It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing letterpress for over two decades. I still get inquiries on how to get started in the field and thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the years for those interested. Although I have an MFA in Book Arts, I don’t think formal training is mandatory. An internship at a studio, or even online research, would give you the basics to start printing. I feel like the hardest part was finding a press: locating it, transporting it, refurbishing it and finally finding a (semi) permanent spot for it.
The press I wanted was no longer in production (last presses made in the mid 70’s). I found my press in 1999 through a letterpress discussion list. Someone was visiting Dave Churchman’s warehouse in Indianapolis and noticed a few Vandercook presses in the back. I called and sure enough he had two available. After a lengthy discussion I decided to go for it. I booked a one way ticket there, and rented a U-Haul to bring it back (he had a forklift available to put it into the truck). When I arrived, the press was in worse shape than I anticipated, with melted rollers and none of the grippers in working order. I figured I’d take it anyway, I was already there! It was a nerve-wracking ride home with the press strapped in the back of the truck. It weighed close to 1200 lbs and was top heavy. I figured one wrong turn and it would crash out the side of the truck. Fortunately I made it back and had a warehouse space for it. A forklift company next door was kind enough to get it on the loading dock and a pallet jack did the rest.
I put in a lot of elbow grease cleaning it up, and shipped the rollers off for resurfacing. I had to buy packing sheets/mylar, furniture, quoins/keys, ink, solvents, rags, a Pantone formula guide and some basic shop supplies. I also had to figure out vendors for paper and printing plates. What I couldn’t find locally, I looked for online. The Briar Press website was a great resource at the time for information, and discussion lists to ask for advice. It’s still a great resource today!
Within two months I had my press ready and started printing. My press definitely had some quirks, and there was a lot of trial and error, but I was PRINTING things. Anything I wanted, I could print it. I still find that amazing. Eventually I moved into a house with a great space for a basement studio in 2004. It was an ordeal getting the press moved. I had to call all over town and finally found a company that moves safes for banks to take on the challenge. They had never seen or heard of my press, and thought it was quite odd. I was relieved when they finally put it in my studio and it’s been there ever since. I will stress, if you’re interested in setting up shop, it’s a true commitment. A 1,000lb+ commitment! I’m going to need to replace the flooring in my studio this year and I’m not sure how I’ll work around the press, but I’ll figure it out.
Next post I’ll go into details about supplies and resources if you want to set up. Feel free to post any questions or comments in the meantime.