Living a Life in Letterpress: Live at Ada’s (Episode 108)

My love of letterpress printing is no secret, and in this episode, I speak to two designers who devote parts of their working lives to modern letterpress. This episode was taped live at Ada’s Technical Books and Café in Seattle on January 23.

Printing didn’t change much from about 1450 to 1950. It became faster, motorized, and blew up to industrial scale, but it was only when the “relief” (or letterpress) method of printing—putting ink on a surface and then pressing paper onto it—was replaced with offset lithography, which relies on flat printing plates and thin films of ink, that everything changed for good. Letterpress printing has remained as a craft, though, and it has thrived in the last 20 years as it’s been rediscovered and taught fresh to new generations.

Two Seattle practitioners have deep ties to this great resurgence of letterpress. We talk about how they got sucked into an old-school printing method and how the medium affects their design and vice-versa.

  • Sarah Kulfan is a visual designer, illustrator, and letterpress printer. She is the proprietrix of Gallo Pinto Press and Beans n’ Rice where she respectively prints limited edition prints and runs her freelance graphic design business.

  • Demian Johnston is the Designer and Pressman at Annie’s Art & Press, a letterpress shop in Ballard. At SVC, he teaches both introductory and advanced classes in the letterpress program. His design and illustration work has appeared in The StrangerSeattle WeeklyCity Arts, and Beer Advocate.

Event photo courtesy of Jeff Carlson.

Sponsors

Thanks to the patrons in the crowdfunding campaign who brought the New Disruptors back, and these Disruptor-level backers in particular: Elliott Payne, my friends at Lumi, Kirk McElhearn, Kuang-Yu Liu, and Marc Schwieterman. (Marc, and another Disruptor backer, Kim Ahlberg, attended the taping!) You can become a patron of the show and get a special pin and be thanked on the air, too.

Show notes:

We talk about a lot of concepts and old tech in this show, so the notes are a little more extensive to help you understand some of the things we mentioned just in passing:

  • SVC is the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle, where Jenny Wilkson runs the letterpress program. It’s a for-profit analog and digital design school, teaching letterpress, UI/UX, graphic design, copywriting and more. It’s where I had my 2017 design residency, too!

  • Demian has a 10x15 Chandler and Price (C&P), which is a workhorse press, manufactured from 1884 to 1964.

  • Stern & Faye: Jules Remedios Faye and Chris Stern ran this press together for decades. Jules continues to print and bind, and handbound my book, Not To Put Too Fine a Point on It (copies still available). The C.C. Stern Type Foundry, a working museum in Portland, Oregon, is named for Chris and features a lot of Jules and Chris’s casting equipment.

  • “dissed type”: Type distribution is an incredibly tedious part of hand setting type. Each character you pull out of a type case has to be “distributed” back into its original compartment in the case when you’re done with a printing job.

  • Ruling pens: These pens were used for making lines, or “rules,” and hold ink in a reservoir between two jaws. The gap of the jaws can be adjusted to create lines of different thickness.

  • Plates: Printing plates are solid sheets of metal or plastic made from source material and intended to be printed as a full sheet, sometimes including dozens of pages. Starting in the 1800s, printers would cast metal plates (called “stereotypes”); in more recent decades, printers rely on a rubbery plastic called photopolymer that’s light sensitive. Digital files can be output to high-contrast film and exposed to the plastic plastic, and make a letterpress-printable plate.

  • Carl Montford: a local renowned wood block engraver, who has taught thousands of people how to carve linoleum blocks and hundreds how to carve in wood.

  • Linoleum blocks: These are really just pieces of linoleum glued to a wood base. A designer carves the linoleum to leave high areas to receive ink.

  • Type high: The exact height needed for type and other material on the “bed” of a press to be inked by rollers and press exactly at the right distance into paper. It’s 0.918 inches in America and England.

  • Touche plate: This may have been a regionalism, but a “touche” (French, pronounced toosh) is a touch-up plate used to fix an error in offset printing.

  • Reduction cut: On a block, you engrave a starting image that prints in the lightest color, carve away details, print the next-lightest color, and so forth. The block is creatively destroyed in the process.

  • “kiss” impression

  • Vandercook cylinder presses are the hot thing in letterpress today, originally designed largely as a “proof press”: to pull a copy of a section of text for proofreading, layout, and evenness, before it went on a real press.

  • Printing the Oxford English Dictionary (YouTube)

  • “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu”: The last day of hot-metal Linotype typesetting at the New York Times

  • The quote I was trying to recall was from A Short History of the Printed Word, written by Warren Chappell and, in a second edition, updated and extended by Robert Bringhurst. Bringhurst wrote the following devastating sentence about the entire era following relief printing:

In the 1970s and 1980s, the practitioners of photocomposition and offset printing were, like Gutenberg, engaged in a simultaneously innovative and imitative act. But they were not imitating writing; they were imitating printing—and were doing so in a world where reading had become, for most, a passive, cerebral act, unconnected with any physical sense of the making of letters, and unconnected with any sense of the intellectual urgency of publishing.

Grand Inventions: A Towering Monument with Dave Hamilton (Episode 107)

Tower_Optical_Binoculars.jpg

Dave Hamilton’s grandfather invented the ubiquitous coin-operated binocular viewer you see at monuments and viewpoints worldwide, the Tower Optical Binoculars. Dave, an entrepreneur, writer, musician, and founder of The Mac Observer, joins host Glenn Fleishman to tell of days spent with his grandfather and his “Big Fish” stories that turned out entirely true.

This episode is part of the “Grand Inventions” micro-series within The New Disruptors in which I talk to people whose grandparents or great-x-parents invented something that’s still current or in use today. Do you have a grandparent or beyond who fits the bill? Contact me and we’ll set up an interview.

Thanks & help support the show: The New Disruptors is back on the air due to patrons and sponsors! You can become a patron of the show on a one-time or recurring basis, and get rewards like an exclusive enamel pin and being thanked in this fashion!

Image by Tim Jarrett

What’s the Three One One in Two Oh One Eight, Walt Hickey? (Episode 106)

Walt Hickey is a data journalist who launched a newsletter for numeric nerds several months ago. He’s worked for Business Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, currently, Insider (a sister company to BI), often writing about the intersection of culture and data: How we can understand movies, books, and social trends better through a filter of numbers, or how numbers help us understand the world around us better.

Numlock News is an outgrowth of something he did at FiveThirtyEight, giving him a leg up—with that publication’s support—in creating a freemium newsletter with bite-sized nuggets delivered daily to everyone, while paid subscribers get a weekly extra. We talk about his approach and the tools he uses.

Sponsors

This week’s episode sponsorship was donated by Filip to support refugee relief. At a time when tens of millions of people have had to flee their homes, the greatest number since World War II, refugees need your help. To find the best-run groups offering direct aid, consult Charity Navigator. To assist Syrian refugees and others in the region, consider giving to the International Rescue Committee (rescue.org), Oxfam America (oxfamamerica.org), Doctors Without Borders(doctorswithoutborders.org), Save the Children (savethechildren.org), and Mercy Corps (mercycorps.org).

This episode is also brought to you in part by Disruptor-level patrons Philip Borenstein, Rob McNair-Huff, Bryan Clark, Ready Chi, and Patrick Weyer. You can become a patron of the show on a one-time or recurring basis, and get rewards like an exclusive enamel pin and being thanked in this fashion!

Show notes

Grand Inventions: Counting Gears with Chris Higgins (Episode 105)

“Grand Inventions” is a new micro-series within The New Disruptors in which I talk to people whose grandparents or great-x-parents invented something that’s still current or in use today. Two things sparked this micro-series idea for me. First, my grandfather’s stories of making a suggestion during WWII at an IBM wartime manufacturing plant that led to improved impeller productions; second, how invention and entrepreneurialism spans generations.

Joining me for the first episode is Chris Higgins, a documentary filmmaker and writer, whose great-grandfather invented a variety of geared devices that counted things like fuel and people and more, and ultimately became CEO of Veeder-Root. Chris’s great-grandfather was H.L. Spaunberg, and Chris provided a list of some of his patents:

Do you have a grandparent or beyond who invented something still in use in some form? Contact me and we’ll set up an interview.

Thanks & help support the show: The New Disruptors is back on the air due to patrons and sponsors! You can become a patron of the show on a one-time or recurring basis, and get rewards like an exclusive enamel pin and being thanked in this fashion!

Here’s a scan of one of the suggestions my grandfather submitted to IBM during the war, but not the three-legged stool idea. He received a whopping $10, worth about $150 in today’s dollars.

What’s Your Latest? Drive by Dave Kellett (Episode 104)

Dave Kellett is the guest on my latest installment of the podcast-within-the-podcast, “What’s Your Latest?” I talk to experienced creators about their latest project. For Dave, that’s the second volume (“Act Two”) of his Drive webcomics series that will ultimately span 1,000 pages and four or five print volumes.

Dave is a cartoonist, podcaster, and co-director of the comics documentary Stripped. His strip Drive is almost a decade old, and Sheldon is at its 20th birthday. He also runs multiple Patreons, co-hosts ComicLab (a podcast on making comics and the business of comics), and has run lots of crowdfunding campaigns and produced piles of physical goods.

The New Disruptors is back on the air due to patrons and sponsors! You can become a patron of the show on a one-time or recurring basis, and get rewards like an exclusive enamel pin and being thanked in this fashion!

Show notes

Otherworldly Artistic Creation with Shing Yin Khor (Episode 103)

Shing Yin Khor is a multi-dimensional artist, almost literally. She's a cartoonist, illustrator, sculptor, and installation and experimental artist. She works across many media, technology, and ideas. She says she's entered a new phase of her career over the last five years, and we talk about her work, empathy, and how she got here.

Sponsors

This episode is brought to you in part by Disruptor-level patrons Chris Higgins, Marcin Wichary, Kim Ahlberg, Pete Burtis, and Jon Mitchell. You can become a patron of the show on a one-time or recurring basis, and get rewards like an exclusive enamel pin and being thanked in this fashion!

The New Disruptors is also back on the virtual air thanks to Glowforge, a "3D laser printer" that can cut wood, paper, acrylic, leather, and more, and engrave metal, stone, glass, and other materials. It's a laser printer for depth. Listeners to New Disruptors can get a discount from $100 to $500 on a new Glowforge, depending on the model. (Some terms and conditions apply.)

Show notes

What’s Your Latest? Studio Neat’s Mark One Pen (Episode 102)

Welcome to a mini episode of The New Disruptors, “What’s Your Latest,” in which I ask creators just about the most recent thing they made. Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt are Studio Neat, independent industrial designers and app developers for nearly a decade, and an early Kickstarter success.

Their latest product is the Mark One, an all-metal retractable pen with a simple exterior that masks the complexity of how pens click. They went to Kickstarter as they almost always do to launch the product, and raised over $230,000 towards a $30,000 goal. We talk about the challenges of design and manufacture, and how this pen was designed and how it’s being made even as we spoke.

Listen to more of Dan and Tom’s conversations about independent product development on Thoroughly Considered, a podcast on the Relay network, in which they talk at intervals with host and Relay co-founder Myke Hurley.

Two colors of the Mark One