In an age of burgeoning automation and ever-expanding technology, Brian Wood is taking a step back. Waaaaaay back. Wood is the owner of Dogs & Stars, a fully functional letterpress studio in East Boulder County. What began as a casual curiosity has evolved into a year-round enterprise for this self-proclaimed “type junkie.”
This largely defunct process has recently re-emerged as one of many anachronisms experiencing a resurgence of interest as people crave handcrafted simplicity over speed and uniformity. It’s the new era of the bygone era.
The contemporary letterpress scene fits that bill in spades. It offers a unique, unpolished charm that can’t be found in online font libraries. It possesses natural imperfections that don’t translate to ink jet printers or digital desktops. It’s funky, it’s finicky and that’s its hallmark.
“At its best, it’s going to have kind of a rustic look to it,” Wood says, pointing to a poster in which each individual letter displays unique wood grains and splotchy pock marks. “I love this look. I like things that are sort of distressed and deconstructed and imperfect.”
Letterpress printing originated in the 1400s, hat tip to Johannes Gutenburg, and was the predominant form of printing for about 500 years. While it’s a much slower process than its modern counterparts, its artisinal rebirth can be attributed to its handmade, vintage look and one-of-a-kind craftsman qualities.
“It’s important to keep this kind of thing around,” Wood says. “We’re getting more attached to digital devices and sitting down all day and just staring at a screen. This is still hands-on, it’s interactive and tangible. It’s an important piece of history.”
Wood completed renovation of the Dogs & Stars studio this summer after a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the effort. He converted his detached alley-entrance, two-car garage into a climate-controlled space with the help of more than $12,000 from crowd-funding.
Prior to the remodel, Wood was limited to printing only when the weather cooperated. Optimal printing conditions require temperatures above 65 degrees. In cold and desperate times and with true dedication to the craft, Wood resorted to heating his ink discs and presses to a workable temperature with a blowtorch, a space heater and sometimes a hair dryer.
“Not only is that not professional, it’s ridiculous,” Wood says of his dubious resourcefulness. After one misguided incident that resulted in melted print rollers, he knew something had to change. “If I wanted to take myself seriously and want others to take me seriously and to do better work, I needed a clean slate.”
The money Wood raised through his “Kickstart My Art” campaign went toward drywall for the studio as well as windows and solar tubes, cabinetry, counter tops, a combo AC/heating unit and just enough quirky, rustic touches to give the studio an old-timey feel that honors the work that’s produced there.
Wood began his letterpress career as the former owner of Tee & Cakes Bakery in Boulder. For eight years, he and his wife Kim carefully handcrafted baked goods and coffees. Wood incorporated letterpress into the shop’s marketing strategy, giving it a unique look and distinctive branding.
As opposed to traditional offset printing, letterpress imparts an impression into the paper. This method of relief printing works by hand-setting the type onto a wooden tray, inking the type and then applying pressure to the paper. Once off the press, one can actually feel the “debossed” effect where the type or pattern is sunken into the paper’s surface.
To achieve this effect, the Dogs & Stars studio utilizes several different presses. The smallest is a portable table-top proof printer reminiscent of the old tray-style credit card swipers . At the other end of the spectrum is a 1,200-pound Golding 10×15 platen press, which was built around 1915. This cast iron behemoth is intricately detailed with gold hand-lettering and ornate adornments.
Care and maintenance of the presses can present obstacles as many of the parts are no longer made. But with the help of other local letterpress enthusiasts, Wood is able to sort out any issues. “I feel like it’s a pretty small community, very niche. I rely on the more experienced printers if I have questions,” Wood says, referring to the Rocky Mountain Letterpress Society, an informal gathering of printers and hobbyists that meets every other month.
From formal wedding invitations to cards, stationery and fun, poster-sized blocky mash-ups of color and fonts, letterpress is versatile enough to have mass appeal to a broad spectrum of the population.
To introduce the community to the trade, Wood has partnered with the Book Arts League, a local non-profit dedicated to preserving the historic tools and crafts of book making. The group offers regular demonstrations on lesser-known and antiquated practices such as block carving, binding, paper-making and calligraphy.
Wood is also offering half- and full-day workshops out of his newly renovated studio for those who want a more in-depth understanding of this erstwhile trade.
With the new studio up and running, Wood is ready to launch Dogs & Stars into a brave new world, albeit with a distinctively old world look and charm.
Dogs & Stars
507 E. Cannon St.