Northwest artists brandish the tools of countless revolutions, large and small, proving that letterpress still matters, even in our digital age. Especially in our digital age.
Griffith Williams prepares to press at his Kenmore studio, East Point West Press. Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts.
Be sure to wear a printer’s apron to keep the oils and inks off your clothes. You’ll need furniture to lock up your forms in a chase. Maybe have California cases to hold all of your type. Leave space for the Es, they take up a lot of room. Your cabinets close by should be filled with cuts and ornaments. Have tympan paper at the ready, and some gauge pins. Get yourself a corner rounder, a monster guillotine, a foil stamper, a block press, a platemaker that can make photopolymer plates. And, of course, you’ll need a press. Get yourself a Chandler and Price, maybe a smaller Sigwalt if you want, a Vandercook if you can afford it.
All of this is what it used to take to say something, to take a stand, to start a movement or maybe just to sell some stuff. Now, of course, saying something is easy. The age of e-mail, Twitter, blogs and the iPad has no reasonable need for the machinery of letterpress. Art, however, is not a reasonable sort of thing and neither are the people who have something to say. This is one reason why, despite its archaic complexities in a digital age defined by simplicity and ease of use, letterpress printing is on the rise as a form of hands-on self-expression.
Just ask Chandler O’Leary about its popularity. The twenty-eight-year-old Tacoman quit her job as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator to dedicate her life to a trade filled with reglets and stones, imposing surfaces and page cords. She started her own full-time illustration, design and fine-art business, Anagram Press.
“For some reason I questioned the sanity of moving cross-country and starting a business just before the economy tanked,” she jokes, “but, so far, so good.”
Good indeed. Her Tacoma-based business publishes high-end posters, broadsides, cards, art books and more. Her work has been exhibited from Tacoma to Minneapolis and from Portland to Providence, where she received her BFA in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design. She’s a board member of Seattle’s Book Arts Guild and cofounded Tacoma’s Collins Press, located on the University of Puget Sound campus.
“I’ve been pretty lucky to have been recognized early on,” she says. “Both my fine artwork and my professional career have always followed my interests in printmaking and the art of the book.”
O’Leary is only one of many locals who have embraced letterpress printing. Artists, graphic designers and others in the Puget Sound region have been entranced both by the classic wood or metal type and carved image blocks, and by newer materials like photopolymer plates. They want to print their own works in the comfort of their own studios. They like tinkering with machinery, and so studios and shops are springing up almost everywhere. In someone’s garage in a neighborhood near you might be a Chandler and Price press clattering out a handmade chapbook or a broadside, maybe a greeting card or something as simple as a bookmark.
In West Seattle, Carl Montford publishes out of his house, using antique presses and equipment. The Arts and Crafts Press in Port Orchard produces letterpress-printed books about the arts and crafts movement. A few blocks from the Ballard Bridge, Evolution Press produces custom-made letterpress pieces churned out from six Heidelberg presses. Swash, a small shop in Wallingford, letterpresses wedding and custom invitations.
"I hesitate to say I 'love' letterpress printing," says Jessica Spring, pictured here in her Tacoma studio, Springtide Press. "It's hard, meticulous work."
Back in Tacoma, Chandler O’Leary is in collaboration with fellow Tacoma letterpress artisan Jessica Spring on a series of letterpress broadsides based on quotes by historical feminists. One of them is of Thea Foss, the famous Tacoman who created the Foss Maritime empire. It reads, “There are so many things left to do,” and shows Foss as the figurehead of a boat, the whole broadside a green tinted nautical wonder complete with an octopus wrestling with the letters. Another is of Marie Curie. It reads, “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals.” It’s replete with dots, beakers and test tubes, with a periodic table grid laid in.
“It has been great working together,” Spring notes of her collaboration with O’Leary, “making work that is topical yet historical and relatively quick to produce.”
Spring, forty-six years old and owner and operator of Tacoma’s Springtide Press, produces more than just artist books. She designs, prints and binds books, broadsides and ephemera and is currently in the midst of putting together Wayzgoose, a printer festival of sorts dedicated to St. Bartholomew, the patron saint of bookbinders, taking place April 25 at Tacoma’s King’s Books. “I love to print with wood type, ornaments and lead type,” she says. “I also love to print with unexpected materials.” This she’s done, using vinyl records, Astroturf, telephone wire – and underpants.
“I see a resurgence in letterpress as a reaction to an increasingly computerized world,” Spring says. ”The loss of touch makes people yearn for handmade paper, printing that is palpable in impression, and the preciousness and nostalgia of ephemera.” O’Leary concurs. “I think the fact that letterpress printing is so hands-on is appealing. I love the presence of my own hand in every step of the process, and the satisfaction of creating something so precise with my own hands.”
Letterpress traces its origins to the Chinese, who developed woodblock printing. Using characters and images carved in relief, the earliest printed woodblock fragments are dated before the year 220. It was a German goldsmith named Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg who really got things rolling in the print world, however, when he used movable-type printing for the first time around 1440. He invented the mechanical printing press as we know it. The Gutenberg Bible is known the world over (there are only twenty-one complete copies left in the world). With Gutenberg’s printing advances, books could be reproduced quickly and cheaply. Printers used Gutenberg’s way of printing text from the fifteenth century all the way until the second half of the twentieth when computers started to take hold, taking ink-stained hands away from press plates and onto keyboards, where they now clack away.
“Letterpress is virtually extinct as a commercial process,” notes Kenmore-based Griffith Williams, whose home studio is equipped with an antique 1912 Chandler and Price press. “It is primarily an art form now.” Williams, fifty-four, prints as much as he can when he’s not working full-time teaching kids literature and history. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a book of poetry he’s written, entitled Philosopher’s Bones, a dialogue in the voices of Voltaire and Rousseau. “This transformation is so recent,” he says, “and the presses are so durable, that there are lots of them still around. Many have been given away ‘to a good home.’ At its heart, quality letterpress material does have a crisp, distinctive look to it, and it can be created on a low budget.”
The resurgence has caught on by way of letterpress classes as well. Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts, Cornish College of the Arts and Pratt Fine Arts Center all offer classes in letterpress and are becoming more popular as more people become aware that they exist. “Just spend a little time on Etsy,” suggests Lisa Hasegawa of Ilfant Press, “to see just how popular handmade work is.” Hasegawa, a Seattleite, prints artists’ books and letterpress prints and is currently working on ribbon spool books – letterpress-printed and hand-stitched silk ribbon attached to vintage spools.
Vintage meeting modern: that’s the way of letterpress printing these days. “Today’s letterpress printers are carrying on and innovating a centuries-old tradition and keeping both time-honored techniques and antique equipment alive,” says O’Leary. Whether it’s printing on paper or ribbon or underpants, carving woodblocks or setting type in a composing stick, or using photopolymer plates, letterpress is thriving, and more and more enthusiasts are joining the printer ranks. “In the future,” Williams enthuses, “I hope to print books, books, books. Books and broadsides, greeting cards, certificates, taglines ... and books. As many as I can for as long as I can.” •
Chandler O’Leary carves a linoleum block in her Tacoma studio. “The designers I’ve taught are eager to get their hands dirty and see their design come to life,” she says.
Letterpress: combining hand-craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology since 1440.
Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.
The combination of attention to detail with potential for experimentation is fantastic.
A solitary finished piece gives very little clue to the rich and complex orchestration of type, tools and stacks of paper that went into its making.
I love the tactile nature of the letterpress: letters are physical pieces of metal, ink is sticky, and paper is chosen for how it feels in your hands.
There is a renaissance in letterpress printing today based on the desirability of holding a quality print in your hand.
The beast always wins. It is not enough just to be a good designer; to be successful a printer must understand the mechanics of the equipment.
Setting type by hand is very direct. The fact that I can hold actual spaces and leading in my hands is amazing.
There are several contemporary printers who inspire me, like Gaylord Schanilec of Midnight Paper Sales, or my buddy Jessica Spring, whom I collaborate with. Those folks have set the bar high and remind me to aspire to better craftsmanship.
Benjamin Franklin’s portrait hangs right above my press. What a man! Author, scientist, diplomat, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but, first and foremost, a printer.
Will Ransom (nicknamed “The Man from Snohomish”) moved to Chicago to attend the Art Institute near the turn of the last century. Chicago was a real printing center at the time – Barnhart Brothers & Spindler was casting type on Printer’s Row with the work of type designers like Fred Goudy and Oswald Cooper. Ransom joined them, designing just one face called Parsons. It had some really quirky features – optional long ascenders and descenders that typesetters used to excess. This really upset Ransom, and he didn’t design another font. He did continue as a printer and designer as well as a cataloger of private presses, though, and maintained correspondence with thousands of printers around the world. He really was a printer’s printer.
After the romance of being a letterpress printer wears off, anyone who has the temperament to remain dedicated to this tedious and exasperating process deserves hero status.
A great living letterpress hero is Jim Sherraden of Hatch Show Print in Nashville. His shop has created posters for concerts and shows since 1879. They still create beautiful vintage-style posters, and Jim explains their mission as “preservation through production.”
My first mentor and inspiration was Bill Jackson of Four Ducks Press in Wichita, Kansas. He was a very talented and gentle private press proprietor who was a great artist insofar as he was able to illustrate all his books with fantastic lino-cut blocks.
I am amused by the story of George Phineas Gordon, who developed one of the original designs for a platen press in the mid 1800s. His invention, known as the Franklin Press, was engineered using principles he claimed were communicated to him by Ben Franklin in a dream.
I don’t really have a particular hero. I am awed and inspired by beautiful printing, ornate designs made by arranging ornaments in a particular manner, imagery made of type and anything that stretches the assumed limits of hand-set letterpress.
THEIR FAVORITE TOOLS
What really comes to mind is not an object but a sound: that wonderful sticky sound of a fresh dab of ink distributing through the rollers. If sound had an equivalent of soul food, that would be it.
The type trays made by my father. I’ve got six of them. They are beautiful trays, conforming to the layout established by Gutenberg so long ago. Every letter that I set comes out of a little cubbyhole built by my dad!
Long and pointy stainless-steel tweezers intended for some medical application ... but perfect for working with tiny type.
Mixing ink – getting the color and consistency just right – is a meditative process. It is equal parts alchemy, experience and voodoo.
It’s my 1868 Gordon Platen Press. It stands about four feet tall, is 350 pounds of cast iron and runs without electricity by operating a flywheel and foot treadle. Built just after the Civil War, it has seen and printed a lot; if it could talk I know it would have lots of good stories to tell.
My Reliance Iron Handpress. It is a turn-of-the-century, circa 1900 handpress manufactured in Chicago by William Fields and Company. I use this press to print my wood engravings, broadsides and chapbooks in the method used at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. •
Learn about more local letterpress in our online-only Resource Guide.