Letterpress

Catherine Schrenker, director of the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts, helps students in her introduction to letterpress session become familiar with type choices.

The sizzle of bacon frying.

The better part of a year has passed, but I still remember that distinct sound: The sizzle of bacon frying.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the smell or taste -- just the noise, but how we came to hear the sound was still pretty cool.

It’s the sound Catherine Schrenker said we should hear if we were properly rolling the ink onto the wooden or metal letters as we prepared to print the posters we’d been crafting for hours.

A smile crossed my face as I suddenly heard bacon frying.

Schrenker, the executive director of the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts in Marion, was leading a beginners’ letterpress workshop in the institution’s Burke Print Shop.

Perhaps it’s my profession or my love of printed words, but I’d wanted to take one of Schrenker’s letterpress workshops since she’d set up the shop.

I joined the newspaper industry just as computers were being introduced, but many of my coworkers passed along the stories of hot lead and type. I feel a bond with those who produced newspapers with much more artisan-like skill and who could truly absorb ink through their skin.

For the handful of us in the Saturday workshop, we created posters. When you’re putting your letters together backward, the fewer words the better for beginners.

My admiration for those who produced entire newspapers with the technique grew.

By and large, our simple projects were successful. We came away with a new skill and a deeper appreciation of how our communities’ stories were preserved not so long ago.

“Technology has robbed us of ‘handiwork’ and has all but buried this dying art of printing. Many take for granted how newspapers and books, posters and greeting cards were produced and printed just 50 years ago,” noted Schrenker in a follow-up interview.

She observed that those who have watched the movie “The Post,” which features work undertaken at The Washington Post in the 1970s, offers “a perfect snapshot of how it used to be.”

While the beginners’ class offered an introduction into the world of letterpress, the Marion print shop is garnering the attention of noteworthy experts.

Last fall, Schrenker attended the Wayzgoose Conference at The Hamilton Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. She said, “It is a small town that brings in 350+ type enthusiasts, graphic designers and printers from all over the world for a weekend of connecting and reconnecting around the lost art of Letterpress Printing.”

She brought home additions to the Marion shop.

Schrenker knew that a “swap meet” of sorts takes place on the conference’s last day and she’d been able to budget (she hoped) to acquire a full set of vintage wood type. “These sets are very difficult to find (and expensive if you do discover them). So many antique dealers will come across these letters and sell them individually -- so much money a letter, so possessing a full font is quite a feat.”

She found what she described as a beautiful set and stayed by the box for an hour until the swap meet opened so she wouldn’t lose the chance to purchase it. Not only did the box contain a full set of letters, but the price was $250. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. “Anywhere else it would have been $600-$700 and I was willing to pay that in order to obtain a full set of letters.”

When the swap meet opened, Schrenker learned that two older gentlemen, Bill Allen and Rick Von Holdst, were selling the set along with several others.

“They referred to themselves as ‘Letterpress Preservationists,’” said Schrenker, “and when I began to tell them about The Burke Print Shop at The Henderson and the town of Marion, their guard went down — and Christmas came early!”

Eventually, working with the Letterpress Preservationists, Schrenker was able to purchase four complete wood-type fonts, including one that dates back to Germany in the 1880s. “It is beautiful,” Schrenker acclaimed.

She also purchased two script fonts, which are quite rare. 

Schrenker noted that another rare aspect is that the sets she acquired are both upper and lower case letters. Most wood type is all caps, “so to have this many wood type collections upper and lower case under one roof is beyond amazing.”

Schrenker believes the Burke Print Shop is equipped to bring enthusiasts from all over the country and globe to Marion. Of the conference she attended last November, Schrenker said, “People from all over the world flew into Chicago or Milwaukee, rented a car and drove two hours to a town smaller than Marion to hang out in a warehouse full of letterpress type, enjoy their image library and attend workshops.”

“It is ‘the hunt’ and ‘the discovery’ that draws Letterpress enthusiasts together. And when there is a hidden gem somewhere, word travels and so do the people,” Schrenker said.

Many of the antique printing presses ended up in scrap yards and the wood type turned into firewood.

“But,” said Schrenker, “some visionaries have had the foresight to save the not-so-antiquated before it disappears completely.”

The print shop also possesses a press big enough to accommodate larger wood type -- another rarity.

“We have what is called a Showcard Longmaster Press, which was used in department stores in the ‘30s and ‘40s to print banners such as SALE or CLOSEOUT…. It can accommodate our collections, once again making these acquisitions of wood type even more phenomenal,” said Schrenker.

Beyond its rarity, Schrenker believes the letterpress workshop fits well at the Henderson as a nod to the legacy of the heralded author Sherwood Anderson, who owned both the Smyth County News and the Marion Democrat newspapers. When The Center Building in downtown Marion was renovated, boxes of old wood type were found and donated to the Henderson. Schrenker believes they once “graced the print room of those papers.”

“Also,” the director said, “The Henderson’s mission is to preserve and promote traditional Appalachian craft and culture, and printing is part of that culture, as well as protecting the actual images of our past and our community.”

Schrenker noted that images as well as wood type are sought out by letterpress artisans, “and traveling to areas such as Marion, you have access to unique images you may not find anywhere else. Having Mt. Dew and Dr. Pepper originating in this area, we have some unusual vintage images that many people enjoy seeing and working with. That coupled with 12 presses to choose from and we are definitely a rare find in Southwest Virginia!”

The print shop continues to grow. Last winter, a call came from Terry Clark of Troutdale. He asked Schrenker if she would be interested in an old press and a bunch of type stuff. It was waiting for her off a gravel road in Troutdale in a barn.

Schrenker plans to offer letterpress workshops on Saturday, Sept. 21, and Sunday, Oct. 20, for those who want to learn more about the art. Once trained, individuals can use the letterpress on Saturday afternoons. To learn more about the print shop and upcoming opportunities, visit http://thehenderson.org/letterpress You just may find yourself listening for the sound of sizzling bacon.

Start your day with top headlines from our News, Sports, and Opinion pages.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.