Kuglunk….kuglunk…tink….kuglunk…kuglunk…tink…this sound has become as familiar as my own heartbeat. It’s become a part of me. The rhythm stirs my soul and fills me with glee. It’s the sound of our 1913 Chandler & Price letterpress machine. This is my part of our letterpress story.
Kristen and I regularly enjoy listening to podcasts when we travel. On one of our more recent trips, we listened to the “Walk in Love” podcast.
(Side Note) I only recently found out about this couple and it gives me chills how similar we are in the desire to spread God’s truth through the use of daily reminders pressed on the heart. If you haven’t had a chance check out their story, click here!
On this episode they were sharing the inspiration for one of their holiday designs, “Enjoy the Journey”. This is a beautiful reminder that our lives are not about the different destinations, goals, or accomplishments, but also about the journey of getting there. It’s a reminder to slow down. Don’t rush through everything. I think this is an idea we have all heard before. But there was a part where T.J. talked about another perspective on this reminder. In our culture, we tend to share the journey, snap it, post it, upload it. The journey itself becomes the objective. We think by sharing, it will cause us to enjoy it more. But too often the sharing becomes a chore, and all enjoyment is lost.
The letterpress journey taught me this firsthand. It captivated me so much that all I could do was slow down and enjoy the process. I’m going to be honest. I had fully planned on documenting every part of this journey. I bought a new GoPro, plenty of batteries, and lots of SD cards. I was prepped and ready to share with you the whole exploration of this historic craft.
Here’s a clip I filmed right as we were beginning.
Right after filming this, my soul began to stir with the thrill of working with this old machine. I got so excited that I just dove right in. The next thing I realize, I’m two weeks in and have not filmed a thing since that first update. Typically, this would cause me to feel like a failure and internally berate myself. However, this time I was at complete peace. I was so intoxicated with every step of this craft that all I wanted to do was get back to work. If I would have been forced to stop and snap a photo or take a video, my enjoyment would have been drained. You see, I needed—no, I longed— to simply enjoy the journey this old art was taking me on.
Like all journeys there was a beginning. My wife wrote an amazing post a few weeks back which really detailed the birth of this endeavor. One thing I would like to quickly expound on from her story is the speed in which all this happened.
It was Friday, September 30th, 2017 at 5:45pm when I emailed the Craigslist seller.
Only an hour later, John the seller informed me that there was another interested party. We needed to move fast. He also messaged that the building that was housing the machine was sold and everything needed to be moved out by Oct. 3. Ha!
We didn’t waste any time. I quickly researched on Youtube how to move an object that weighs 2600lbs. I visited our local rental company and got the right trailer. And just like that, three days later on Monday Oct. 2nd, 2017, Kristen and I drove two hours and picked up our beautiful press. Here is a quick clip us moving the press a year later into the store!
In the world of letterpress, nothing really moves fast. We had a press, but now we needed to get all the other things that will allow us to actually print. In my mind, that was simple. I needed a press, a plate to transfer the image from the press to the paper, paper, and ink!
So we have the press…check. Now we need the plates. We knew from our original research we were going to pursue polymer plates. Through some more research we found that we can have our art from the computer made into a plate and shipped to us for $30-$45 each. For a 3-color design we would be looking at around $100. Out of curiosity I wondered what kind of machine makes these plates. Well, I found out plate-making machines run from $3,500 to $7,000 depending on the size. Ok— it would take a LOT of plates to justify buying a machine like that. It makes sense why most letterpress shops get them shipped. But I wondered if my good friend Craigslist had any thoughts on that. 🙂
Sure enough, in St. Joseph, Missouri, a print shop was going out of business and had an A2 plate maker for sale for $300. Kristen and I had another one of those “we can’t pass this up” moments. I called her dad who lives in Branson, MO, and asked if he ever traveled through St. Joe on his commute to Iowa. He did. We hired him to pick up the machine for us and help load it into the store.
We still ordered our first polymer plate so we would have something to compare to. After several failed attempts, we found the correct settings and were able to make our own plates right in-house. As I write this, it’s still so amazing how much I see God’s hand orchestrating all these things to fall into place in a way I never could have imagined. He is so good, and so creative!
Ok. We have our press…Check. We have our plates…Check. Now paper. The search for paper really wasn’t that hard. Through some recommendations we found a company based out of New York called Legion Paper. We ordered a bunch of samples and picked a couple we really liked. Half of our cards are printed on Coventry Rag Vellum 320 gsm and the others are printed on Crane Lettra 300 gsm.
A few learnings about paper. First of all, what does “gsm” mean? Basically, it is grams per square meter. It’s the metric measurement of density. When it comes to paper, the American system is a little complicated with the different categories like text, cover, index, etc. The metric is much easier to understand. Also, it’s important to note that this is a density measurement, not a thickness. Different paper can be made fluffier than others but still have the same gsm. The other trick with paper was learning how to cut it! Paper, just like wood, has a grain. And when it comes to making greeting cards you want the fold to be with the grain. So, after a few more failed attempts, we figured out which way the grain was and were able to get some beautiful folds.
Sweet! We’ve got the press…Check. We’ve got the plates…Check. We’ve got the paper…Check. The final thing on the list was ink! Through a lot a research I was able to find two different sources for letterpress ink. While searching these websites, though, my eyes were opened to all the other small items I was going to need in order to print. After two more months of searching and making small purchases, I finally had everything I needed to start printing.
My first workday on the press on July 4th, 2019. That clip I showed at the beginning was filmed that day. As I stated earlier, I don’t have much other video of this process, and it’s going to be difficult to explain in words all the elements of the press. I think what will be best is to give a quick bullet-point list of all the things we learned while actually running the press.
- Rule number one. Never chase a piece of paper. It’s not worth losing a finger. Losing paper is expected. Losing fingers, not so much.
- Setting the roller height on a 106-year-old press is not rocket science. A few layers of tape will allow the rollers to just graze the plate enough to ink it up!
- Packing the press: The platen is the place on which the paper sits and gets pressed into the plate. This platen has a cover sheet of paper (we use butcher paper) underneath the cover sheet you can place other paper. This sets the depth of the impression on the finished card.
- Every print is a bit different and the packing needs to be adjusted for every plate.
- Gauge pins: These are little tiny pins with tongues that hold the paper in place, so every print is the same.
- When working on press, everything is backwards. If you want to move the image up, you have to move your gauge pins down, etc.
- When you have a design that has a full background, you need to give room for your gauge pins to hold the paper. If you want your final card to be 7×10 your paper needs to start at 7.5”x10.5” and you cut it again after you print.
- Spell check. It is no fun to have to reprint 200+ cards of a two-color design because the word strength is missing the “r”.
- White paper finds anything possible that will dirty it. Keep all areas and fingers clean at all times!
- Words can’t express the sense of accomplishment you feel holding a finished card in your hand. It’s so worth it!
This leads us to today. We are a week away from the letterpress launch and we are done.
I woke up this morning with no more letterpress tasks on the board. Not going to lie, I felt a little homesick. Don’t they say, “All great journeys lead you home”? Well, the craft of letterpress has become home for me. It’s a part of me I never knew I needed, but now could not imagine being without.
This has been one of the most exciting adventures we have been on yet!
Thank you all so much for being a part of this journey. I want to leave you with a quote that we heard at our church small group meeting recently. It really connected with us as we reflected on this letterpress journey.
“Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes–all the time! It must be that way, for God’s glory and kingdom. If we function according to our ability alone, we get the glory; if we function according to the power of the Spirit within us, God gets the glory. He wants to reveal Himself to a watching world.”