Letterpress On The Hill

text and photos by Molly Finklestein

Moving to Portland from away – far away from all of my friends and family in New Jersey – means a lot of things. For one, there’s a lot of “but, Philadelphia is very nice. So historic! And what about Collingswood? It’s very up and coming” from my parents. It also means I miss a lot of birthdays. And coming from a family where birthdays are Very Important, even if you’re turning a life-changing 23 or 53 (“It’s a big one, because it’s the oldest I’ll have ever been!”), missing a birthday is not taken lightly. I’ve been making up for it by sending vintage name bracelets, necklaces made of reclaimed materials from local artists, and funny, elegant letterpress cards from Ferdinand at 243 Congress St. on Munjoy Hill.

As someone interested in typography (favorite font: Palatino; least favorite: Papyrus, unless it’s for a grade school presentation on Egypt), and having made my contribution to the local economy mainly through Ferdinand’s $4 cards, I was, needless to say, intrigued by the recent appearance of a hulking metal letterpress machine in the back of the shop. I went by to talk letterpress with Diane Toepfer, the card-making master who opened the shop a decade ago.

The letterpress in motion

How did you come to own a letterpress machine?

I got it about a year and a half ago, but it was in a studio space until recently. This old guy bought it in 1955, when it was made, and he sold it to this other man, and now I’m the third owner. And a lot of this gear [letters and cases] came with it. And the rest of it came from an antique shop that was throwing it out. Most of it is lead, so a lot of people just scrap it.

Lead type, spaced and ready for print.  Can you read it?

Beyond the traditional typefaces and plates, you also use your machine nontraditionally…

The way people normally use letterpress machines now is with a new photo polymer plate technology, or by collecting old plates, or by having images cast – you do a drawing and email it to a company that casts it. But I’m all about trying to figure out fun ways to make things without having to buy toxic lead, because with those plates anyway, it’s kind of limiting – I have a turkey. How many turkeys can I print?

The aforementioned turkey, at work

So I’ve been experimenting. About a month ago I started using foam shapes on the machine, rather than plates. Just foam that you can get at Rite-Aid, you can get it anywhere. Some are cut into shapes already, or I cut it with a paper cutter. I am now all about this because it’s really creatively spontaneous, and it wears down so it makes for a limited run. I’ve also been using wood shapes, just from the country crafts section of Michael’s, and I cut out balsa wood as well. It’s a different technique because the wood grain shows up. So I’m all about experimenting using things I find and can be spontaneous and have fun with. Some people can just design something and have it done, but I like to play around with it.

A foam cut lion, and its corresponding print

What’s going on in the card world right now?

I was just at the Stationary Show in New York and it was interesting to see with the recession, how people play it safe. It’s very conservative. All the cards are white. All the same size, they have something in the center. To me it was kind of specific. All very same-y.  I’m just going to stay in my bubble here in Portland and work on my cards. But I feel like being different. I’m really glad I’m not in New York, getting influenced by everyone around me. But nobody’s using that foam trick! It’s a different look, it’s a different thing. It has to be cheap and spontaneous to me to feel free to learn. So it’s great. I feel like I’m just learning how to do it.

What is the Maine letterpress community like?

Maine has a ton of letterpress. My next door neighbor has five in his basement, smaller machines, and a casting machine, he’s got all kinds of gear. And then Pickwick Press, they have stuff going on in their bookbindery and David Wolfe has stuff, and this woman Maria Vettesse has a letterpress card-of-the-month club.. It’s really weird how kind of unknown it is here and yet how everybody is quietly doing their own thing here.

Do you all get together and talk about letterpress?

Oh we always nerd out, all the time. Everyone’s really supportive here, which is nice because it’s a tiny town – you can’t really compete with each other. That’s just the natural way things happen here, people help each other or trade. I like it. I’m glad I’m in Maine.

How did you get to Portland?

I moved here ten years ago and instantly opened the store and I’ve just been here since then. I came from Oakland, California and I did actually work for a letterpress printer out there. And at the Stationary Show I saw this whole scene that’s still going on. It’s a really foofy and French-y specific look – that I love, but I’m realizing how different what I’m using now is from that look.

You used reclaimed inks. Where does it come from?

There are a lot of commercial printers in Maine that just throw out the bottom third of the ink can because they’re specifically mixing colors for companies. So they have a job that uses this color, and they mix it specifically for them, and anything that doesn’t get used, they throw it out. I have a secret connect, so she gives it to me, and I recycle it, by using it here. I come from a Depression-era mentality of not wasting anything.

How did you get the letterpress machine into the store? You previously kept it in a studio space…

The back wall wasn’t brick. It was un-insulated plywood, with some Styrofoam in it. And I said, “This wall here happens to be exactly the right size for this press to move through it.” It was amazing, there was about six inches on each side and above. So we tore out the plywood wall, reinforced the floor, and made this removable wall in October. Built it before it got too cold, insulated it, and then we moved it in in January. Popped the wall out, moved it in, and put the wall back in. It really changed my winter. Now I love it, I want to be in here all the time, making cards. It’s all I want to do.

The monolith

Lead and copper spacers

A demonstration from Diane