Visual Arts

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. 

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton