Letterpress printing has enjoyed a petite renaissance in recent years. Outmoded by offset during the 1950s, the fastidious craft has become vogue in today’s digital era, prized for its tactile aesthetic and superior print impression. Indeed, it was these qualities that led me to seek out a letterpress printer to produce my friend’s wedding invitations. As luck would have it, I was introduced to James Lang, third generation printer at Horwinski Printing in Oakland, California. The print shop has survived numerous trials over the last century, including earthquakes and the advent of commercial offset. Today it stands just east of the coliseum in a rather ramshackle neighborhood. But don’t judge a book by its cover. Come take a look behind the scenes, and back in time …
Upon entering the shop, one is acutely aware of stepping back in time. The shotgun building is literally crammed with shelves of large wood type, composing tables, presses, paper cutters, boxes of ink, old books, vintage radios, font cabinets and print paraphernalia. Every available surface is occupied. Horwinski Printing Co. was bought by James’ grandfather, Hippolite Lang (pictured above, top left), from the original owners in the mid 1940s. It quickly became a family business. Lang brought on his son, Don, to do the accounting and together they worked the shop. James (pictured below), Don’s son, grew up there, lending a hand and eventually learning how to run the presses. Together with his father, James took over the shop beginning in the late 1970s and became the sole proprietor in 1985. Below, he holds a carved wood block with a vintage eagle design and the print he made from it.
In the year 1900 Horwinski Printing Co. was an established, state-of-the-art letterpress shop in San Francisco. After the great 1906 earthquake, Max Horwinski and his brother, Edward, had a grave decision to make — how to survive? The Horwinski brothers and their printing company were forced to move across the bay to Oakland. Back then there was no bay bridge to cross. Horse drawn transporters, ferryboats, trains, and maybe horseless carriages were available to make the move possible. I can just imagine the large press floating across the bay by ferry into Jack London and then craned into the second story of its new location in downtown Oakland on Webster Street.
The large press James is referring to is a 1906 Miehle flatbed cylinder letterpress (pictured above and in the opener) with a 33″×50″ bed size. During the last century it was used to print street signs, posters, and billboards promoting movies, political elections, and events such as the circus coming to town. It takes 2 people to run — one to work the press from the top near the cylinder, hand-feeding sheets of paper into the guides, while the second person handles the ink, sheet delivery, and racking the finished prints. In addition to the Miehle flatbed, Horwinski owns and operates four small presses: two Miehle vertical cylinders, V-36 and V-50 respectively, from the 1940s and 50s; a Heidelberg Windmill (above, 10″×15″) made in 1956; and an 1890 Chandler & Price proof press, easily the oldest of the bunch. The small presses are used for repeat work that is stored in the racks, ready for reorder — letterheads, envelopes, business cards, forms, programs, booklets, and more. I love the posters James creates for various local sporting and music events. By virtue of the craft these works have retained the classic wood type announcement aesthetic of a bygone era. This was my first time working with a letterpress printer and I learned a lot about what is needed from the designer. You have to provide a black and white file (EPS or PDF) that is then turned into a rubber plate or block used for printing (you can see some block designs above). Rubber can give you a clearer print than metal, but it doesn’t make a very deep impression. It was news to me to learn that you have to ask for debossing. I had just assumed that letterpress printing naturally creates an indentation, but in fact a skilled printer would never leave anything but an ink mark. For some good pointers, check out designing for letterpress at Boxcar Press. James precisely matched my desired color from a swatch by hand-mixing his paints. The registration was perfect and I could not have been more pleased with the results.