Over Memorial Day weekend, four of us Fireballers made the trek up to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to attend a workshop at Hamilton Type Museum. Two Rivers, or T’Rivers as it's known locally, is a small lake-side town that just so happens to contain the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. The museum is a 45,000 sq. ft. facility, maintained solely by director Jim Moran, assistant director Stephanie Carpenter, and a slew of volunteers and enthusiasts, some of whom worked at Hamilton in its heyday. We had no expectations for what the workshop would entail, but none of us could have imagined it turning out the way it did.
Jim Moran, the museum's director, first guided us through the rich history of Hamilton. Founded in 1880, the shop found its customer base in the plethora of newspapers published throughout the midwest, each of which needed Hamilton's type to set their headlines. Hamilton eventually bought out all of his competitors and soon had a complete monopoly on the wood-type game in the Midwest.
Jim showed us how the wood type is born from raw slabs of maple. First, technicians cut the maple into workable pieces known as half-rounds, which are then sanded down to the proper height known as “type-high” (.918” for those of you following along at home). From the type-high maple, the workers would cut the half-rounds into workable pieces depending on the dimensions of the typeface they were cutting. Those pieces were then routed by a technician, who followed scalable-patterns designed by the Hamilton staff. Then, the type would be refined further by hand to take care of those pesky counter-spaces. Finally, the sorts (a typographer’s term referring to the individual characters of type) were then subject to an intense burnishing, polishing and a very thin coat of lacquer. Jim proudly stated that Hamilton still produces wood type today if the project is right.
The Shipping Department
Half-rounds waiting patiently to be made into letters.
Ogling all the sorts.
Ever heard someone say “I’m all out of sorts?” That comes straight from the pressman’s workshop when they ran out of a certain character.
After a brief introduction to letterpress printing, and a healthy dose of inspiration by resident artist Jim Sherraden (master printer at Hatch Show Print in Nashville), we were let loose to print what we pleased. We were all given the same setup and materials to work with: one table-top press, a few colors of ink and 20+ full cabinets of wood-cut characters and a few lead, photographic plates. Anything beyond that was up to us — we quickly got to work. Some of us had concrete ideas for our prints, but ultimately we were all there just to play with all that beautiful type.
A selection of prints we made.
Gettin' funky with some italics.
Team work makes the dream work.
In the midst of printing our posters, Mr. Sherraden invited us beyond the yellow rope of the museum to watch the re-striking of a mid-1900s poster for Reefer Madness. Tom and Ross were chosen to pull one of the prints, which was quite the challenge considering the sheer size of the print (more than 4' x 3') and the fact that we were surrounded by printers with some 90+ years of letter-press experience. No pressure...
Jim S. inking the plate.
Blind registration ain't for the feint of heart.
Note the mix of concentration and sheer terror on their faces.
"Horrible?" Jim uttered in reference to the registration. We replied with a collective "Not at all!" As he was talking about the challenges of re-striking old plates like this, with no reference print, he uttered that we were after excellence, not perfection.
We also learned that Matt carries the same phone as Jim Sherradan, who both prefer the old-fashioned flip over the new-fangled smart.
...and that Fatso's makes awesome sandwiches.
...and we're all very serious bowlers.
Overall, we couldn't be more pleased with our experience. The workshop itself was far and beyond what any of us expected, and we all came back to Chicago with a new reverence for the craftspeople that preceded the era of graphic design. As designers and developers, we wear a lot of hats, but back when Hamilton was producing type people had specialities. Our jobs now demand that we are fluent in multiple programs and platforms, skillful in setting type, designing logos and developing websites, and the list goes on and on. I can't help but wonder if this is a good or bad thing, but I'll leave that debate for another time. One thing I can say for certain is that when I walked out of Hamilton on Sunday afternoon, I carried with me a renewed sense of pride and responsibility as a designer and maker.
Goodnight, sweet prince.