March 31, 2010KR BlogKR

Igloo Letterpress: All-In-One Blog & Photo Extravaganza

Last Tuesday afternoon, I dumped my backpack in my dorm room, picked up my camera, and headed to Finn House with my friends (and fellow KR Student Associates) Libby and Joumana. We hopped into a Kenyon College van with Tyler Meier and drove down the college hill.

After an hour of watching rural Ohio whoosh by outside, we arrived in Worthington, where we met Allison Chapman and Anna Duke Reach at Igloo Letterpress. Igloo is Allison’s workshop, store, classroom, museum, and life’s work. We were there to learn a little bit about the art of letterpress printing and to begin printing small poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day (coming up on April 29).


This is especially important because we have a new (by which I mean old) toy in the basement of Finn House: our very own letterpress, which KR hopes to use for a number of projects in the future. (David Lynn beat me to the punch in the March newsletter.)

When we arrived, we sat down to eat, surrounded by presses, paper, and some of Allison’s products, like journals and cards.



Allison nervously awaited–and finally received–news of the birth of a nephew in Minnesota. (Congratulations!) And on that cheerful note, we started to work.

Allison has plates of five short poems that Anna and Tyler selected, mostly from the pages of The Kenyon Review. We went over paper first.

Here Libby smells a patterned blue paper.
Libby smells a patterned blue paper.

Then, finally, it was time for the press. We watched Allison set down the plates, line them up, and smear the rollers with varnish. She aligned the paper and set it into place, and then, before we knew it, she turned the handle and the paper flipped around and rolled up into her ready hand.




We marveled at it. There were letters on this piece of paper–not from a human hand or a laser printer, but from this strange-looking machine. When blue ink showed up surprisingly well on the patterned paper, we cheered.

Allison, after watching us get all hot and bothered over that print, declared that we were “her people.”

We buckled down and worked. Our initial caution with the press–what does that pedal do? is it all lined up? how far do I roll it?–turned into a pleasant kind of half-electric, half-mechanical rhythm. It all felt very Ye Olde Days, like churning butter on a third-grade field trip, charmingly antique yet recognizably productive.





When we weren’t printing or asking questions, we wandered around the shop, checking out journals, wedding invitations, and lead-alloy and wooden letters from Ye Even Older Days of movable type.


The process is just plain cool, of course, but it’s also deliberate and slow. But when Gutenberg came out with the printing press, it was shockingly fast and, as we all know, revolutionized the production of books. Imagine getting your copy of The Kenyon Review only after a monk had painstakingly copied it out, letter by letter. To think that Gutenberg’s invention (which had a pivotal role in the coming change in religious, social, and political thought) is now outdated and slow compared to our methods of mass production is just mindblowing.



We rode back to Gambier after nightfall, listening to stories of When Tyler Was A Student At Kenyon and holding our samples from the evening’s work on our laps. There’s something immensely satisfying about the difference between two sheets of paper put through the same press, and the knowledge that the letters aren’t just symbols but physical imprints on the paper. It’s like the difference between digital photography and film; the letterpress is film, the way you have to be careful with a shutter, deliberate when you expose film. The images you make with a film camera and a darkroom are emulsion, silver salts and gelatin, printed on paper with light and chemicals. The photographs in this post are digital, just like the words. It doesn’t take away any of their meaning–but the process becomes more removed and less organic.


Click to see large!

Colleen Damerell is a KR Student Associate.