the plumbing and electricity.
BOXCAR’S ROLE The Boxcar bases are instrumental in nearly every print job that I do, be it books or stationery. I don’t have Boxcar make my plates because I can get it done locally by Logos Graphics. But the gridded bases are so key. I’d be such a mess trying to line up anything without them.
PRESS HISTORY My first press was a Vandercook 32-28. Maximum sheet size is 32 x 28 inches. It’s as long as my car.
SHOP TIPS I usually mix opaque white to match Pantone colors when the swatches call for transparent. I’m not sure how those things are supposed to work exactly, but I get a lot better results with opaque.
Also, to help get those really bright, pale colors, I usually run white on the press and then clean it before putting on a delicate color. It’s an extra round of cleaning but assures that your colors will be as bright as possible.
WHAT’S NEXT The biggest plan for this year is to print a first-edition text completely from metal type with new illustrations on handmade paper. The text is by Kirk Lombard and the illustrations are by Martin Machado. The project is daunting and will be expensive, but if I can’t print new books on fancy paper then I don’t want to play any more.
Huge heaps of thanks out to David for letting us take a closer look at Sharp Teeth Press.