I took my first-ever course in letterpress a part of a (very, very late) modified Assignment #5, Andrew Huff’s “take a course at Columbia College’s Center for Book & Paper Arts“. Andrew is one of those people who probably doesn’t sleep, instead staying up for weeks at a time creating things like this & this & these. He also has amazing muttonchops, endearing him to man & animal alike. He’s great. Andrew was also the first person to ever trust me as a printable writer, so you can either thank him for that or spit in his eye, depending on who you are. Anyway, Andrew was quite alright with me finding a NY substitute for Columbia College, & after some thorough searching we agreed on The Arm.

I went with the class at The Arm because it was:

1) an independent establishment
2) close by, &
3) hundreds of dollars less than a class at the New York Center for Book Arts.

Part art studio, part letterpress studio, The Arm is a big, beautiful, incredibly drafty shop located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though a big part of me felt like it would have fit just as well in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or Portland, Oregon, or any place artsy & laid-back & filled with people who really want to make nice, pretty things but don’t have the money to make them.

img_0347 It was a small class, with only seven students (myself included) & our Fearless Leader, Dan Morris. Dan owns, operates & lives in The Arm (which, just so you know, is a very large studio with beautiful French doors. I say this just so you don’t get the wrong impression that Dan is curling up beneath a Vandercook press every night – though if the image amuses you as much as it amuses me, then, by all means), which features six fully-functioning presses (& a couple of less than fully preses as well). The back room is filled with drawers of type, & the walls are papered with old posters for Japanther, printers’ conferences fliers & one giant letter from two British designers who were interested in taking a letterpress class. It is all old, & it is all beautiful.

The class catered to every skill set, taking us through the basic functions & capabilities of first the Vandercook press (which is the big-un you would use to make band posters & such), then allowing students to run free & sample the C&P Pilot press, as well as the various types, inks & papers available throughout. Every person got as much or as little one-on-one attention as they desired, which was great because I am really needy when it comes to relationships learning environments.

img_03264We broke for lunch late in the day. Everyone sat around on the musty couch in the front of the shop, drinking coffee & talking. There was a couple there who wanted to start their own letterpress card company; another woman was making custom wedding invitations for as a gift for an engaged friend. Dan told us he’d gotten started in letterpress when he was a kid – his grandfather had been a printer & when it was clear that the family trade was dying Dan took up printing himself, learning to repair all the broken presses he bought for his studio. He’d selected the space at 281 North 7th Street because of its street level access, but the huge window storefront proved to make it a great gallery space – something Dan had also been looking for. He now puts on irregular shows, moving things about the space as needed, even constructing new walls so that each exhibit is displayed in a brand new, fully functional environment. It’s incredibly inspiring, just sitting & listening to his ideas, & seeing the way they’ve been so beautifully executed.

There wasn’t much time left after the break, so everyone got straight to work on their final projects – for me, that meant working with the Vandercook one-on-one. I had struggled with the larger machines throughout the day & decided that, if I was really going to be getting something out of this, I owed it to myself to navigate as much of the machinery as I could. Dan paired me up with a Vandercook SP-15 which had been broken over the Thanksgiving holiday, making the crank more than a little stiff. Because I am generally incapable on normal, functioning machinery, this made me very nervous. I wound up applying too much ink (because I kept dicking around with colors: “Yellow green? Blue green? Soylent green?”), which left my first letterpress poster looking like this:


which was not exactly what I was going for. Dan was really kind about showing me how to clean everything up & fix the machine, & after a few goes I finally had something that resembled a real, live letterpress poster!


Ok. So it’s not the most technically complex design ever concocted. & the letters spill off the page in parts. & the ink is sparse on some tiles. & the photo is blurry & my nailpolish is chipped & blah blah blah but I made it & goshdangit, I’m damn proud I did.

Now that I’m trained on the machines, I’m able to rent out time at The Arm to complete future project as I wish. It’s pretty cheap – $15 (compare this to the New York Center for Book Arts, which charges $25/hr, not including costs of inks & papers) & Dan is usually around to supervise, should you be as generally inept as I. This assignment was definitely one of the best I’ve undertaken thus far, & it’s been very helpful in the “what shall I make everyone for Christmas?” department. Hope y’all got frames!