CORNUCOPIA — Old-world printing has come of age in Cornucopia. In a small building, machines made of cast iron and wood make extraordinary printing come alive.
Tending these remnants of the past is Michael Coughlin, owner of Superior Letterpress Company. Coughlin began his journey with printing when he published his first book.
“I decided I wanted to do more of that and to do it right I had to learn how to do it myself,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin attended technical school to learn how to run an offset press. He put the press in his basement and soon realized he needed more equipment to do the entire process. Soon, his burgeoning printing endeavor expanded to the garage as more machines were added.
Coughlin eventually met an elderly man who was running a lettterpress in St. Paul, Minn. They struck a deal and Coughlin bought the man’s shop.
“I had to learn how to use everything,” said Coughlin. “I got more intrigued by it.”
During a time when the printing industry was going through major changes and moving into the computer age, Coughlin stuck with his old equipment.
“It was hard making a living,” he said. “I was always taking other jobs and doing this at night.”
Ten years ago, in an effort to escape from urban life, Coughlin moved his shop to Cornucopia. Here, he specializes in creating distinctively beautiful wedding invitations, hand-bound limited edition books and other custom printing.
An old-world feel
As you enter Coughlin’s shop, the smells of old wood, ink and cast iron blend to create an atmosphere reminiscent of days gone by. Five platen presses, two proof presses, one small offset press, a linotype machine and numerous other relics mix with wooden cabinets filled with drawers of letters and symbols.
“My first press was a treadle,” said Coughlin. “It took six pumps per impression.” It didn’t take long for Coughlin to see the need for electric motors and belts to run the presses. His oldest press dates back to the 1880s and his newest is from the 1960s.
These old machines take a measure of loving care to operate, and an extensive knowledge of the functions. Fortunately, Coughlin has both.
“It can be very peaceful if the machines are working right,” he said. “It can be a nightmare when they are not.”
Listening to Coughlin describe his passion is an education in words. Phrases like the linotype machine making slugs from pigs, use of the vertical miterer and stitcher, composing stone and locking the coins down into the furniture, show his extensive knowledge of his craft.
It’s a labor-intensive process, from setting each line with the linotype, to creating the custom plates for images and setting the handmade paper into the press.
“It amazes me the speed at which some of the old presses could turn out things,” said Coughlin. “Some people could really fly on the linotype.”
These days, letterpress printing is less about speed and more about distinction. Coughlin specializes in small run orders.
“People ask me what my minimum order is and I say ‘one’ but that one may be quite expensive,” said Coughlin. “It only takes a quarter of a second to print one page. The time is spent in setting it up and making sure it is done well. Then there’s also the cleanup process afterwards.”
Coughlin says his main source of income is wedding invitations. By using the Internet, he is able to expand his customer base worldwide.
“People do some very different things with invitations now,” he said. “These presses do things that no other process can do. People like the feel of the paper and the depression of the type. If you want something special, letterpress can do it.”
Coughlin also does hand-bound books. Each book is printed using the old presses, then the hardcovers are each made by hand. He recently added an old sewing machine to stitch the bindings.
A fun investment
Coughlin considers his machines as an investment.
“It’s like sitting on a 1956 Thunderbird,” he said. “They won’t lose their value anymore.”
Coughlin is a member of the American Amateur Press Association, and said there is an advantage to being part of a small group of artisans in letterpress.
“There’s not as much competition now as there used to be,” he said. “People are more open to sharing information and helping each other out in this trade.”
As an example, Coughlin said when he purchased his old sewing machine, he needed to learn how to use it. After many tries, he found a man who had a machine like it and was able to talk him through the process over the phone.
From invitations to pamphlets and broadsides, to book printing and binding, Superior Letterpress can do it all.
“Most of my equipment is antiquated, by today’s standards,” he said. “My presses are well over 50 years old, with some going on 200 years old, and my type and typesetting machines enjoy the same vintage. They work beautifully, but slowly. And they require a loving hand to keep them going.”
“What I do is fun,” said Coughlin. “And now I can make a living at it. Letterpress printing has become sexy again.”