Tradition and Progress

Way back in 1996, I started working at Fireproof Press, run by John Upchurch and Matt McClintock, known for producing music packaging, posters, business cards and other oddball print pieces, mostly for Chicago-based artists. The third floor workspace, shared with Screwball Press, was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, scattered with press bits and flying sheets of paper. I loved every minute of my time there (almost). Everything was made better with root beer. John closed Fireproof in the winter of '98, and I like to think that had he not done so, I'd still be there today. Forced out into the world, I got one press, and then another, and in the summer of '99, Starshaped Press was born, at least in name. I took over a number of jobs that had been intended for Fireproof, and then began a two-year stint at Columbia College, alongside John in his new position. During that time I grew the business and set up our first studio, about 385 sq ft in the lovely Ravenswood area, where I worked exclusively for two years after leaving Columbia. In the summer of 2003, the studio moved to a bigger, brighter space also in Ravenswood, where the work continues today. Here's what an average day look like:

studio114To celebrate the 15th year of the studio, I've planned a series of prints to showcase some of the fine type in the studio as well as the ideals that have guided the work of Starshaped over the last 15 years. The first print pulls a quote from the Barnhart Brothers & Spindler type specimen book of  1923 and is printed in three colors.

bbspromo4The first layer is printed using the back sides of wood type, allowing the texture of the wood to come through.


bbspromo3The border elements are composed of ornaments from different collections, mostly cast at Skyline Type Foundry.

Tbbspromo9'Tradition' and 'Progress' were printed with wood type that's in pretty rough shape. But I wanted to contrast the rustic aspect of this 100-year-old type with some of the newest metal type; 'typographic art' is set in Runic, a brand new cast and not used before this project.



Tbbspromo3Where did the time go? These four typefaces (Railroad Gothic, Onyx, Engravers Old English and Stymie Bold) have all come to the studio collection from different sources over the years.


Tbbspromo4Here is a full shot of the final print. I wanted to deconstruct the traditional text-heavy broadside of the late 1800s while maintaining the 'more is more' approach to typesetting of that time. I felt this quote was particularly forward thinking, especially given that it appeared in print in 1923.

I am sending the print (along with ones to come this year) to the printers and designers that I admire, and that have championed Starshaped over the last 15 years, as well as folks that have a passing interest in letterpress and typography. There are still many copies left in the studio and I'm happy to send one to anyone that would like to have it! Just email with your info. And thanks for the support. 2014 is going to be a great year in the studio.


14 Years and Printing

Setting up Starshaped Press back in 1999, I threw together a small open house for family and friends to come see my limited collection of printing paraphernalia. Fourteen years later, the open house has become a large annual event, where printers and printing aficionados come to eat, print and enjoy good conversation. I'm proud of the community that has built up around the studio and that continues to bolster our efforts to preserve the craft of letterpress printing. It's that time of year again when we ink up the presses, clean the floors and stock the studio with sweet treats for everyone to enjoy. And of course there's a poster to both announce and celebrate the evening:

openhouse1Inspiration for the open house posters comes from a different place every year and gives me a chance to push our type collection into a certain aesthetic. This year I revisited some of the design work done by Vaughn Oliver and v23, the longtime in-house design force behind most of the early 4AD record releases. It's an understatement to say that this design work changed the course of my creative life and showed me incredible, contemporary typographic work. I wanted to play with some of the type we have that doesn't see the light of day too often yet evokes the conscious typographic decisions made in v23's work.

I haven't had much experience printing brass circles and this was a great opportunity. It's a bit tricky getting the type inside to stay straight, and buffer around the edges to hold it in the form. Letterspacing 'th' around the 14 was also a challenge, as the 4 needed to be mortised so that the 'h' could fit closer. Love that band saw.

form5This is one of our more attractive forms of late, hanging out on our imposing stone. The quotation marks come from larger wood type that I trimmed to size to fit comfortably and allow for maximum flexibility of placement.

forminwindowI really didn't want to carve any specific image for this print, but instead wanted a moody feel with a hint of stars.

openhouse4The best way to achieve this is with a pressure print, which means adding shapes to the makeready of the press and running the paper over them through the press. I used linoleum as the inking medium and trimmed two pieces to the outline I wanted for the poster. The dark copper brown was run first, followed by a strip of yellow printed with the back sides of wood type. It was done as a work-in-turn so that I could get two prints out of each sheet of paper.

linocutsetup2The chipboard stars were then added to the cylinder of the press, under the poster paper. When the paper hits the inked linoleum, the areas where the stars are will hit heavier and will therefore make a stronger impression.

starsetup1Here are the linoleum blocks inked; both light orange and pink were on the press in what's known as a split fountain. The stars here are not carved in the linoleum; this shows where the paper is hitting the block hardest and picking up the ink for the print.

linocutsetup3All together, this achieved the exact effect I was looking for, coupled with the beautiful type.

openhouse2Real and true letterpress indeed! I'm awed by the successes, epic failures and enthusiasm I've met with over the last 14 years and love throwing the doors open for a cozy night of printing with the community. We'd sure love to see you!

Saturday, November 16th

7-10 pm

4636 N. Ravenswood #103


If Rosie Can Do It

I am often asked how we maintain our presses in the studio and folks always find it surprising when I answer that we do it ourselves. The truth is, armed with a manual or two and a few connections with experienced printers, keeping our presses in working order is pretty simple. They need oil, and plenty of it, along with a little cleaning and visually checking that screws and bolts aren't working themselves loose. Both of our platen presses are motorized, with the motors running directly off the flywheel. I'm not a big fan of belts (even after successfully replacing a disintegrating one on our Vandercook press), so this setup is ideal. Both of our motors are made-in-Chicago Kimball motors that are period to the presses, and have had a pretty good run of 10+ years in our shop with little complaint. That changed this past Fall when the 10x15 C+P press motor decided to act up. After a little cleaning and investigating, it was apparent that a few parts were worn to what is probably a not fixable degree. Because this press is our workhorse, we took the motor from the 8x12 C+P and put it on the 10x15 for a temporary fix while searching out a replacement. In the meantime, I purchased a treadle for this press as it seemed like a good idea to have a manual backup. Think vintage, foot-powered sewing machine.

Well, I suppose the treadle came in perfect time, as the 'new' motor on the 10x15 died last Saturday. This was most likely due to old wiring with poor connections. This was the throw-the-hands-up-in-the-air moment of realizing both motors are long overdue for an overhaul. I ripped the treadle out of its crate and got it on the press. First, the unused motor mount had to come off because it's attached to the same hinge that is needed for the treadle mount:


Here's the front of the treadle that sees all the action.




I lowered the pulley away from the flywheel so it doesn't needlessly drag on the flywheel now that it's operated by foot:


And here's the happy setup. I printed over 2400 calendar pages by foot (more on those later), which was not unlike spending about 4 hours on an elliptical, only with one foot at a time. This was followed by 200o 4-run gift certificates. Happily, next week is a Vandercook week so I've got a little break coming up. The interns will be getting the workout!


The beauty of working in Chicago, the city that works, is that there are motor shops in nearly every neighborhood. We'll be taking both of the motors in to see if they can get us up and running again at full speed soon.

'Tain't What You Do

Early in 2012, I decided to put together a comprehensive collection of pieces that would showcase the absolute best typesetting and printing that Starshaped was capable of, largely inspired by the gorgeous print samples featured in The Handy Book of Artistic Printing. The studio has many of the bits and pieces used to create fanciful designs without the aid of lithography (or the modern equivalent of digital typesetting), and I wanted to show that this type of work was still alive and thriving. Because our design work for various projects breaks down into 4 aesthetic collections revolving around stylistic periods in typography, it was easy to establish there would be 4 pieces and a folder to hold them all. Because the one image that really spoke to me in Artistic Printing was an image that showed how the printers broke down the piece to be set and printed, I knew immediately that I wanted to have beautiful images of the forms (the lockup of type for printing) offset printed on the back side of each piece so that viewers could see exactly what went into creating it.

The subject matter came easily as well; I chose 4 things that both fascinate me and inform decisions I make everyday in regards to my design work.

The first piece was to focus on our nineteenth century type collection and needed to be something that would run a lot of type together in the style of an advertising broadside. I happened to purchase the audiobook of Shadow of the Titanic and often found myself staring into space as the survivor's stories were so engaging and well written. An ad for the Titanic was the obvious choice, and fit the period of typography I wanted to explore, and would also give me an opportunity to draft an image of the ship. After devouring numerous books on the subject I felt that while the print would be traditional in appearance, the writing would encompass details that became relevant only with 100 years of hindsight. The 1912 'deadline' helped me research which typefaces could be used and which could be eliminated. Here is the final form in black and white for the offset run (a single spot color), along with a snippet of the top:



Some notes on the text:

  • Many phrases were used to describe the ship, given that it was the largest to be built. Queen of the Ocean and Floating Palace were quite popular. The Latest... line was lifted directly from an ad for the maiden voyage.
  • Olympic and Gigantic were to be the sister ships to Titanic, with the Olympic completed just before Titanic. The name Gigantic was changed to Britannic in light of the tragedy, though there was denial this name was ever planned.
  • The ports of call are listed here, but instead of New York, the coordinates of the sinking complete the run.
  • Titanic was a triple screw ship (three propellers), so instead of listing this there are three screw images.
  • White Star never claimed the ship was unsinkable, only 'practically'. But the sheer size of this marvel excited hyperbole with the public and its crew.
  • Newsreels were just coming on the scene at the time of the sinking. Enterprising folks put together as much footage as they could, and the first film about Titanic was released a month after the tragedy and featured one of its survivors.
  • The print presented the opportunity to use some type and ornaments that don't often see the light of day in the studio. We don't have much call for using the British Pound symbol so I worked in fares, and as luck would have it, we had the smaller ship cut that gives a bit of pop at the bottom.

Here's the final print:  titanic1b




The unfolded print is available for purchase here.

The second print in the series would be a nod to Chicago, the city that literally feeds life into Starshaped. Building skylines out of ornaments is not only an enjoyable challenge (give us a city and we can make it cool), it's one of the most popular styles with our clients. This was a great opportunity to look at type that was decidedly modern by letterpress standards, most of which was created between 1930-1960.

I blogged about this piece back in September and you can read (and see) more about it here. The unfolded print is also available for sale. Here is the form shot:



Additional notes on the text:

  • The buildings represented here are recognizable to the city, but also leave a few for interpretation. The Shubert Theater is there not only as a nod to the thriving theater community but has a very personal connection as the major employer of Mr. Starshaped and home to IATSE stagehands that make up the muscle behind the studio, when muscle is needed.
  • I love the little representation of the train and its track, connecting the loop area with the neighborhoods and stockyards; it links both downtown commerce with residential living, as well as linking the past, present and future together.
  • For some reason, I can't stomach the phrase The Windy City. Luckily, Chicago native Common has switched it to a cooler option, which seems more palatable.
  • Urbs in Horto, or City in a Garden, appears on the official city seal, and was the basis for our award winning poster of the same name.
  • The colors are meant to evoke the midwest, prairie and wheat fields.
  • Studs Terkel would have been 100 in 2012. Greatly missed.


The third print is officially the hardest typesetting to ever be sweated over in the studio. Silent films and ragtime songs are the little pieces of solace into which I escape both at the studio and in the city, which boasts several historical theaters showcasing silent films to a dedicated audience. In July and August I listened almost exclusively to Reginald Robinson all day, every day. It felt so encouraging to enjoy the work of someone that was so incredibly dedicated to preserving a very particular form of music, and I wanted to create a piece that showed that same dedication to my craft, even if it meant not creating 'cutting edge' work. There is an art to preservation, as well as using it as the basis of a commercial operation. The inspiration to rise to a new level of typographic work resulted in this form:



I wanted a piece that proved we could work within a time period (in this case, 1920s), set type in small spaces, on curves, on lines, with mortised initials... every trick in the book. After working through about half of the snippets, I had to take a break and move on to another piece for a month, as I hit a wall in bringing it all together. But alas, it came together. And it worked.

Some notes on the text:

  • I wanted the piece to have a nightclub/theater feel, so that it would be scored to literally open onto the text inside. This meant running curved type at the top in the manner of Chicago's own Portage Park Theater, and adding a diecut to emphasize the shape.
  • The Exotic Locales sphinx cameo is in tribute to Jo, the studio's printers devil and ardent Egyptologist.
  • Most of the text is pulled from songs of the time, as well as silly slang that should make a comeback. The reference to Frankie and Johnny is in honor of my grandmother. We played this piano roll endlessly together when I was a child. It's still a favorite.
  • The type for Leave All Your... and TONIGHT is set in Pastel, a Chicago-designed typeface that was very popular in silent films. We have 4 fonts of it and are always on the lookout for more. It forms the basis for our silent film-inspired greeting cards.
  • Can You Spare A Dime not only references that song as well as Pennies from Heaven, but specifically 5 Pennies, which was the name of Red Nichols band.
  • It is printed in silver ink, while the accents are a linoleum cut printed with a transparent ink for just a little pop.

I borrowed a rule bender from the Platen Press Museum to help set the spacing for the curves at the top:


Here is the final piece:






The fourth print would be a nod to Labor, Labor history and its place in Chicago. For this piece I wanted a looser feel that would incorporate as much of our wood type as possible, pulling from our smaller faces and mixing them with the styles of typography that have graced labor prints and posters for the last 100+ years. The overall aesthetic would be more rustic and would give the appearance of a sea of posters at a rally, where no one image takes center stage in the ultimate show of democracy.

Here's the form:



Some notes on the text:

  • Many phrases are pulled from songs. My favorite is from Woody Guthrie's Union Maid: married life ain't hard when you've got your union card. I can attest to this.
  • City of Hands refers to Chicago as a city of hands, i.e., workers. It was a great opportunity to play off the text with our manicule collection.
  • I felt it was important to represent diversity in the labor movement, even if labor history didn't necessarily do this. The spanish text here means solidarity knows no boundaries. And as a feminist, it was also important to include a nod to the fight for equal rights. My childhood snowsuit was labeled as 'proudly made by the Women's Garment Union'.
  • There is both a list describing the workers of Chicago courtesy of Carl Sandburg, but also a list of just a few of the benefits fought for and won by unions.
  • I felt that the cause of human brotherhood is more sacred than labor organizations was an important statement, made by an individual that could see both sides of the labor coin. If we valued human brotherhood above all, there wouldn't be a need for unions.
  • The background is printed by reversing wood type and ornaments to create a subtle texture of wood grain. Rules are used to give the impression that each snippet is a poster raised overhead.

Here is the final piece:






We make every effort in the studio to work exclusively with American companies, especially midwestern paper manufacturers. All of the paper for the four pieces here came from French Paper in Niles Michigan, one of our favorites. The offset printing was all done by the talented Gary and his staff at Accucolor Plus here in the city. And of course the overwelming majority of our type collection was manufactured by American type foundries. The copper Titanic plate and the two linoleum blocks were the only new materials used besides the paper, which is all at least 30% post consumer recycled stock. Printing with existing materials is definitely the most eco-friendly approach to letterpress.

Now that the pieces were finished, a cover had to be designed and produced. After testing out more complicated folders, diecutting, etc., I settled for a very simple folded cover with a sewn pocket. For this I used our standard shop gray chipboard. It's 100% recycled, durable and it fits my aesthetic. The cover text references a favorite song, and sums up my approach to design and printing, which focuses heavily on preserving an antiquated process. It combines metal type, antique copper cuts and linoleum blocks.





And here's the final piece together! This was an exceptionally challenging project that turned out better and more comprehensive than I had hoped when I first had the idea. It shows the absolute best typesetting that we are capable of at Starshaped given the materials we have at present (maybe I'll tackle another project of this magnitude in five years when we've acquired even more). There's a wide range of design styles and typography, and the beautiful type and ornaments themselves are present to help viewers understand how each piece was created. I have a number of kits available and am happy to send one upon request.