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Print lives on: Letterpress makes a resurgence in Missoula

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Candice Haster hunched over the Heidelberg Windmill press, one hand on a lever and the other hovering over a stack of cardstock, watching paper feed through the machine.

The press pulled a piece of paper from the top of the stack, rotated it and pressed it against a metal board. An ink roller slid over the page and distributed a layer of orange ink within the outline of a leaf design. Another lever rotated the paper again and deposited it onto a freshly inked stack on the other side of the machine.

The Heidelberg Windmill press dates to the 1950s and it’s one of a handful that are on display to customers who wander into Noteworthy Paper & Press on South Third Street West in Missoula.

Haster is a printer at Noteworthy and she knows the presses inside and out.

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Haster, a graduate of the University of Montana where she studied printmaking and ceramics, works the clutch on the 50s-era Heidelberg Windmill press. The press is one of three on display at Noteworthy Paper & Press on South Third Street West.

“The history is fascinating and this is just from the 50s,” Haster said. “It’s not that old but with the way technology has gone, it seems like an antique but it’s technically not even an antique.”

Haster set the cards aside before adjusting the machine to begin printing a different design. Printers like Haster have to understand the intricacies of each machine because the presses must be manually adjusted.

“A lot of it is guessing but then there are fine-tuning points from inside the press that I adjust with screwdrivers vertically and horizontal,” Haster said.

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Despite the labor-intensive process, letterpress has seen a resurgence with shops like Noteworthy that cater to customers who want more than a digitized print.

Noteworthy co-owners Taylor Valliant and Amy Dolan built their business around the idea of using old presses as a way to draw from the past. Over the years, they’ve collected numerous press machines, including two 1950s Heidelberg Windmills, a Chandler & Price Platen Press and a Vandercook No. 4 Proof Press.

Valliant said it all started when she moved back to Missoula following a brief hiatus in Idaho after she graduated UM and decided to buy the Vandercook press on eBay. She chose the Vandercook because of its reputation as an easy-to-learn press. However, when it arrived, it wasn’t in working condition as the listing had promised.

Valliant panicked at first, but then she realized that she could find replacement parts to fix the ones that were broken. “It actually ended up being a really good thing because I learned so much more about the press by having to get it back into working condition,” she said.

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“The history is fascinating and this is just from the 50s,” Haster said of the Heidelberg press. “It’s not that old but with the way technology has gone, it seems like an antique but it’s technically not even an antique.”

 

From 2003 to 2005, Valliant took printing press classes at the Center for the Book in San Francisco and the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, where she learned the ins and outs of the trade.

She started using her press at home and often made wedding invitations for friends. She thought about starting a line of greeting cards, and attended the 2006 National Stationery Show to learn more about the business. She returned feeling overwhelmed by the number of talented artists and decided that instead of making cards, it might be more viable to open a store to sell cards made by others.

Around this time, she ran into Dolan at Finn & Porter. Dolan had just moved back to Missoula from San Francisco, where she was working as a graphic designer making logos and materials for small businesses.

The two had some friends in common but more important, they shared a love for letterpress and an interest in developing a business around it. In January 2008, they met to create a business plan and by June, they opened up shop in a store on Higgins Avenue.

They designed and sold materials and took orders for custom work like invitations and business cards that they made with Valliant’s Vandercook. Dolan designed and Valliant printed.

As their business took off, they continued collecting presses, often inheriting them from other local printmakers who retired or went out of business. One of the first presses they acquired was a turn-of-the-century Peerless Gem paper cutter decorated with pinstriping from “back when they cared to make things like that pretty,” Dolan said.

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Haster lifts the heavy aluminum "chase" into the letterpress. 

Valliant had to start from square one learning how to use each new press, but she had help along the way from former printmakers and online forums. She said that compared to modern printers, the presses require a lot of love.

“They don’t just operate day in and day out without a lot of attention,” Valliant said. “This takes constant calibrating and you have to mix the inks by hand or order special inks, and you have to keep them oiled.”

Even though the machines need constant attention, Dolan said it's worth it. “I think these presses, people like the tactile element of them and it’s also (that) the machinery has so much soul," she said.

Her philosophy has paid off. Noteworthy now sells their designs to more than 300 retailers across in the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe. Their line includes cards, bookmarks, stationery, gift wrap, coasters, notebooks, tote bags and even tea towels. Using in-house designers and illustrators, they create custom orders for clients nationwide. But their "bread and butter" is their postcards, which they die-cut to shape them like different states and national parks, including Yellowstone and Glacier.

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“They don’t just operate day in and day out without a lot of attention,”  Noteworthy co-owner Taylor Valliant said. “This takes constant calibrating and you have to mix the inks by hand or order special inks and you have to keep them oiled.”

 

 

This November marks Noteworthy’s 10th year in business, which they’re celebrating in the store’s new location off South Third Street West. In their old location on Higgins, many of the presses were in the basement so customers were unable to see the print process. In their new shop, the presses sit right behind the checkout counter where they’re visible from the main entrance.

Dolen and Valliant attribute the success of their business to conveying the value of letterpress.

“You can now walk in and see somebody actually printing the card that you're going to buy and give to somebody, and that resonates with people because they know that they're buying something that was crafted by hand,” Dolan said.

Dolan said they sometimes receive feedback that their products are expensive, but she thinks seeing the presses in action helps people make the connection that they’re supporting an artist making a living wage.

Dolan also said the presses often spur customers to share stories about their experience with printmaking or their memory of it.

A few weeks ago, a man raised in Missoula returned for a visit. “He was like, ‘Oh, my mother printed on a press just like this on the corner of Higgins and Broadway when I was a kid,’” Dolan said. “I was like, ‘This is probably the press she printed on.’” The man came back again later that week to show his wife the presses that reminded him of the ones his mom worked on.

Valliant and Dolan said impressing the value of letterpress on others is just as important to them as their own business. They sell work by other “makers” in their shop and include bios about each artist. On First Fridays, they also invite a maker to showcase and sell their work, without taking a cut.

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“You can now walk in and see somebody actually printing the card that you're going to buy and give to somebody, and that resonates with people because they know that they're buying something that was crafted by hand,” co-owner Amy Dolan said.

 

They also allow the community to use the Vandercook No. 4 press that started it all on First Fridays. Haster said that for each event, she prepares poster stock with a pattern for some "traditional-looking background texture" and set type on the press so it's ready to go for people.

On Friday, Nov. 2, she set the type to say "vote" at different angles. As Haster explained how she sets the type in a metal frame known as the "chase," it was clear how much she loves her work.

"I like the process, I like the pieces, I like the vocabulary around it," she said. "I like that this is called the chase and these are called quoins and there’s quoin keys that you use to adjust them. There’s some really beautiful language that people don’t know unless they do this sort of printing."

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Haster places a stack of finished cards on a table near the printers.  

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