Letterpress revival growth spurs graphic entrepreneurs in Eastern Iowa

Enthusiasts feeling pinch as craft's popularity grows

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At the recent Dream Big regional business pitch competition in Cedar Rapids, 26-year-old Danielle Ameling of Iron Leaf Press in Mount Vernon showed up to make a pitch for her 18-month-old startup business.

She was surrounded by entrepreneurs who wanted money for things like hiring web developers to help with their social media sites.

Ameling? She wanted to use the $5,000 first prize to buy a letterpress.

Although she didn't win, Ameling is still looking for ways to buy a bigger letterpress than the hand-cranked, tabletop models she uses. It will enable her to turn out longer press runs economically.

Graphic designers see demand for letterpress printed items growing fastest in literary centers such as Iowa City and academic communities such as Mount Vernon, home of Cornell College

"They want to buy the quality products," said Ameling, who works full-time as a graphic artist at RuffaloCODY in Cedar Rapids. "They want to buy it because it's handcrafted."

One of Ameling's letterpress mentors is Jim Daggs of Ackley Publishing in Ackley. Daggs is also the national president of the Amalgamated Printers Association.

Daggs said he can remember less than a decade ago when letterpress printers were a fading tribe of diehards in Iowa. Now, "I get several inquiries every month from people wanting to join our organization," said Daggs, who also teaches letterpress to Iowa State University graphic arts students.

The new letterpress printers are a different breed.

"The big thing is the arts movement," Daggs said. "Some of the artists are developing a commercial business around it."

Liz Munger of the Paper Nest, 220 E. Washington St., Iowa City says there's a sophisticated market of stationery consumers who really want the heavy impression a letterpress leaves on the paper.

"The people that seek me out and go with letterpress as an option have a preset-idea of what it is and what makes it special," said Munger, who prints everything from art books to business cards.

Daggs agreed.

"Now they want to punch it (the paper) so hard you can almost read it as braille."

Most of the demand is for so-called "markers of life" items such as invitations to wedding and anniversary events, Munger said.

Niki Neems of r.s.v.p., a stationery shop that stocks letterpress-printed items at 1400 N. Linn St., Iowa City, sees demand for letterpress cards and invitations feeding the growing appetite for handmade and locally made goods.

"Anything that's touched by a maker is so much more special than it used to be — people actually feeding paper and packing their stationery," Neems said.

Modern letterpress printing dates back to the mid-15th century, and  was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. Rows of type and image plates are placed in  the bed of a press, then inked and rolled or pressed against paper.

But items printed in short printing runs on a letterpress tend to be costlier than items printed with modern digital laser printers, inkjet printers or offset lithography.

In addition, the work of letterpress printing is demanding on multiple levels. The obvious one is the time-consuming nature of setting the type by hand or machine.

And there are less obvious challenges. On a single-unit letterpress, each color must be printed separately, requiring great care to keep the overlapping colors in precise register.

Letterpress printing all but died out in the 1970s and 1980s, as print shops converted to offset lithography that used photographically imaged plates.

The resurgence of letterpress printing nationwide termed the Small Press Movement seems to be hitting its stride in Iowa a little later than it has elsewhere. In many larger metro areas, letterpress studios and co-ops have sprung up to rent time on a press to graphic artists who don't have their own.

In the Corridor, the interest receives a boost from the University of Iowa's Center for the Book, where Munger was exposed to letterpress printing. Its website, she said, touts "perhaps the widest range of book arts courses in U.S. higher education," including papermaking, book binding, letterpress printing and calligraphy.

Fading interest in the letterpress during the early 1980s had caused Cornell College in Mount Vernon to dismantle a campus press that published literary journals and books, including a respected literary journal called "The Husk," which counted among its contributors the poet Carl Sandburg. But the UI Center for the Book recently donated an iron Washington hand press to Cornell College because college faculty members Leslie Hankins, Michelle Mouton and Katy Stavreva were interested in resurrecting the college's letterpress tradition.

Cornell has moved the press into its new Center for the Literary Arts, where the college plans to develop a fully supported print shop that will underpin courses on the past, present and future of the book, according to Mouton.

Some argue the letterpress printing tradition never died out fully in Eastern Iowa. Diehard letterpress printers such as Tim Fay of Route 3 Press near Anamosa have continued using letterpress on a weekly basis to supply orders.

Fay also uses his collection of letterpresses to print an annual literary review, the "Wapsipinicon Almanac," which is known for its elegant visual style.

Fay got started back in 1978, buying up used letterpresses from a weekly newspaper in Anamosa and even a monastery in Dubuque.

"The stuff was being junked, and I would get it for just about nothing," Fay said. "I liked this technology, that the stuff was designed to last forever."

Daggs was another contrarian who picked up letterpress equipment for next to nothing, when the owners no longer wanted it.

"It sit back in amazement now at people paying $2,500 for a letterpress that would have sold for $25 in 1970," he said.

The look of letterpress printing during its boom years could be great or dismal. Today's letterpress operators seem to have a general sense that they're producing a premium design-driven product.

"If it's done well, it can be beautiful," Fay said.

His clients include Weber Stone Co. and Anamosa Community School District.

Young and old printers gather to share knowledge every September at the Midwest & Great Northern Printers Fair, held at Printers Hall on the Old Thresher grounds in Mt. Pleasant.

Aside from the Internet's role in driving a desire for a return to the durable letterpress printed materials, Daggs said it's helped connect young artists with the small splinter groups of established printers with letterpress knowledge.

"There's new people catching on to it every day," he said. 

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