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Holiday Guide Feature

Love Letters

A Hampden Letterpress Makes An Impression

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Holiday Guide 2008

Present Tense City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

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Nice Package City Paper's Annual Gift Guide

By Wendy Ward | Posted 11/19/2008

"Since we were the only two people who could spell in the class, we got stuck with doing all of the little tiny stuff, because we knew which way apostrophes went," laughs Mary Mashburn as she describes the letterpress class she and her journalist husband Steve St. Angelo took in New York four years ago. "We were the star students." At the time it was a lark, a way to indulge her love of paper and old-fashion printing. Now, she runs and owns Typecast Press, a letterpress workshop that prints commissioned paper goods such as stationary and invitations.

Mashburn, in her mid-40s, has curly light brown hair that comes right up on her cheeks and black framed glasses. She gives a tour of her workshop in the Fox Building near the Hampden Post Office, wearing fabulous red cowboy boots, jeans, a bright cherry necklace, and a huge, welcoming smile--more than excited to show off the business she's built around her passion. "I always wanted letterpress cards and letterpress stationary and to go into stationary stores and feel the paper and pet the paper," Mashburn says in what can only be described as baby speak.

It's easy to trace the evolution of Mashburn's interest in printing, from being a student journalist at Colorado College doing a story on the school's letterpress, to working as a cub reporter at a newspaper where writers could actually see the printing process, and eventually working in graphic design. Letterpress "was like graphic design plus old-school newspaper stuff plus words," Mashburn practically sings. "It was just an interesting combination of things and I thought, Wouldn't it just be fun to have our own press?"

So, like so many hobbyists attempting to make their obsession lucrative, Mashburn and her husband starting looking on eBay, found a reasonably priced press, and sat up at midnight drinking gin and tonics and debating. They decided to give it a go and hired a local rigger to move the 1,500-pound piece of machinery into their lives. Their friend Chris Hartlove (a photographer who shot for the City Paper two decades ago) had a large studio in the Fox Building with concrete floors--necessary to withstand the weight of the equipment--where Mashburn opened Typecast Press. She has since been borrowing more space (Typecast now has three rooms in the building) and acquiring more presses ever since.

Funky art and furniture with a visionary, countrified feel cover the walls, the floor, every surface of Typecast Press, but it doesn't feel crowded. Every letter press that she owns--and she owns many, hand-cranked or motorized, from the tabletop cutie the size of a rotary phone to the huge "Big Boy" that wheezes--came along at the right time. Mashburn talks about the presses like they are old friends, not the tools that make her gorgeous stationary, invitations, announcements, business cards, menus. Anything that's printed on paper can be letterpressed, giving useful items a handmade, decorative touch.

During an hour-and-a-half tour of the workshop, Mashburn introduces her presses one by one. She learned on a Vandercook because it "won't crush your hand," she explains, patting the machine affectionately. (It's both hand-fed and hand-cranked.) It's the first press you see when you enter the main workspace until you notice the roundish "clam shell" you just passed by, and then the baby one on the shelf above the books, and the dirty one under a dust cover on the floor between a wooden stand of drawers full of metal stamps and the modern photopolymer platemaker machine. And then you lose count.

When you double check that she's amassed this herd of presses in just four years, Mashburn laughs, "You sound like my husband."

"Once you get familiar with where you are going to find stuff--and I don't know, maybe it's like a pig hunting for truffles, I've got a better nose for it then I should--you end up finding them, hearing about them," she says. "And things find you. Bruce Baggan, the rigger, really has been like Santa Claus." Besides hauling the machines around, Baggan alerts Mashburn to presses and equipment that she might be interested in.

It's not just the presses she loves but all the trappings that come with it, especially the paper. "What you really want to do with letterpress is use something that's got some heft and some tooth," Mashburn says about the type of paper she uses. "I did graphic design for a lot of years and I just really got tired of designing for shiny, glossy paper. I'd go to the paper store and I'd look at all of this gorgeous toothy, cotton stuff that no printer in their right mind would want to use."

She holds up a brown piece of paper. "So, this is a really heavy Davy board, like a book board essentially, and it's no problem," she says. "Letterpress likes it."

Besides paper choice, the real difference between the letterpress process and regular printing is that the type and the design are pressed into the paper, leaving an impression. "Basically, it's really simple," Mashburn says. "It's just paper, the form, and ink that covers over it."

A letterpress works this way: Type and design plates are set up securely in a chase--like blocks in a frame--which is run over with a roller of ink and then pressed, with quite a bit of force, into a piece of paper that highlights the depth of the design. It's a crafty, tactile refinement Mashburn appreciates. And she wouldn't have taken on such an old-fashioned and time consuming art business if she didn't believe other people would value it, too.

The raised type and design plates are like bits of history in your hand, and Mashburn has gorgeous wooden drawers full of monograms, delightful images, and wooden block letters. "This is real a hodgepodge," she says. "It's really kind of fun. [But] for a lot of our jobs we use the photopolymer plates because you can take [the design] straight from your digital camera [or] film to plastic. So, it's a really good way to modernize letterpress. We've got a platemaker--that thing that looks like the barbecue grill," she says giving the device an almost dismissive wave. It's clear that the machine doesn't hold much interest for her.

The old plates are another story. "I'm really sort of obsessed by the history of it and finding the old pieces," Mashburn says. "Some are just funny, not something that you'd necessarily want to do on digital, but how much do you love that? 'You are behind the eight ball,'" she says of a plate about a billiard ball with that mirthful text. Made of magnesium, copper, and wood and spanning the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, her collection of old plates includes a bulldog with a stick of dynamite tied to his tail, a gin bottle, Elvis, two girls in billowy tulle skirts, animals, fish, purely decorative elements, and many, many alphabet sets. They're lovely but don't get used all that often.

She does use the sweet little deco monograms for notecards--you can get a set of about 50 with plain envelopes for $150--the minimum price requirement for placing an order. It's not cheap, but Mashburn really wants to help you help her make something you can afford. "There's a misconception that it's really a lot more than [standard printing] and it's not, because frankly, I want people to love letterpress," she says. "So, we try and work with people's budgets.

"It's not like going to Kinko's and getting your runoff digital invitation or printing your own on your computer--which is a good choice for some things," she continues. Typecast Press is about expression, for when "you really want it to be tactile and special," Mashburn says. "Something that says something about you."

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Holiday Guide Feature archives

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Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

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The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

More from Wendy Ward

Unhampered (5/19/2010)
Pack a better picnic basket

Le Cabaret de Carmen at Theatre Project (1/25/2010)

Culinary Cunning (12/30/2009)
Sylvia Schur

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