Making an Impression
Mastering the art of letterpress printing
By By Carolyn Rundle Field
As a child, wherever Lynda Campbell went with her father, a printer, he would comment on typography. “I grew up thinking every parent taught their kids about type,” she says. These early lessons may explain why, four years ago, she purchased her first press and embarked on what has become a new career. Calling her business Saltbox Press—she lives in an antique saltbox house—she creates holiday cards, calendars, invitations, and stationery by hand in her home studio using three vintage printing presses.
After college, she followed another passion—retail—and took a job with Abraham & Strauss. Several years later, she and a friend opened a children’s clothing store on the Upper West Side, selling to customers who included celebrities like John and Yoko Lennon.
She eventually sold her interest in the shop, moved to Wilton, and focused on raising her three daughters. As her children became more self-sufficient, she began taking water-color classes at Silvermine Art School. She made floral birthday cards for friends, and worked part-time at Blue Tulip, selling stationery. A friend suggested the two of them buy a press and start their own business.
“That idea stuck in my head,” she says. “When Blue Tulip closed, I enrolled in letterpress printing classes at the Center of Book Arts in New York City.” On her first day, the teacher instructed everyone to ‘get their type, composing stick, and galley tray’. Campbell felt lost. “But I hung in, and eventually figured things out.” After completing her first letterpress project, she was hooked. “Making an impression in the paper is so tactile and hands-on. It’s truly an old world art.”
Determined to purchase her own press, she went online and joined the Letterpress List, an industry organization. Through them, she bought her first press from a woman in Poughkeepsie. She had to hire a company that specializes in moving presses. The cost to relocate it to her studio was almost as much as the cost to buy it.
“Once I had my printer, I just started printing,” Campbell says. “That’s the only way you really learn.” With letterpress, the designs and text are literally pressed into paper. Setting type is labor intensive; every letter must be placed by hand. When working with smaller fonts, she often resorts to using tweezers and a loop. It can take her an entire day to set text and get the spacing right. “I really respect the 19th-century technology. It requires doing everything mindfully.”
Campbell now owns three presses and an impressive collection of “cuts”—designs mounted on wood blocks—and type fonts. “I don’t have every font in a particular typeface; for example, in Bodoni, I only have 18 and 36 point. With computers, people are used to getting any type size they need,” she explains. She often combines her watercolor painting with her letterpress designs, in a two-step process. After scanning her artwork into the computer and printing it using her ink jet printer, she then runs the paper through one of her presses to add text and other design elements. Because so many things can go wrong—the ink can run or a letter or design may not print evenly—she always prints extras.
Press maintenance is a challenge. “One of my presses needs to be oiled in over 30 places before printing,” Campbell explains. She keeps them covered when not in use to minimize dust, and cleans the rollers every time she changes ink colors, using, surprisingly, Crisco. “It loosens the ink from the rollers.” If a press breaks, there’s no tech line to call for help. Because only a few people on the East Coast service old letterpresses, she sometimes has to wait for a month for a repairman.
Campbell stays in touch with other letterpress printers, and finds it gratifying to get feedback from her peers. “One printer recently emailed me about something I’d printed and said, ‘Your coverage is so even. How did you do that?’” Smiles Campbell, “That really made my day.”