First of all Robert, thanks for taking time out from your very busy schedule, and congratulations on the recent addition to your family. By way of introduction, tell us a bit about Christina and yourself.
Christina and I are both graphic designers. She has a BFA in Visual Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University and I have a BFA from the University of South Carolina and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, both in graphic design. We spent ten years in Manhattan working in the design world. Christina’s work was focused on textile graphics and corporate design work in both print and interactive. I started in NYC as an art director in publishing doing book design and magazines (with a 3.5 year stint at Martha Stewart Living) and then moved into interactive as the dot com bubble grew. We both worked on major brands such as Crayola, Little Tikes, Fed Ex, Nissan, Gucci, Prada, United Airlines and Motorola. We also have a passion for not-for-profit and educational work, which never pays well but is very rewarding.
Why did you decide to leave the fast lane in Manhattan for upstate New York?
We needed a change. The high-paced lifestyle was all-consuming. Christina was a creative director at Foot, Cone and Belding and I was VP Creative Director at IconNicholson and we both felt like we’d moved away from our roots, a love of typography, paper and creating beautiful things that people cherish and covet. We felt removed from our craft and wanted to get back into the hands on process of designing. In June of 2006 we moved to our country house near Jeffersonville fulltime.
What drew you to the noble art of printing?
A love of letters and paper. We both learned letterpress as part of our design training (typography as we know it today really started with the invention of movable type c.1440). We are both type nerds and can spend hours fussing over typefaces, leading, kerning and the endless machinations that come with a love of letters. We are kind of snobs when it comes to printing. If it’s not letterpress we rarely get excited.
How did you acquire your equipment?
Christina quit her Job on January 1, 2006 to start the process of setting up our new business. She began researching presses online, spending a lot of time at Briar Press (www.briarpress.org), a great resource for letterpress aficionados. We learned a lot about what we really needed to get started. Every week we would look for auctions on eBay, or presses for sale on Briar Press. We realized that we had to find a press that wasn’t too far away as moving it would likely cost as much, or more, than the press itself. While looking for a single press to start out on we found an amazing auction: it was an entire shop. The pictures looked too good to be true. We started asking the seller questions and found out the auction was actually for two Chandler and Price platen presses, a paper cutter, and lots of type. We watched it for days and waited until the last day to bid. The auction was to end at 8 am and the free open wireless internet that we relied on in our apartment was down so Christina had to run to the local coffee shop to place our bid. I had a client meeting uptown so I wouldn’t know the outcome until hours later. Christina left me a flat message on my phone to call her for an update on the auction. Of course I assumed we were outbid at the last second, but she was only baiting me for a big surprise.
We won the auctions for just over $4100. Two weeks later we drove to Auburn, MA and found, to our surprise, a two level backyard print shop packed to the rafters with equipment and paper. With hardly enough room to walk around, we started the process of loading up our very large U-Haul truck.
What we actually found under the boxes of paper and ephemera was: two 8 x 10 Chandler and Price Old Style platen presses (circa 1901 and 1904), a Kelsey Star 5 x 7 platen press (circa 1901), a very small table top Kelsey press, a 19.5 inch Oswego guillotine paper cutter (c. 1890s), 100+ drawers of metal foundry type, 28 drawers of wood type in various sizes and fonts, a saddle stitching machine (circa 1910), and all the essential tools of the trade one needs to run an authentic letterpress shop. We felt very lucky.
After two long and exciting days of discovery and packing we were almost done. The third morning we tied up the load and drove to Liberty, NY where we stored everything. We left the presses and paper cutter behind, and hired a rigging service to move them three weeks later. Total moving costs were just over $4000. We saved thousands moving all the type and small equipment ourselves.
For those who are not familiar with the hand printing press process, bring us through a typical job from beginning to end.
Letterpress is a process of creating a relief image and pressing it into or onto a surface—much like a rubber stamp. Typically you need to set the type one letter at a time (backwards and upside down), locking up the type into a chase (a metal frame). Any artwork to be printed must be made into a relief image as well (either using magnesium or photopolymer plates). Once everything you want to print is locked up it is called a form. This form is placed into the bed of the press. Here the press rollers will ink the form and transfer the image onto the paper. Before printing one must set gauge pins (also called quad guides) on the press platen to keep the paper aligned with the form. Once the alignment is set the pressure of the press must be adjusted (according to the paper weight and the size of the form to be printed). This is called makeready. Paper packing on the press must be adjusted to create an even impression over the entire printed surface. Once the makeready is done the job is ready to print, one sheet at a time. The average makeready process usually takes about 10-30 minutes, but sometimes we can spend hours getting it just right.
Of course if the job is more than one color this process must be repeated for each color. Printing on both sides of a sheet also requires multiple passes through the press, and a new makeready process.
What type of work are you doing now?
Our presses are on the small side (8 x 10 inches), so we are limited to smaller works. We design and print wedding invitations for clients around the world (recently completed jobs were for weddings in Cape Cod, West Point and Singapore). We also have our own line of greeting cards that we sell in our stationery store. We will begin selling wholesale greeting cards later this fall. High-end business cards and birth announcements also make up a smaller portion of our monthly work. We also print woodblock posters (10 x 16 max size) on a limited basis because we need to print them in two halves. We’re in the discussion stage with a few authors to create a series of chap books this winter.
Do you advertise, or is word of mouth enough?
We do not advertise. Most of our work comes from word of mouth or passersby in Jeffersonville. The stationery store is a loss leader for us—it barely breaks even, but it gives us a lot of visibility on Main Street. The past year we had invitations featured in two national magazines: Martha Stewart Weddings and Real Simple Weddings. Obviously this kind of exposure can really kick start your business. We are quite sick of printing these featured designs at this point.
Tell us about your favorite papers and typefaces.
Paper: Crane Lettra. It’s the only paper DESIGNED for letterpress. It’s a super fluffy 100% rag paper that takes a really nice impression. It’s made from textile scraps and cotton left in the seed pod, and it’s (sort of) local. The mill is in Dalton, MA and is very eco-friendly. It’s also relatively inexpensive compared to imported Italian papers.
Typefaces: We love the classics. News Gothic, Garamond, Caslon, Frutiger, Helvetica, etc., but we also use some of the newer typefaces. We’re purists, but we’re not THAT pure when it comes to type. We’ll even use a drop shadow when we need to pump up the kitsch factor!
Do you create your own design work plates?
No, we use two plate makers. Boxcar Press in Syracuse for photopolymer plates and Owosso Graphic Arts for metal plates. We email our work out and the plates arrive two days later. It’s not worth it to have all that plate making equipment.
Although your operation is starting to get into full swing, and you bring a real graphic design edge to the business, it must be frustrating sometimes puzzling over techniques that were commonplace back in the heyday of hand presses. Are there any modern day expert practitioners you can turn to, and do you belong to any fine press organizations?
This is a big problem. All the old practitioners of letterpress are either dead or getting up there in years. We’ve met some old timers in Sullivan County and we call on a few of them for help when we feel stumped on a job. We’ve also been in correspondence (via snail mail) with the former owner of our presses. He’s taught us some ‘tricks’ over the years, although his eyesight is failing and he’s going into a nursing home. He’s 90 years old and started printing when he was 16. He ran his backyard print shop for over 50 years. He’s a wealth of information that we’re going to miss. We hope that one day we can teach someone else what we are learning now (our four month old son will no doubt be our first target).
Sullivan County is my ancestral home, and I found your business while doing some preliminary research on who might publish a compilation of local Civil War letters I purchased at auction. Have you tackled any books yet?
Not yet, but as I previously said, we are working on a project to create some chap books of poetry this winter. It’s a very cool project. We are looking for a larger press which will put us in a better position to tackle books. Christina has some experience in book binding that she’d like to get back into. It’s something we’d like to offer, but letterpressed books can be very expensive to produce.
Your print shop is right on Main Street in Jeffersonville, NY. Tell us about the town, and about the Segar Building.
We purchased our building in August, 2006. It was a 1950s Sinclair gas station, home of Segar Oil, a family run business that closed in the late ‘80s. It’s an American classic with a porcelain enamel facade. The building was vacant for 18 years when we purchased it from the Segar family estate. For the first time since 1883 the property changed hands.
The building needed a lot of work, but we wanted to restore it rather than remodel/alter. After six months of work we moved the presses in and started setting up shop, which took another six months. We opened to the public on September 1, 2007.
The building sits at the end of Main Street in Jeffersonville, NY, a small Catskill village of about 350 souls. It’s a sleepy little town that comes alive on weekends due to a large second home market. We’re certainly the most unique business in a town full of eateries, home décor and antique shops. Jeffersonville is only two hours from Manhattan, so we can run down for a quick ‘city fix’ which usually involves a meal at our favorite sushi restaurant.
Thanks again Robert. Best wishes with your growing family and wonderful business, don’t work too hard, and save some time for trout fishing.
Robert and Christina Fisher run Echo Letterpress in Jeffersonville, NY and can be contacted at http://www.echoletterpress.com.