How did you first get into hot metal letterpressing?
I’d been keen on books since I was a kid. In elementary school I even had my own little library (a few dozen books) with its own catalog system. In college I often trolled used book stores for interesting things to read and learn from. After graduating with a BFA in painting, and having interned in an ad agency in the mid-80s, I landed a job running a studio doing ad production. I was working with type every day and became interested in where it came from. I found a class at The Boston Center for Adult Education and was bitten. With letterpress you had complete control of the process. It was DIY, and at the time (1988) it felt like I discovered something old that was new. From choosing or writing the text, to the choice of typefaces, their sizes and graphic arrangement, to papers, ink colors, and then bringing all those together doing the presswork.
With most printing and design digitized, what continues to draw you to printing by hand?
It’s real. You hold type in your hands, and that type is energy, captured. Energy that was input to make type can sit waiting in cases for decades, and be used over and over with no additional energy input needed. Digital type only exists and can manifest itself when the power is on. It’s not real. It’s a picture, a representation of the actual stuff I get to work with, or create using the Linotype. I have close to 800 fonts of metal and wood type in the shop, some over 100 years old, some created in the past year. That written, I’m no Luddite. I do layout using digital methods because I can work out ideas quickly, and put those layouts in front of clients in PDF form. When approved, I make things physical using traditional methods. That’s a lot of work, so it’s not cheap. If the budget for traditional methods is beyond the means of a client, or the scope and requirements of the job are greater than letterpress is appropriate for, I routinely design for more modern production. Letterpress doesn’t do photography, particularly full color work. So some jobs need to remain digital. But I can bring the expertise of a typographer to those jobs just the same. Like writing, there’s a lot of really bad typographic design out there because anyone with a computer can be a “writer” or a “designer.”
What’s the greatest challenge of hand-printing? What are some of the rewards?
Convincing people it’s worth the trouble, and therefore, the greater cost. As above, since everyone now has a computer, and a laser or inkjet printer, printing itself, and as a craft, has been entirely devalued. Add in the cheap on-line services that offer cut-rate printing, and a lack of folks who know what quality looks like and it’s challenging. Further to that, everything has gone over to social media, so that rather than folks interacting with my work in person, everyone sits on their couch (or at the office…) looking at pictures of things. Properly printed letterpress doesn’t show deep impression, so it’s really about typography, and the subtle kiss of type into nice paper. So cost, and marketing in an age of cheapened values, and un-ideal venues. I always encourage folks to come by my shop to flip through my portfolios. And we know what a challenge in-person is now.
The rewards? Having clients find me that have sense of taste and discernment, and an interest in having something better than average designed and printed. And then delivering on that in a way that pleases them, and myself by making beautiful and handsome work with traditional materials, by traditional methods.
Tell us about a recent project you’re particularly proud of.
Along with a couple wedding invitations, maker’s labels, and poetry broadsides, over the summer, published in September, I enjoyed working with local roots and blues guitarist Michael Tarbox on a small 20-page chapbook of his lyrics. It’s a good example of a project on a limited budget that demanded a combination of digital and letterpress. The interior (which went through 15 rounds of Author’s Alterations) was designed digitally, and stayed digital. The scope of work was far greater than his limited budget would allow. So I sent the guts out for printing, and got flat spreads back which I them folded by hand, collated, and using a simple pamphlet stitch, bound them one by one. They were then wrapped in a letterpress printed dust jacket printed in two colors from hand-set type, and a couple swelled rules I cast on the Linotype. The edition was 100 copies and instead of being $100 a copy, we kept it affordable at $30 retail. Now whether people will buy a copy of his book for long-term pleasure, instead of the short enjoyment of a couple beers remains to be seen…
Staying entirely digital, I’m also finalizing a full color 60-page catalog for an exhibition at the National Arts Club in New York which has come together in the span of a month. Sometimes the things that seem small and easy aren’t, and the things that seem complex are, but when everything is organized, come together effortlessly.
After graduating with a BFA in painting, interning at an ad agency, and landing a job as a studio manager, I found a class in letterpress in 1988 and was immediately bitten by the process. It combined typographic art with machinery in a satisfying way. Most of the equipment and materials were still cheap and available, so setting up shop was affordable as the printing and typesetting industry cast off items at the tail end of an era, and digital began the tectonic shift to cheap and fast from slow and expensive. I hit it at the right time. I started interrobang in an apartment with a Vandercook proof press and a dusty rack of 19th-century type. 30 years later I still have the rack of antique type, and the Vandercook, now worth 30x what I paid in 1991. Split between the house, and a 320 square foot shop in back, the shop now houses over 800 fonts of rare type, a massive 12×18 Chandler & Price platen press, and an Model 31 Linotype, the last in the metro area, if not eastern Massachusetts.