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.


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.

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.


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

Shipping Is Violence with Jesse Genet and Stephan Ango (Episode 101)

Jesse Genet and Stephan Ango co-founded Lumi almost a decade ago. It first made wallets and prints and dyed material, then developed and distributed a light-sensitive fabric ink. Now it's a company that manages the production and ordering of packaging supplies. This might sound unrelated, but it's a natural transition resulting from interrogating one's interests, figuring out what your real business is, and learning new things. We talk about Shark Tank, fulfilling one's dreams, and why 10,000 shipments a month is small potatoes in the packaging world.

Sponsor: Community Theatre

This episode brought to you by: The Concept of Local Community Theatre! Our Sponsor-level crowdfunding backer for this episode has donated his sponsorship message to encourage you to see comedy and drama and musicals staged in your area by community theatres! Check out the listings online and in your local papers today!

Support the podcast!

The crowdfunding campaign brought back The New Disruptors, but I could produce more episodes and keep the show running after July 2019 with your help! You can contribute monthly via Patreon or become a yearly subscriber directly on this site—and get nifty bonuses and rewards. Read more about supporting the podcast.

Show notes

99a: Embrace Your Inner (Cute) Critic

We're still raising funds to restart The New Disruptors! At this writing, we're over 55% of the way there with a couple weeks to go! Visit our Kickstarter and back at any level.

In this special bonus pre-reboot Episode 99a of The New Disruptors, I'm in conversation with Lucy Bellwood, Adventure Cartoonist!, at Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, Washington, in front of a live audience. She and I talked about creativity and independence, and about our latest books: hers, 100 Demon Dialogs; mine, London Kerning.

Lucy is an adventure cartoonist who I first interviewed in episode 82, almost four years ago. Since then, Lucy has had two more successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund books, taught cartooning in Denmark, sailed tall ships, had an artist's residency on the R/V Falkor oceanographic research vessel, and became a finalist in the New York Times 52 Places correspondent search.

Thanks for listening and thanks for your support!

A few links from the talk:

Fit to Print with Andy McMillan (Episode 92)

Andy McMillan makes things that bring people together: the Build conference, the XOXO festival, and The Manual, a series of books with thoughtful essays about design. After producing three print volumes of The Manual, he's trying to take it to the next level, and produce something openly, broadly available across many media, that's a collaboration with those who want to make it happen — and is funding it on Kickstarter. We'll talk books, ebooks, community, and hugs and kisses.

Sponsors and patrons

This podcast is made possible through the support of sponsors and patrons.

99designs: Have dozens of designers from the over 310,000 that are part of 99designs's network submit ideas for your logo, Web site, T-shirt, car wrap, or other design project, then pick the best and have a finished, professional result in a week or less for a flat price. Our listeners can visit this special destination page to get a $99 Power Pack of services for free!

Thanks also to our Patreon backers Gordon McDowell, Ready Chi, and Bryan C. Clark for supporting us directly.

(Photo by Ian Linkletter.)

Nice and Neat with Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt (Episode 89)

Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt are Studio Neat, a small design and software group that produces nifty products. They began with the Glif, and when I talked to them last over a year ago, they had launched their second software product and were deep in planning on a new, more complicated item: the Neat Ice Kit. They funded the kit on Kickstarter in September 2013, raising $156,000 against a $50,000 goal. We talk through the challenges of fulfilling that campaign, more lessons learned, and their recently launched follow-up, the Simple Syrup Kit.

Sponsors and patrons

This podcast is made possible through the support of sponsors and patrons.

99designs: Have dozens of designers from the over 310,000 that are part of 99designs's network submit ideas for your logo, Web site, T-shirt, car wrap, or other design project, then pick the best and have a finished, professional result in a week or less for a flat price. Our listeners can visit this special destination page to get $99 Power Pack of services for free!

Thanks also to our Patreon backers Ben Werdmuller, Ready Chi, and GravityFish for supporting us directly through Patreon! You can help keep this podcast going for as little as $1 per month. At higher levels, we'll thank you on the air and send you mugs and T-shirts!

Show notes