Ink rats: Power of old-timey printing still makes an impression

LANCASTER, Pennsylvania — Ken Kulakowsky has ink on his hands.

Standing behind a black velvet rope with a sign that read “.918 Club members only beyond this point,” he propels Chandler and Price’s 1909 printing press with the kick of a pedal, the turn of a flywheel, and the ease of his 64 years book printing experience. Kulakowsky, a retired graphics teacher, is President of the .918 Club, a membership-based club that brings together printing professionals, enthusiasts and visitors to the Heritage Press Museum in Lancaster, Pa.

The reference “Point 918” is a printer’s remark – .918 refers to the standardized height in inches of movable type used on a printing press – and the club is part of a global community of printers using the printing press, a mechanical device that uses pressure to transfer ink to paper. They are also determined to share their knowledge with a new generation.

“Information and news didn’t always magically appear on a screen,” says Kulakowsky. “Disseminating information used to be a difficult and time-consuming process.” Kulakowsky is dedicating his retirement to volunteering at the museum and establishing his eponymous book printing and book arts education center at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, which includes more than 40 different types of printing presses. The public can learn about printing, and local printers can rent time at the studio.

Kulakowsky is one of many printers across North America who have made this their life’s work. And from Toronto to Australia, there are as many stories in the world of printing as there are presses.

“People generally appreciate letterpress these days for the tactile feel — the way the ink sits on the paper and the impression the print makes,” says Phoebe Todd-Parrish, who owns Toronto-based letterpress and print studio Flycatcher Press .

Todd-Parrish, known for her prints of diners and restaurants, says it’s a myth that printing is a dusty old craft. Todd-Parrish uses Google Maps to display a photo of a building, then creates a drawing from the photo and transfers the drawing to a linoleum block, which she carves.

“When I meet other printers, there is a lot of camaraderie and sharing of resources, and we understand a shared mission to advance the medium and how we all benefit from it,” says Vincent Perez, owner of Everlovin’ Press in Kingston. Ont.

Vincent Perez, the owner of Everlovin' Press in Kingston.  Perez worked with the best Canadian illustrators to create a series of limited edition themed book prints called

Perez collaborated with leading Canadian illustrators to create a limited edition series of themed book prints called The Canadianist, featuring Canadian fashion, food and slang, double-inked and stamped with copper or gold foil.

There are online book printing communities like Briar Press where printers can buy and sell presses, troubleshoot press problems, and get help identifying a press by year and model. And there are regional and national print shows where printers can network, share and sell their latest work.

Visiting other print shops and working in print shops is a way to learn new skills and techniques. When Todd-Parrish lived in Perth, Australia, she attended Ann Ong’s Whiteman Park printing studio, Bright Press, and they occasionally printed together.

Vincent Perez from Kingston talks about a "common mission to promote the medium."

Ong and Todd-Parrish are committed to public education and run workshops to teach novices how to deal with the press. “It’s my way of letting a younger generation interact with something tangible, which is 600 years of history,” says Ong, who took over the business after her mentor, printer Phill Everitt, retired.

“He recognized that I was running the print shop with full commitment and enthusiasm and that I would work and help keep the printing world alive,” says Ong, who uses educational tools like Lego bricks to help beginners learn printing.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges for the printing industry. Printing supplies such as fine paper have been difficult to access due to supply chain issues, and printing festivals and events have been postponed.

The Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon, had to postpone its Print and Publishing Festival by two years, but the fair was held in June as part of the Riverside Arts Fest. Parks Canada restored a Chandler and Price printing press, now housed in the Dawson Daily News building, which is used for tours to highlight the history of journalism in the North, with the aim of inviting artists to demonstrate the use of historical printing methods and practical ones gain experience demonstrations.

“Rather than going to a machine and just pushing a button to create something, you have to understand that you are engaged in an ancient craft that requires constant physical interaction with processes to achieve a desired result,” says he Mark Barbour, executive director and founding curator of the International Printing Museum in Carson, California.

The museum’s print collection includes more than 1,000 presses, 10,000 metal and wood typefaces, and a library of more than 10,000 volumes. The museum works with about 20,000 students annually through its educational programs, including Ben Franklin’s Colonial Assembly, a 12-foot pendant featuring a working representation of US Founding Father Franklin’s wooden colonial printing press.

Well-known press models include Chandler and Price, Heidelberg and Vandercook, which is considered the workhorse of printing. Moving a press can be challenging; Some weigh up to 680 kilograms and a Vandercook can weigh almost 900 kilograms.

Large presses are no longer made, but most machines that were made as recently as a century ago can be restored and repaired. Don Black, who founded Don Black Linecasting in Scarborough in 1964, is well known in the printing press world for his ability to repair and restore linotypes, typesetting machines often used to print newspapers. His late son, Craig, was well respected for repairing and restoring printing presses, and father and son worked together, traveling across Canada making repairs and getting the printing presses to perform first class work. After half a century of repairing linotypes and presses, Black Don Black Linecasting closed in 2020.

Ken Kulakowsky demonstrates a linotype at the Ken Kulakowsky Center for Letterpress and Book Arts in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“We had (Linotype) machines that were 50 years old and still producing,” says Black. “They were done well, not the way things are done today when you have to throw things away and make new ones.”

Black’s customers came from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

“The beauty of it is that it’s a series of simple machines doing a complex job, so if they break, it’s possible to make a part for it,” says Chris Fritton, a Buffalo-based printer and visual artist. “These were built to last 1,000 years. The presses will outlast most printers.” Fritton is the author of The Itinerant Printer,‘ a memoir based on his travels, recreating a printer’s journey in the 1880s when journeymen could show their union card and apprentice at local print shops they visited.

Fritton, who originally entered the printing press as a writer, still composes and edits poetry directly on a printer. He hopes to embark on the journey of the “wandering printer” worldwide to meet and collaborate with other printers around the world.

“Great art is timeless,” says Jan Elsted, owner of Barbarian Press, a publisher of quality print books, with her husband Crispin Elsted in Mission, BC. “It means we can bring works from the past, sometimes contemporary books, for an audience that wants to experience those books in a tactile and personal way.” The Elsteds use six presses to print books the way they were printed 200 years ago the years 1833 to 1960.

Barbarian Press books cost about $1,000 and about 125 copies of each book are printed on the press. The Elsteds have published 50 books since 1977, most recently Sudden Immobility: Selected Poems of Molly Holden.

“A hand press is a tool, not a machine: the printer has to do everything from setting up the sheet of paper to be printed, to inking the type, to feeding the inked type and paper under the roller, and pulling the crossbar around the sheet to print,” says Crispin Elsted, who typesets each individual letter by hand, sometimes taking up to four hours to set a page of text by hand.

“We just love it,” says Elsted. “We can’t imagine retiring. That would be absurd.”

Correction — July 3, 2022: This article was updated to change the Lancaster, Pennsylvania date line.

Natalie Jesionka writes about food, community and social impact.

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