Me testing my newly acquired skills. (Photo by S.K.)
Someone's cancellation became my fun-filled Sat. afternoon. I received an e-mail notifying me of an open slot at a letterpress workshop I'd expressed interest in...months ago; it was a pleasant find in my in-box. The workshop is run by Shelly Kuzniarek, the owner of French Press, a local letterpress and design studio. I arrived, surprisingly right on time (I'm never, ever, on time for anything, ever), at the fully renovated TriMain Center, a building with an exterior that's telling of its industrial origins and an interior filled with beautifully unique spaces boasting high ceilings and the kind of natural lighting you can't help but to stop and appreciate. Letterpressed signs accented with penmanship hinting at an affable creator, directed me to suite 507. This scavenger-hunt-link start put a skip in my step as I walked through the metal doorframe.
The class reviewed two different types of presses: a platen letterpress (circa 1920s) and a Vandercook No. 4(circa 1950s). Shelly demonstrated the printing process of each, which included the use of magnesium and polymer plates; setting up the chase (the rigid frame which holds your plate or composition) and tightening it with furniture (blocks of wood) and quoins (toothed angular blocks); the amount of ink needed (about a quarter size) to get the rollers covered; the type of ink she uses (rubber based); paper stocks; and how she uses Pantone swatches to derive the makeup of a color. For example, if the breakdown says something like 52% blue to 46% red for a purple hue, she starts mixing close to equal parts blue ink with red ink with a metal putty knife on glass, stopping to do a color check on a scrap of white next to the pantone chip. I told her it looked like fun, the whole mixing colors together, so she stopped on a dime and ordered me to get myself a pair of the rubber gloves from under the table and go at it. And I was right, it was pretty fun. (Thanks Shelly!)
After our introduction to both presses we were off to lunch, a break before we were to return to put what we had learned to test...
Printed pieces for the class to check out so we could get a look and feel for letterpressing.
That, my friends, is "furniture."
And a taste of some of the letter blocks we had at the tips of our fingers.
The lighting in Shelly's space is just brilliant.
The platen press.
After digging through an antique wooden tool box, with drawers full of metal pressing trinkets (mostly of text used for setting advertisements: "Clearance," "Sale," Reduced Price!"), I resurfaced with a "Now.." (it was missing an ellipsis), and a plate set with two hands holding an open box, which I decided to fill with narrow type to spell "Click!".
I had no idea how difficult it would be to set up the "simple" piece I had put together. I decided to capture my valiant efforts at arranging furniture around my composition to lock it up for print (above left). It was seriously like some strange Jenga jig-saw puzzle. (Note to self: start doing more jig-saw puzzles.)
We made 15 prints each: a copy for Shelly, a copy for each classmate, and the rest to take home.
The finished product!
At the end of the seven-hour day, my appreciation for letterpressing went up tenfold: I had never comprehended the amount of prep time needed to set up a job. Maybe it's the thought of the more you put into something the more you'll get out of it, but I can really see how it would be more personally gratifying to produce work this way, i.e., over an offset lithographic press or flexographic press. Then again, if I had a job requiring thousands of prints...I'd probably have another opinion.
Shelly posted some shots she took of us hard at work, including a few of the shots I took during class: French Press blog