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Preserving letterpress

It’s a style of printing that largely went the way of the typewriter, but one area business keeps letterpress alive in the world of music.

Photographs by Shawn Harper

(page 1 of 2)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Chris Langkamp is living his dream. His 16-year-old Madison company, Sooper Dooper, combines his two greatest passions, music and printing. “We specialize in CD and DVD packaging, mostly for bands,” he says. “It’s our bread and butter, but letterpress, even though it’s only about 10% of what we do, is what we love to do.”

Chris Langkamp, founder/owner, Sooper Dooper

Langkamp, 46, has been in printing all of his adult life, spending nearly 20 years at Quad/Graphics where he helped maintain the company’s printing machines. “Quad was extremely picky about quality,” Langkamp says. “They wanted you to treat your machine as your own small business, and they put you in classes to learn how to run a small business. I took that with me.”

A musician who’s played in numerous bands since the age of 15, Langkamp is the bass guitarist with the band Mad Trucker Gone Mad. His music-based printing business is just a natural progression, he says.

Sooper Dooper produces CD and DVD jewel case and paperboard packages and posters in a variety of print options including letterpress. It also provides bindery services. “We’re in a digital, throw-away era,” Langkamp admits. “A lot of our work is four-color process, digital on 100-pound gloss text, handouts, flyers that get put on kiosks and thrown away. There’s a need for that, too.

“But musicians are artists and appreciate the by-hand craftsmanship, the vintage- ness that helps them stand apart.”

Finding relief

Letterpress is an ages-old and somewhat rare form of relief printing that finally yielded to an emerging, computerized world back in the 1980s and ’90s. The process is slow and tedious by today’s standards and much costlier than digital printing because of the handiwork required.

Working in letterpress is slow and tedius by today’s standards. SooperDooper founder Chris Langkamp assembles the metal characters he’ll need to create this year’s MAMAs poster. Spacers are used to separate characters and words. Larger type is made from wood block due to weight.

“Nothing compares to letterpress,” Langkamp insists. “A letterpress piece is eye catching and cool and you can feel the ink on the paper, or the indent of the impression. It’s craftsmanship. Someone created it with their hands.”

On a recent visit to Sooper Dooper, he walked us through the making of a poster created for the MAMAs (Madison Area Music Awards) in June as an in-kind contribution to an organization he’s long supported.

In the company’s production space, a collection of antique machines — some dating back to the 1890s — are either at the ready or on display. “I’m a sucker for cool, old printing machines,” Langkamp admits. “If I can get my hands on an old machine, I can usually fix it.” Some, he admits, may never be used. “I’m a printer. I just love the history.”

It took his company three days to layout the MAMAs poster. With letterpress, each character, each decoration, each font size and style, is an individual piece of metal or, for larger type, wood. Each is hand selected and arranged to spell words or create designs.

“Design can be easy, but typography does the talking,” Langkamp says. The MAMAs poster includes the names of several artists and bands. Sooper Dooper staff researched each before deciding which font style best suited their individual music genres.

One by one, the block type is plucked from a drawer, font style by font style. The ability to not only spell well, but also spell backward, is crucial. “When you’re setting up the type, you’re setting it up backward in a mirrored image,” Langkamp explains, “so it takes some brainwork to work in the reverse, right to left rather than left to right.”

He assembles the pieces, vocalizing his thought process. “This piece is 2-point and this is 6-point. I need 8-points, so I need one of each, then I need the 23 Pica long …” In order, he loads each character onto a “stick.” Once assembled, he slides them onto a flat, metal forme to be inked.

Top, after mixing color by hand with paint scrapers, ink is carefully dabbed onto rollers.

Bottom, the poster forme is inked and ready to be applied to poster paper.

Sooper Dooper has over 100 sets of wood blocks and 300 sets of ornamented metals to choose from. Each seems to have a story, and each collection is stored in drawers by name and type size, from tiny 2-point shards to 72-point wooden blocks. For Langkamp, letterpress type is almost an obsession. “You never know when you might come across a fancy P at a flea market for $3,” he laughs. “I just can’t help myself.”

His oldest font style, Light Gothic Ornamented Shade, dates back to 1899.

One large cabinet is entirely devoted to Cheltenham font. “I have one drawer each for Cheltenham Bold 8-point, Cheltenham Bold extra-condensed, outline, inline extended, italic,” he says. “Just think about going on your computer and simply choosing italic. Not only do we need italic, we need 10 drawers of italic so you have 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, 18-, and 24-point!”

Spacers are equally important for kerning (separating) characters, words, and borders. “If a W sits next to an A, it looks like you have a huge gap between the letters, or if you put an E, an I, and an A together, you may have to push them apart.”

Once the poster is assembled in the forme, ink is applied to rollers and distributed over the top. Then the paper is rolled over the forme, transferring the design one sheet at a time. Color is mixed by hand on a granite slab using paint scrapers.

“Generally, we mix by eye,” Langkamp explains. “Our customers typically don’t request specific PMS (Pantone Matching System) numbers, but if they do, we’ll order it.”

Printing is the only way to check and recheck the work. Commonly used letters, such as an E or A, often get worn down from use and may appear lighter on the printed page. To correct, tiny pieces of paper or metal are placed behind the characters to bring them back to level.

Wet posters are then placed on a drying rack. “Drying time depends on dyes,” Langkamp explains. “Blues can take days to dry, whereas black, yellow, or red can dry overnight.”

Everything takes time.


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