Joel Larson: Letterpress Printer

1 February, 2011: Joel Larson: The Cowboy Printer

Taos, New Mexico. Just as there are individuals who prefer the organic sound and tactile experience of the analog LP to the digital CD, there are graphics aficionados who find a particular allure in the graceful imperfections of the letterpress-printed product over the laser-produced: the subtle embossing of the letters on exotic paper, the intricacies of the registration and alignment of characters and blocks over multiple impressions, the color and consistency of hand-mixed ink and the integration of that ink with the design … The grace of the harmoniously imperfect.

These are the reasons I wanted to create calling cards for The Journeyman Project using a letter press. The trick was in finding a skilled printer, and for that matter, a skilled printer with a working press. How great, then, that Joel Larson would be a stone’s throw from my house.

Though technically we’re neighbors, I only made Joel’s acquaintance this winter when my new girlfriend made mention of her housemate’s old printing press. After a bit of follow-up, I was introduced to Joel– bartender by day, caretaker of a sprawling Taos homestead by night, activist, musician, puppeteer, experimental filmmaker, illustrator, and letterpress printer.

As many artists in Taos are from somewhere else (myself included), it didn’t surprise me to learn that Joel was originally from the Midwest, by way of Los Angeles (myself included). There he’d dabbled in the indie film scene, and worked days as a commercial artist and press setter at an exclusive printer in Beverly Hills called Soolip.

After moving to Taos several years ago to pursue a ‘better way of life’ (read: affordable property, clean air, community, nature, and an environment of rich history and romantic inspiration), Joel acquired an 1886 Chandler & Price press. Originally intended as more of an instrument with which to explore creative pursuits and less as a tool to conduct business, a growing demand for the one-of-a-kind results afforded by his expertise guided Joel’s efforts back to the same niche industry he inhabited in Beverly Hills.

As a former graphic designer, I’ve long held an obsessive appreciation for typography: Serif and sans. Bold and italic. Lead and kern. When I was an art student, a set of graphical characters comprising the complete alphabet, in combination with requisite numbers, symbols, and dingbats, was known as a ‘typeface.’ Twenty years later, the same set is known as a ‘font.’

With the advent of computer desktop publishing, the evolution from analog to digital has had a sweeping effect on the printing industry, rendering the classic method of printing impractical, if not impossible to the revenue-minded professional. Digital printing today provides the masses with an out-of-the-box equivalent, one that yields a cost effective and precise result, which, by comparison, makes an analog printing press an obtuse endeavor– heavy, clumsy, replete with the trappings of dirt, grease, waste ink, and the need for copious amounts of storage and the organization that must accompany the multitude of movable type and graphic blocks.

The printer in Joel’s possession is a stately dinosaur. The precision of its operation is a wonder. The thing looks like it would just as soon mangle you and spit out the bones as soon as it would lay a delicate pinpoint of ink on tissue paper. Yet, when the switch is thrown and a worn leather belt brings the gears to life, it is with nary a whisper. When the rollers lap the surface of the ink wheel, the choreographic exchange of color is silent, flawless, and belies the force of its massive iron gears. When, on one side, Joel lays up the registration clips to accept the blank paper, and on the other side, the frame of type/character blocks that accepts the ink from the rollers and transports it to the blank paper, I find myself bewildered by the painstaking attention to detail that Joel must command in order to make a registered, straight impression that is neither too hard nor too soft.

Joel toils away in a laboratory of creative artifacts. From the dusty Bolex on the shelf to the creepy puppet hanging in the corner, from the Moog setup to the VHS shrine to Hollywood intelligentsia, to visit The Shop is to enter Joel’s mind. It’s worth the visit. Throughout the course of my coverage I become acquainted with a recurring cast of characters: Joel’s writer-editor wife, Shawna; nine year-old gymnast Lily; five year-old super hero, Cole. But that’s not all. Holding court in this colorful country is Bernie the Cat; emanating a particular Zen is Henrietta the Chicken; and keeping the dust on the move is Whiskey the Dog. Over four separate visits, I observe Joel in the throes of the various stages of his work: design, layout, block repair, frame set up, press maintenance, cleaning, smoking, and, eventually, printing.

“The work? It’s all in the set up,” he says. “And cleanliness is everything.”

So I learn. Printer’s ink is thick, sticky, and insidious in the way it can sneak up on you. From burying chunky or watery ink into old phonebooks and monitoring its proper consistency on rollers, to de-inking the rollers and plate with (Trade Secret Alert!) Pam, to be a pressman requires copious visits to the restroom to scrub up. At the conclusion of a project, Joel re-commodifies the unused pallet of otherwise corrupted colors by scraping them up and laying them down on large boards. The resulting effect is Pollock-esque, albeit in a Cowboy Printer way. These compositions are, of course, art. And they’ll eventually be cut up and used as texture or base layers for future avante garde press projects.

We make a service call to a local copy center to administer some TLC to a vintage industrial paper cutter. Apparently it’s visage is intimidating to mere mortals, but here Joel coaxes and cleans, oils and adjusts, and he waxes poetic about the functionality of the old beauty. “There’s a reason why this shop doesn’t replace this thing.” At Joel’s invite I cut a phone book in half to test the calibration of the clamp against the blade edge. The enormous lever handles the task in short order. “This would save me a lot of time in my own business,” he says.

Which strikes me as less than ironic, since we all know that time is money. This is exactly why Joel is trying to assess if the inherent limitations of the “printer’s conventions” can be made valuable in the minds of customers who, while they might appreciate the luxurious output of his work, may not justify the expenditure of time necessary to deliver that work. That consideration is substantial, and is inversely proportionate to the care and talent it requires to yield a satisfying result. Joel’s pursuit mandates a painful attention to detail and an obsession with craft– not to mention artistic ability. That he exhibits all three is miraculous.

It’s late, and the shop has a quite different mood at night. A couple of desk lamps put cones of light only where it’s needed. Right now, that happens to be on the set of moveable type that will print the backside of my business cards. It is comprised of a small, 10-point Century typeface. After a fourth test impression on the printer, Joel has returned the frame to the bench, and, with the ‘key’ tool, pulled the set for additional surgery. What he’s trying to do is coax a problematic “o” into printing harder, and an “a” to back off a bit, all the while maintaining the aesthetic harmony of proper typesetting: the delicate balance of horizontal negative space that resides between each letter and between each word, and the vertical space above and below each subsequent line of text. On this night, the tools required for such finessing include Scotch tape, a razor blade, an awl/punch, a needle, and … a porcupine quill.

At this juncture I cannot know if we will have business cards tonight, tomorrow, or next week. All I know is that they will look great, and it’s because of Joel’s obsession with rightness. He takes a drag on his cigarette, and through the smoke, laughs.

“Can a truly successful business sustain this craft? Will people pay for such ‘printer’s conventions?’”

While it is true that the Information Age has all but rendered the offset letterpress printer extinct, I can’t help but think that the same Age may be its salvation. After all, it’s the world wide web that provides the conduit to the kind of clientele needed to maintain such a boutique trade. Digital fabrication of plates for graphics and font layouts has become quite affordable, allowing designs to be emailed in. Thanks to a ‘craft letterpress’ revival brought about by individuals looking for a personalized look and feel for micro-press publishing, stationary, posters, and advertising, I wonder if Joel isn’t in fact catching the market at a most opportune time.

Can the Cowboy Printer survive in the 21st century? I sure hope so. I’ll be needing new cards soon.

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6 Responses to Joel Larson: Letterpress Printer

  1. Kathy Zang says:

    Beautiful description of an artist at work.

    My father reminisced one time about setting type face in first and second grade in Oak Park, IL. As a student they composed a report, set in the alpha characters and punctuation, turned on the machine and produced a document.

    How many different subjects were studied in that one assignment?

    While I have never had calling cards, some from Joel would be worth getting.

  2. Dave Stolte says:

    Nice one Troy, obviously near & dear to me. Lovely shots.

  3. R W Bunn says:

    Really nice article/photos!

    However, the press is a LETTER Press, not an offset press. That is a completely different animal. I have and use a 10×15 Chandler Press with Kluge feeder, and a 7×11 Golding treadle operated press.

    I’m glad there seems to be a revival of this art/craft.

    • troypaff says:

      Thanks Bob. That’s an important distinction to make, and a good reason to photograph an OFFSET press in the future. In any event, I’ve made the correction in my copy! Perhaps I can see your equipment in action next time I’m in Ohio.

  4. Amy says:

    Hi Troy! I just contacted a letterpress printer yesterday for a job I’m working on with a client. Does this Cowboy Printer have a website or info, or way to contact him to give him some work? And I’d love to see how your calling cards turn out. I letter pressed my own wedding invitations and it is definitely a fine art (and huge headache), however extremely addicting.

    All the best –
    Amy (Graham) Norton

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