Letters of intent: Philadelphia print shop revives old media


These days, personal communication is fast and disposable. The speed of text messages, email, and tweets has given rise to a backlash of sorts, in the form of hand-crafted stationery and hand-written letters.

Entering a Philadelphia print shop where they specialize in a one-of-a-kind communication, a visitor will  hear a rhythmic, repetitive, even meditative sort of sound.

“I do find that I get into a little zen state, doing the same thing over and over. Paying a lot of attention to detail. But it’s just kind of getting into that space that’s really pleasant,” says Will Stichter as he works at a vintage letterpress. With its large, hand-turned wheel, it’s the namesake of the Red Wheel Press, located in Philadelphia’s industrial Port Richmond neighborhood.

But before turning that wheel and churning out prints, there is a labor-intensive setup process. First the printer plans the design, selects reverse-image letters and graphics, then loads them onto a composing stick, one line at a time. The completed line is moved onto a galley, a tray that will rest on the bed of the printer. The completed galley is gently transferred to the press bed. Finally, the printer plans the colors, mixes the inks and spreads it on the rollers.

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“Then the printing itself begins,” Stichter’s partner, Aimee Wilson chimes in. “And we set all of our paper up here and make sure the paper is clamped down. And you have to hold your hand here to make sure there’s no wrinkles.”

She turns the wheel by hand and rolls the paper through one time for each color of every single copy. It adds up to a lot of exercise. “Oh yeah. My right arm is a lot more in shape than my left,” she says with a laugh.

Trained as an architect, Stichter found he preferred a hands-on craft.

“I’m fascinated with older equipment, especially using processes where I can understand every part of it,” he explains. “Unlike where I don’t understand what’s happening when I’m using computer software as far as the technical details. But I can really understand how a machine works, the adjustments I have to make to get something to come out in a precise way.”

An exercise in type casting

In another corner of the shop, Wilson rummages through cabinets with dozens of slender drawers. They contain the lead slugs of numerous typefaces.

“You definitely get to know the type because you’re constantly in these drawers, picking through what you need,” she says. She pulls out some of her favorites, the small images called dingbats.

“Here’s an archer shooting an arrow, here’s a stamp, a U.S. mail stamp. Here’s some music notes. Tons of stuff. Some of my favorites are the wedding text,” she says, holding up a tiny lead slug of the letter “p.”

“One of my most exciting finds was locating an ‘at’ symbol,”  Stichter recalls. “I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it, because I thought it was a symbol that wasn’t used much before the advent of email addresses and websites. For a couple of projects, I had used an ‘a’ in parentheses to simulate it.”

Wilson and Stichter see their work as part of a larger do-it-yourself movement.

“I think there’s a specific thing going on in our culture right now. A strong interest in some kind of classic craftsmanship and hands-on skills. There’s a lot of value to working with your hands, making things on your own and being able to repair things,” Stichter says. “As a reaction to disposal consumerism, having things that we can repair and make last for a long time is just a more sustainable practice, and then you end up with objects that you have a personal relationship with and love.”

“People are really interested in DIY experiences,” said Hilary Jay, executive director of Design Philadelphia, whose annual festival celebrates the design history and contemporary scene in the region.

“You know, do it yourself, make something with your own hands. It is important to promote the smaller local companies and strike a balance between the age of manufacturing that we have had more than a hundred years ago and the age of technology that we are now in,” Jay said. “And I feel that to strike that balance, people are really interested in DIY experiences. “

Significant correspondence

A few years ago, hand-printed cards, manual typewriters, and hand-written letters all seemed like endangered species. Now, for some, they’re in vogue as a way of combating the volumes of tweets, texts and emails we receive every day.

Wilson believes a personal, hand-crafted correspondence has a special significance.

“There’s something about making an impression on a piece of paper. Being able to give something like that, that you yourself were part of designing and touching and creating,” she said. “It adds a lot of value to the gift.”

Red Wheel Press offers workshops in letterpress printing throughout the year.

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