Letterpress Is All the Rage -- and Part of Its History Is Being Preserved in Arizona
If there's a modern Mecca for the followers of letterpress, it's got to be the Chapel of the Blessed Eutectic in Prescott, Arizona.
From downtown Phoenix, it's less than a two-hour drive. Take I-17 to State Route 89 and you'll find yourself in big-sky Prescott. And just a few miles from the city's center — down Pioneer Parkway, around a few sharp turns, and up a very steep driveway — you'll find Sky Shipley and his working tribute to an industry more than 500 years old.
It's here, in his own backyard, where Shipley's built a home for nine printing presses and 18 750-pound typecasting machines. Affixed to a wall near the entrance of the detached studio in his backyard is a plaque that reads: "Chapel of the Blessed Eutectic" — eutectic coming from the Greek metallurgical term for metal in a molten state. Through the door, you'll see Shipley's immaculate studio full of shiny machines, neatly labeled type drawers, and buckets of tiny bits of scrap metal waiting to be melted down and poured into molds to create metal type.
The work performed inside Shipley's studio is definitely old school. He's a perfectionist. The 59-year-old works with dangerous chemicals, boiling-hot metal, and old (and often unpredictable) machines. One misstep or distraction and liquid metal could be everywhere. It's a risky business, Shipley says, but for him — and a growing number of letterpress aficionados — it's a tradition worth saving.
Letterpress — imprinting paper with freshly inked letters, words, and symbols — was abandoned decades ago by publishers and newspapers in favor of modern technology, but a small community of typecasters and printers are fighting for its survival.
In June, hundreds of members of this community will drive and fly to Phoenix from around the country. The old guard of printers who operated huge printing presses in newsrooms is now far outnumbered by a younger generation whose connection to letterpress is less about newsprint and novels and more about greeting cards and whimsical calendars.
For three days, the group will gather for an annual wayzgoose — a fancy printing term for a chance to swap printing secrets, ogle each other's work and equipment, and share stories of an industry that continues to reinvent itself. They'll talk about the long history of letterpress in Phoenix, about a quirky guy named Charles Broad who kept the industry chugging, and at the end of the weekend, they'll make the trek north to visit the chapel and see Shipley in action.
Sky Shipley is considered a hero in the letterpress scene — not so much because he can print, but because he can actually create the metal type used for letterpress printing. When he promised to continue the (quickly disappearing) art, word spread and orders poured in from around the world. And though Shipley knows the world of fine art printing is expanding, he's also keenly aware that the supplies are becoming harder to find.
For Shipley, his colleagues, and anyone who's visited a craft fair in a hip town, there's no denying the current revival of letterpress. From invitations and art books to posters and coasters (and anything else that can be wedged into a printing press), the industry is making a serious creative comeback. Call it a response to increasingly pervasive technology or a return to the basics — letterpress has become the new vinyl record or analog film. And though printing shops are popping up across the country, the big companies that once produced the machines went out of business long ago, and the race to snatch up the remaining equipment is on. Letterpress currently is riding a trendy wave, but the hope for its sustained future rests in the hands of artisans and engineers like Shipley.
And he knows that if he doesn't pass along his skill set, traditional letterpress could be in trouble.
On a cool October afternoon, Shipley is in his studio busy filling orders of antique and ornamental type. The detail of these letters goes far beyond typefaces available for Word document or this article, and each takes precision and patience to re-create. Shipley's wearing a pressed business shirt with his full name embroidered on the breast pocket, thick glasses, and a heavy-duty leather apron that'll protect him from rogue ink and hot metal. His colleagues joke that he's the only printer and typecaster with the guts to have a carpeted printing studio, but because Shipley treats letterpress as a science, there's not an ink spot to be found on the floor.
He gives tours to the public by appointment — through the front door of his house, past his wife's craft room, and into his printing room, where he's kept mementos of his past, including framed certificates earned for casting and printing, photographs of old planes, and books on typography.
If you're into this sort of thing, it's hard not to drool over his collection of typefaces — he has more than 3,000 type molds and 2,000 different borders and ornaments — and historic, pedal-powered presses as he talks about his own history.
Shipley's parents owned a printing shop in Boulder called Shipley Press, where he spent years playing with printing presses, learning from his father, and earning a couple of bucks printing tickets for a local community theater.
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.
"Oh, I hope he told you the story of Charles Broad," says Cindy Iverson, a Phoenix-based printer and founder of Letterpress Central in Chandler (where the letterpress gathering will take place this summer).
Iverson has a large type collection of her own that's housed in a warehouse that used to be a preschool that she, her husband, Gary, and printer Mike O'Connor transformed into a giant haven for modern letterpress. There, the Iversons hold classes, print on commission, and create artwork.
Cindy Iverson and Sky Shipley have corresponded with each other for years. And in 2010, Iverson was in awe — along with the rest of the letterpress community — when Shipley announced that he had rescued more than 50 revivals of 19th-century typefaces cast by Broad.
Broad made a name for himself in Phoenix. He was a businessman, who tuned in to the decline of the letterpress and linotype businesses in the 1950s and started re-creating antique type that he knew would be collectible someday.
In Broad's time, letterpress was state of the art in Phoenix. The Phoenix Club of Printing House Craftsmen was founded in the 1920s and was alive and well through the '30s and '40s. During its heyday, the club had hundreds of members who gathered for an annual graphic arts exhibit and celebration of printing. But long after the printing houses went under and the craftsmen dispersed, Broad was one of the last holding onto their metal type and creating more for those who kept the art form alive.
"When my father had his tabletop press at home, he kept correspondence with Broad," says Shipley, sifting through pages of documents and photographs kept neatly in binders in his studio. "He was selling antique typefaces, which were far less popular than they are now. But I remember seeing Broad's specimen sheets and looking at the typefaces. I thought of how wonderful it would be to own . . . They made a big impression on me."
Shipley's father never bought any of Broad's type, but when Shipley was young, he and a few friends began collecting antique typefaces (including a few of Broad's) and making extra money selling them to printers around the country.
Beyond the type he produced, Broad's life isn't well-documented. Shipley still has a few letters that his father and Broad exchanged, and John Risseeuw, a professor of bookmaking and printmaking at Arizona State University, says he tracked down Broad's daughter years ago to talk about his business, but she provided little information. Risseeuw says he wanted to create a book about Broad, printed on a printing press in one of Broad's typefaces. But the project was delayed, and boxes of research and documents are still in boxes in his garage.
In a short Arizona Republic article published in 1964, Broad calls himself "Mr. Antique" and describes his journeys to Japan, where he first had the matrices, or type molds, created. He later purchased a typecaster from Japan and worked out of his garage, producing type for a few local printers. Risseeuw says Broad's friends would send him collections of antique type that they found, and when a letter was missing, Broad commissioned his next-door neighbor, who was a type designer, to help him re-create the letter to complete the set.
Before moving to Phoenix, Broad had been a monotype operator in Chicago who, like Shipley, retired and moved west and, like Shipley, soon found that his hobby was a full-time job. Broad's business was booming, but like all devotees to a dying art, he worried about the future of letterpress and who would care for his collection after he died.
From the Republic story: "A fleeting sadness touches Broad, now 65, when he thinks now and then about who'll carry on the business. He's found no one willing to stick with the job."
Every first and third Friday of the month, Nancy Hill opens the French doors of her letterpress studio in downtown Phoenix and puts on a show. She recently retired from a corporate office job and took on letterpress printing full time.
Hill's shop is flooded with light from huge paned windows. She works on wedding invitations, greeting cards, and special orders. Last summer, she printed hundreds of square coasters to celebrate her A/C unit, which wasn't quite cutting it on a Friday afternoon — each read "Hot as HELL."
She has a wicked sense of humor (often needed to survive both Phoenix summers and employment in an antique industry), and she loves to talk about letterpress. Hill knows the local scene is growing. She's one of a handful of local printers, including Risseeuw, Lindsay Tingstrom (who currently operates solo after the split of letterpress trio SeeSawDesigns), Brent Bond and Mark McDowell at Cattle Track, Karla Elling of Mummy Mountain Press, and Linda Smith of Picnic Press.
Like many printers, Hill hosts printing classes on weekends and visits Cindy Iverson at Letterpress Central. And she really wants to check out Shipley's studio.
"I keep meaning to get up there and visit," she says. "He's incredible."
Sky Shipley's Thompson typecaster hums as lead, antimony, and tin combine to make the ideal metal alloy for type. The mixture is piped into chambers, where it's pressed against a mold, cooled, released from the chamber, and pushed out in the shape of a rectangular prism with a single letter popping out of one end.
It's a complicated process to watch, let alone master. When Shipley has time, he runs seminars for a few students at a time on how to operate the machine and cast their own sets of type.
"It's an intense operation that requires a lot of maintenance," he says. "There are always challenges because parts on these machines get worn out. I've collected up an assortment of spare parts, but usually the spare parts are already used, so I have to figure out a way to make them functional again."
He's made friends with local machine shop operators who find joy in creating replacements for missing and worn-out pieces for his typecasting machines. But Shipley admits that, like Broad, he has fears about who will continue the tradition once he's gone.
"I've only had two apprentices, and both were very serious about continuing the tradition," he says. "It's a commitment."
Shipley notes that in the late 1960s (a year after the Republic article was published and at the height of his business), Broad died suddenly, and his collection was transferred to a type foundry in Los Angeles. When that foundry folded, the collection was purchased by Barco, a foundry in Chicago that didn't sell them, didn't reproduce them, and virtually let them vanish from the letterpress world.
Many, including Shipley, thought Broad's matrices disappeared or were melted down to create modern typefaces. But after months of research and phone calls, Shipley tracked down the owners of Barco and begged them to sell him Broad's work. They refused, for years, until one day, "out of the blue," they called Shipley and asked for an offer.
"I wanted everything they had," says Shipley, pulling out drawers of Broad's type in his studio. "And I got it all for a screaming deal."
Shipley whispers that he low-balled the people at Barco, and when they agreed, he flew to Chicago and took the entire collection — including type that was more than 150 years old — back home to Arizona.
Since Charles Broad's time, the world of letterpress has changed dramatically. What once was a commercial industry was abandoned and then revived as an art form. Traditional letterpress printing is now taught in university classrooms and sold in indie gift shops. Metal and wood-based letters are now as collectible for printers as they are for young moms setting up letter walls in their nurseries and can be found at flea markets and through Internet storefronts like eBay and Etsy. The industry's become a movement that's motivated artists like Kyle Durrie, formerly of Portland and based in Silver City, New Mexico, to drive a "movable type" truck around the country to teach communities about the tradition and sell her own work. She most recently was in Phoenix last March on a countrywide tour to spread awareness of letterpress.
"I continue to see young people fascinated by the process, and there are so many reasons to learn it," says Risseeuw, who's been teaching at ASU for more than 30 years. "I've seen letterpress make better typographers, more thoughtful writers, and more creative visual artists . . . because learning about the design and setting the type slows down their process so much, they're always learning something new about their own medium."
Printers like Cindy Iverson use a combination of metal and wood type, and when clients have specific designs, she says she can now send the digital file to a manufacturer that creates a polymer-based plate with the entire image that can be pressed without the need to arrange individual type.
And though many view polymer plates as a controversial end to wood and metal type, Risseeuw says they're a necessity in modern printing and an essential part of letterpress' survival.
"Technology is going to evolve, and polymer provides a bridge between old technology and what we have today," he says. "Of course, there's a danger of people not understanding the tradition, the mechanics, and the design knowledge that physical type brings to a final product, but I think we'll always be playing with physical type in some way."
In his backyard in Prescott, Sky Shipley's fashioned a winding metal staircase that leads to a platform he uses to watch planes shoot across the skyline. He points out a few mountain ranges and talks about where he'll be flying in the upcoming week. (Letterpress occupies only the lion's share of his time, not all of it.) When asked about the future of letterpress, he pauses and admits to resisting most of the modern letterpress technology. He'll stick to metal, which is still used and collected by printers around the world. And like Charles Broad, he'll continue his search for a successor.
"I often ruminate," he says. "I wish I could have a visit from the ghost of Charlie Broad. I think he'd be happy to see what I'm doing."
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