Sunday, December 2, 2012

Alphabet Stones

A look at the press log tells me it's been a busy November. Projects have come in with a satisfying steadiness: a house number, a pair of wedding invitations, portable signage for a rare book dealer. But as these jobs exist now in various stages of production, I'm glad to be able to send out some invoices. Actually, for the same job twice. My friends Darrell and Elisabeth Hyder of Sun Hill Press/Brookfield Paperworks have long collected alphabets in various media: calligraphed, letterpressed, grandchild-crayonned, etc. They have always wanted one in stone and decided to commission one from me to help give my fledgling operation a boost. They mentioned the project to friends of theirs, the parents of their son's wife, who were so impressed with the idea that they decided to commission one for themselves. I would later learn from Nick--too late!--that the John Stevens Shop, and by implication any self-respecting lettercarver, never carves the same alphabet twice. Given the family relationship between the clients, it seemed only appropriate however that the alphabets bear a family resemblance. Cut from the same slab of Italian slate, the two 11x17" stones do have some subtle differences. They were carved by hand after all. Here they are moments before the big reveal:

These are the second and third inscriptions I have finished with gold leaf. It's a messy, expensive and time-consuming process, where timing is as important as technique. The oil-based adhesive size has a drying window of about three hours, at least theoretically. Its sensitivity to climate conditions can make that window a lot shorter. As I have learned the hard way. These alphabets required multiple attempts to get good coverage. That meant a lot of waiting and hoping and resizing and regilding. Fortunately I had enough gold leaf on hand to get the jobs done. Now let's clean them up.

I may have mentioned elsewhere that this is the one stage where magic seems to sneak into the process. I don't think I'll ever get tired of seeing gilded or painted letters emerge from the shimmering slurry wash.

Once the alphabets are washed and dried, the oiling can begin. With a combination of boiled linseed oil and Japan drier, the stones are rubbed and polished with a high-thread-count cloth wrapped twice around a block of hardwood. This process will both protect the stone from fading and heighten the contrast between the surface and the gilded inscription. Halfway home:

It is not required, but at the end of the month-long process of designing, carving, gilding and oiling an alphabet stone it is recommended that you celebrate with the votive beverage of your choosing. In my case I enjoyed one of the last Pumpkinheads of the 2012 sipping season. Cheers.

Now the stone is ready for delivery. The following morning I drove out to North Brookfield to visit the Hyders, do some typesetting for a printing project and render the official unveiling of their alphabet.

I will have to go back to photograph the stone hanging in place once the Hyders find a home for it. Only six months have passed since I carved my apprentice alphabet at the end of my stay in Newport. It's quite remarkable to me the differences in letter forms as ideas represented as they are in these two attempts. My perception grows keener as my hand gets smarter, a wonderful relationship, hand and eye. Though I am rather proud of these alphabets, I have a lot of new information to take into the next commission. Fortunately I won't have long to wait to apply what I've learned. New projects beckon.

Monday, November 12, 2012


A couple weeks ago, my friend Maggie Holtzberg came by the shop to talk about a memorial stone for her father. Maggie is a folklorist who works at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which in 2009 awarded Firefly Press with a grant to subsidize my education in operating and maintaining the Monotype and Linotype machines. She was also very supportive of my efforts to study with Nick Benson at The John Stevens Shop as a panelist with the Institute for Community Research's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Needless to say, I'm always glad to see her, especially now that I am in a position to repay her investments in my training. Here she is chatting with Derek about the blacksmith's life.

Maggie spent about an hour at the shop, taking pictures, asking questions and, ever the archivist, recording them with a handheld device. She sent me an email a few days later with a link to the blog post she wrote about her visit. Since it might be of interest to anyone who passes through here once in a while, I submit it for your amusement:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shop-Warming Party

The Chandler & Price is wired and running, my press sign carved and painted. Basically, it's time to party. My shopmate the blacksmith Derek Heidemann and I decided we were ready to face the public as a joint letterpress/lettercarving/blacksmithing operation and chose the Sunday before Halloween as a good day for a shop-warming party. We completely nailed the weather: beautiful, blue and crisp, fall at the height of its range. With an enormous assist from my mother and aunt in the culinary department, and a reputable pub's worth of seasonal beer (including half a keg left over from a recent wedding), we welcomed upwards of forty folks over the course of eight hours. And it was capped off with a screening of Night of the Living Dead projected onto the side of our building. The party was such a success that we're already talking about a winter version. Some pictures of the event:

First inking. Brand-new rollers on a press that hasn't yielded an inked impression in about 30 years.

Sun Hill Aubergine. My first, and until today only, can of ink!

A day of firsts. First impression pulled. What a relief: the impressional strength of the press was set at just about the right pressure for a form of this size. I was worried about having to do a lot of bolt-and-wrenching to get a decent result. I took a look at Derek's banner and realized that Iron Works is two words instead of one. This correction gave me the chance to do some kerning on my Miller saw. Awesome!

Derek's setup.

My Aunt Annie with a personalized cake for the party host. 

A stack of keepsakes for visitors to the shop. Set in 24-point Romulus with ornament made up of Teague corner pieces.

Derek shows off his work. He's definitely got the whole making beautifully useful objects out of wrought iron-thing figured out.

Nick Benson checks out some of my printing. I was so psyched he, Paul Russo and Christine Dunn came to represent the JSS. I certainly wouldn't be in a position to party without their help and encouragement. Cheers, bras!

Derek demonstrates his craft. People were invited to step up to the anvil and bang out some nails, hooks and the occasional spike. I cannot wait to make a spike.

My mother makes a nail.

mjb and John Barrett.

Fun for the whole family!

Night of the Living Dead. The perfect ending to an Afternoon of the Not-Quite-Dead Traditional Crafts and the Very-Much-Living People Who Preserve Them.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


The arrival of my 12x18" Chandler & Price a couple weeks ago certainly deserved its own post, but I've been so busy since then arranging the shop and making room for new equipment, and trying to do profitable work, that the opportunity went by the boards. This picture nicely captures the excitement involved. I had to widen the front door to pass the press and paper cutter through, a time-consuming but not difficult project. Then we got to play with the hydraulic lift gate of a Ryder truck, which can be a rollercoaster, bumper car or Ferris wheel depending on your common sense. The press weighs just over a ton, so in strapping it down for the four-foot flight we erred on the side of paranoia. There is a moment about six inches off the ground where the lift gate retracts and tilts down, which knocked the press back on its heels for a breathless split second. Thanks to the allied brilliance of John Barrett and Joe Riedel, the whole thing went very smoothly. We eventually even managed to get the press off its oversized skids. It was worth the extra hour and a half of logistics. Joe is a pro.

While the press awaits the skilled touch of a master electrician, I've been occupied with various layouts for projects in their early stages. The round-ferrule brush is still an intimidating instrument, but I have made some rather satisfying improvements which make for happier lettering.

The other day I was contacted by a friend offering me a few pieces of surplus equipment. I continue to be amazed by the generosity of friends at this tender stage of MP&L's lifespan. I've been "in" business for almost a month. But after the addition of this recent trove of composing room essentials I feel much closer to actually "doing" business, printing-wise.

Unloading the 400-lb Miller saw was a little dicey. But it all worked out in the end. And I can't begin to describe how cool this thing is. It comes with a router attachment which would allow me to, say, make my own wood type. And much else besides!

In a fit of OCD this morning I scrubbed seven Morgan expandable roller trucks, which will ensure a smoother ride for my new rollers. This is the before shot.

The Miller in position. It has a grinding wheel mounted just to the right of the bed. That'll keep my chisels good and sharp. There's a funny picture in the literature that came with the saw of a group of bowtied printers at the window throwing out all the separate pieces of equipment necessary for the various things the Miller happily does all in one.

I'm hoping to lay a slab of marble on top of the galley cabinet for imposition, thick enough to accommodate an inscription running along the edge. That is the plan, at any rate.

So far it has been a tremendously satisfying experience running my own shop. Not without its attendant anxieties (and they are not insignificant). But bottomless responsibility is somehow a small price to pay for standing on your own two feet. I won't feel completely settled until I start running the press. But for now the dizzying swirl of things to keep track of and get done feels a lot like Real Life. I'll take it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sterling Fair

My friend Darrell Hyder at Sun Hill Press had printed a few ART SHOW posters for another occasion, and when I paid him a visit last week he gave me one to hang on my tent at the Sterling Fair. It wasn't entirely misleading, as I shared the space with my mother who was selling prints of my grandmother's paintings. Her art work has been featured on Fair t-shirts, buttons and posters, as well as various town publications, for decades. If anyone knows me at all in Sterling it's as Rosemarie's grandson or Heather's son. This year the Sterling Fair gave me the chance to re-introduce myself as an artisan (ARTISAN SHOW?), and I have to say I was cheered by people's response to my work. I met a man whose father worked at the Colonial Press in Clinton, major book printers back in the day, and he remembers his father coming home with errant sorts caught in the cuff of his pant leg. Proud of his high standards to this day, he will occasionally pick up a recently printed book and shake his head in disgust. I can hardly blame him, though I should say I do know where to look for admirable modern book design. Thanks to all those who visited my booth and took the time to have a conversation about printing and lettercarving.

Darrell tried his hand at it while his wife Elisabeth observed.

Meg showing off her skills to her friend Jackie.

 I entered my Welcome sign into the Fair auction on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

End of an era/begin again

A parting shot of the sign on the door I opened and closed almost every day for six years. I'm fairly sure it was brushed by the late Gino Lee, who worked at Firefly alongside John and also Edith McKeon Abbott back in the late '80s/early '90s. Sort of a tacit challenge: learn how to do this, too. I accept.

Life has been a wild tumult these last few weeks, moving house after seven years from Boston to central Massachusetts and shop from a horse stall in a barn and a few galleys at Firefly to a building in a converted textile mill outside Worcester. I'm sort of in a state of elated shock: I own a small business doing the two things I love most and I live in a beautiful village with the one I love most. I return to this space excited to share my excitement (like Philip Booth: "today if ever to/say the joy of trying/to say the joy.") and hope to put an end to weeks of internet silence. There is work to be done.

September 3, 2012, my first day as sole proprietor of a printing and carving shop. By way of swearing-in ceremony, I did what anyone else in my position would do: I assembled a rusty, battered double-wide type cabinet. This was part of the first trove of printing equipment I acquired, before I had any real notion of how to go about living the printing life. I was still involved in publishing, working as an occasionally paid factotum at a small poetry press in Brookline, MA, when the director said he needed to clean the basement. That meant getting rid of the 10x15 Peerless Jobber and a great miscellany of printerly accoutrements originally purchased by the press's founder, who had aspirations of running his imprint as a limited-edition poetry print shop. He died canoeing before this dream could be achieved and so the equipment languished in the director's basement for no one can remember how long. Until I volunteered to take it, that is, the thinking behind this decision being that if I had a press I must be a printer. Now the reverse is true: I'm a printer but I don't (at least until [post alert!] next Wednesday) have a press. However I do have a lot of much else besides, and so I got to work. It took a couple of hours to scrub off the patina of rust, figure out where I wanted to go and then put it together. A satisfyingly absolutely filthy job, but once it was in place I could begin to design the rest of the shop.

After lunch I took a break from shoving equipment around to lay my first font of type into a clean case. Every job has its equivalent, I should think, its "best part." Alright, laying type may not be the best part of printing, per se, but it is awesome. Especially with a face like 42-pt Augustea Inline, which demands satisfaction. It was something of a reunion, actually, as I purchased the face from the sad, amazing type sell-off at The Stinehour Press in 2008 and later purchased the type cabinet from a friend who was present at the final auction of whatever was left in 2010. In that moment I made the world a little more whole. It is a great thrill to serve as a caretaker for the prodigal equipment of a once-great press. We are all stewards of a long graphic-arts legacy. Some realize and appreciate this, others don't. But it seems to me that you can always tell who is on which side. The work doesn't lie.