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Letterpress: An Antiquated Art, Or Maybe Not

During the holiday season, you might be receiving more cards in the mail than you normally do.  But how many of those cards are printed by hand?  One Rhinelander arts organization is an expert in doing just that.  The technique is a combination of old and new techniques.   

Daniel Goscha’s tiny printing studio has a cabin-like feel and smells of wood smoke.

He’s standing over an antique letterpress.  It’s kind of like a hundred year old copy machine…except it’s made out of metal and…well, there are some other differences too.

“Alignment is the key thing.”

He places a sheet of paper on a metal surface called the platen.  Pressing his foot on the treadle lowers a set of ink rollers that wipe across a row of type.  The inked-up type moves forward to stamp the paper, leaving a bright red imprint.

“The thing that a lot of people don’t understand about letterpress is, as you can see this step is pretty quick. But the work to get up to this point took quite a while. Setting up the type locking the type, making sure the gauge pins are exactly where they need to be. So the set up is most of the work.”

Today Goscha is using handset type to print a thousand cards for the nonprofit Arts Wisconsin.  In this detail oriented process – even the paper choice is important.  He’s using cotton paper made by university students at in Stevens Point. 

“This paper holds that bite really nicely. In traditional letterpress printing, back in the day when letterpress was king, you wouldn’t want that because then you’d dig into the page and couldn’t print on the other side. Original letterpress printers would say you want to just kiss the page."

Goscha has been doing letterpress since he was a grad student at the University of Illinois.  When he and his wife moved to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, he no longer had access to a studio.  So he started his own, and out of that grew the Mill, an arts nonprofit that teaches classes in printing and papermaking.    

“That’s Jennifer over there in blue...this proofpress is Doyle…so they each have names that bear their history.”

The letterpress is called Hedy, named after a Norwegian printer.  Her picture hangs above the press she once operated. Goscha picked it up…from Hedy’s barn in northern Minnesota…where it had been sitting for 20 years.

“So when I found it, it was barn fresh as I like to call it. So it was covered in any amount of dust and animal excrement. But it was actually underneath all that crust fairly well preserved. So we moved it back here.”

He says it took over a year to clean and repair the press.  But now he knows it intimately. 

“And now it just sings. It really sings.”

But just because letterpress relies on old technology…doesn’t mean it’s an outdated method. 

“Oh contrare, oh contrare! I would say there’s a great deal of innovation going on and experimentation going on in letterpress right now.”

Goscha explains that you don’t have to use handset type to make a letterpress print; you can also create polymer plates from a digital image, and those can go into the press as well.  So that means letterpress is still an advancing technology. 

“Contemporary letterpress – again you want that bite, you want that sort of impression in the paper. But you’re not limited to just the fonts that you can find, because you can have the polymer plates made. So any design that you can conceive can be done in letterpress, with this wonderful marriage between the digital and the handmade.”

Which doesn’t lessen the value of the idiosyncratic handset type.  But while letterpress is enjoying somewhat of a revival across the country, parts of the country like northern Wisconsin may not have caught on completely.  Goscha says many people still throw out old printing equipment as obsolete. 

“I sort of feel like here at the Mill, we’re sort of in a race against time. Because a lot of people don’t know that there’s still a use for these. They see it as lead type and they’re like nobody’s doing this and they take it to the scrap yard and they scrap it. So every font that gets scrapped is one less font in the world.”

Fortunately for the art of letterpress, it has at least one staunch supporter in the Northwoods. 

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