The boy grew up and left Colorado to go to Gordon College in Massachusetts, where he studied New Testament Greek (hence the Chapel's name) and, after graduation, trained for his dream job: commercial airline pilot.

He flew for TWA (and American Airlines after they merged) for more than 30 years and moved around a lot — Santa Barbara, Chicago, St. Louis. In St. Louis, he joined a musical church group and met his wife, Johanna. They participated in community theater, and he played the five-string banjo, upright bass, fiddle, and guitar, all of which he says (with a straight face) was good exercise for his future in working with tiny letters and hot metal.   

During his time as a pilot, Shipley kept an eye on the printing scene and saw the industry change with the introduction of the linotype press and, later, the computer (but more on that later). In 2004, Shipley heard of a letterpress foundry that was shutting down. He scooped up the equipment, fixed it up, and incorporated his own printing business as a side project. 

Two years ago, Shipley retired from his flying gig (though he still flies his own 1942 military plane) and took a trip to Prescott with Johanna. They fell in love with the landscape, found a spot a few miles from downtown, and built their home, which includes Shipley's studio and the chapel.  

Shipley says he thought letterpress and casting type would be a nice retirement hobby, but one look at his collection of type, detailed order sheets, and boxing and labeling systems makes it clear that typecasting has turned into a full-time mission. 

"It's the most important thing I spend time doing," he says, inspecting a small piece of type under a magnifying glass.  "And as it turns out, I'm so busy I have to turn business away."  


Long before Sky Shipley began pouring hot metal into tiny molds, German publisher Johannes Gutenberg  was trying to figure out a way to streamline the publishing business. In the 15th century, it could take years for scribes to hand-copy novels, and printing blocks were time-consuming to make and could be used only a few times before they became trashed.

Gutenberg began experimenting with single letters and eventually created a mechanism that could hold a mold of a letter at the end of a shaft. He poured a hot soft metal into the device and was able to pop out the final product — what we now know as a single piece of metal type. When inked and pressed against a piece of paper, this piece of metal made an impression of a single letter.

Gutenberg then developed a system for creating, setting, inking, and pressing the type onto paper. He combined current technology with a few of his own inventions and (though earlier printing mechanisms have been recorded throughout history) was credited with the invention of the printing press in 1450. He introduced the machine to the European publishing industry, and, as a result, anyone with access to a printing press and a couple sets of letters could communicate with the masses. 

The publishing world exploded with the mass production of books, posters, and pamphlets, and mainstream literature was introduced to an audience that previously had access only to religious materials or no materials at all.

For the first time, Shipley says, the power of the press belonged to those who owned one.

Gutenberg's technology was used for centuries — newsrooms and commercial printing shops used the printing press to communicate with their audiences. Literacy and the number of publications available to the public skyrocketed side by side. But in the late 1800s, German publisher Ottmar Mergenthaler revamped the printing press and created an organ-size machine that could cast whole lines and paragraphs while the operator typed. The chunks of metal words were spit out of the end of the machine, arranged to fit the length and width of a page, inked, and printed before they were chucked back into the machine to be melted down and reused. Before the linotype, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages.

As it goes with technologies, the linotype soon was re-imagined and replaced. About a century after linotype machines took the publishing world by storm — in the 1960s and 1970s — they were pushed out of buildings (literally) and into landfills to make room for the digital equipment we use today.

Luckily, quite a few traditional printing presses and linotype machines were donated to museums and universities or salvaged by hobbyists who slowly began to revive the dying process immediately after it had been disowned by commercial companies and printers.

"Printing is a very important part of our civilization," says Shipley. "Independent printing led to the transfer of information worldwide. Plus it's fun, it's not expensive, and if you can find the equipment, you can communicate with whoever you want." 

This mentality is widespread throughout the letterpress community — and it was the cornerstone of the letterpress revival in Phoenix, long before our trendy, old school reaction to technology, which Shipley says was fueled by a man named Charles Broad.

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2 comments
David James
David James

Had nooo idea anyone "local" was doing this. Amazeballs!

ConcernedCitizenAZ
ConcernedCitizenAZ topcommenter

Claire, A great article on a very interesting part of Arizona's history. Letterpress printing is a jewel. Rather than destroying our youth in the school-to-prison pipeline, they could be learning fine-printing skills, among related vocational training. 

 
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