Most people call tech support for the slightest glitch in their computers. In his line of work, John Kristensen does not have that luxury. He’s a letterpress printer who works with antiquarian machines that do not come with instruction manuals. Today, his Thompson Monotype Caster is squirting boiling lead, the type is exploding as it comes out of the casting chamber, and the matrices are askew by a thousandth of an inch. Yet, Kristensen doesn’t mind the hitches. “You’ve got to be more stubborn than the problem,” he said as he adjusted a spring on the machine.
Kristensen is the founder and owner of Firefly Letterpress, a printing company located in Allston, Massachusetts. On Firefly’s website, they define letterpress as, “The making of copies of identical text by means of metal type arranged, inked, and impressed into paper.” Letterpress has come back in vogue recently due to people like Martha Stewart. The online craft marketplace Etsy has over 28,000 products in their letterpress category. Kristensen begrudgingly credits Stewart with inspiring a renewal of interest in the craft. However, unlike today’s generation of letterpress printers, Kristensen learned from some of the true pioneers of the field when he started Firefly in 1981. “There were still a number of old guy printers to show me how to do things,” he said.
Kristensen has the look of a man who has spent many years making things. His blonde beard is trim. He’s wearing blue jeans and a green button down shirt that has a dime size hole near the left breast pocket. His appearance isn’t professional, but his work certainly is. A number of his prints line the walls of his shop. One can see the exquisite “bite” of letterpress in all of his work. Kristensen talks about his craft like a baptist minister talks about the Bible. “There are many ways to finding God, typography is one of the better ones,” he said, quoting fellow printer Roderick Steinhour.
Casting type is the process of creating a new font for use in printing. It’s the messy first step in the process. It’s an almost mystical task. Kristensen has to create a tool to communicate from a pot of boiling silver liquid. It’s also not a quick process. Today’s mission is to make a new set of Devinne No. 11 font on the English Monotype Thompson Caster. Devinne is a font without much flair. Kristensen also does not care for it, but he’s doing it for a friend. “I’m much fonder of the classics,” he said. He wasn’t alone in his opinion. The printer who inspired the type, Theodore De Low Devinne, didn’t like it either.
The Thompson Caster is a dinosaur in the twenty first century. It’s about two thirds the size of a refrigerator, weighs 750 pounds, and churns like a locomotive. It’s the iron horse to today’s bullet train high-speed printers. Kristensen purchased the approximately 50 year old machine last year for $5,000 dollars. A motorized pump forces a silver liquid made from a mixture of lead, tin, and antimony into a mold and it is then stamped into a matrix. The type-shoe holds the mold in place as it comes out of the casting chamber and excess metal, also known as jet, is cut off. The type is then forced out onto a receiving plate. This Thompson can cast thirty characters of type per minute. It looks simple, but there are many moving parts. “It’s insanely complicated,” said Kristensen.
The Thompson Caster was designed with quality and accessibility in mind. In the early twentieth century there was a movement in the printing community that promoted the notion that “every printer his own typefounder,” meaning printer could make his own set of type. The Thompson was a product of that idea. “The Thompson was a new design, from scratch. It is really a quite brilliant engineering achievement, and a marvel of simplicity,” said David M. MacMillan, a typefounding enthusiast based out of Wisconsin, in an email. It’s simple for those who understand mechanical processes, that is. An advertisement from the early 1900’s published by the Thompson Type Machine company boldly claimed, “We are, however, ready to prove that Thompson Type is good type, perfect type.” The finished sort from the Thompson is a rectangular prism that is less than an inch long, quarter inch wide, and third of an inch high. It is solid, heavy, and feels like it could last a long time.
Kristensen starts casting a new set with the letter H because it is the most balanced and easiest to align. He places the matrix in the type shoe. He adjust a number of rods and then flips a switch to get the gears and elbows moving. After a few runs of the machine, he flips one last switch to get the lead flowing, and then he steps back -- this is the machine’s maiden voyage. His friend, who is also in the shop mentioned that we should, “have 911 ready.”
There are a few close calls in the beginning. The scalding silver liquid squirted about six feet from the machine during the first few runs. Kristensen said that some printers have gotten burned from these sorts of things-- he hasn’t though. Kristensen tinkers with a number of parts. First he adjusts the type shoe, then he changes the spring pressure. After about fourteen runs, the sort is finally solid, but then he has to adjust the H to line it up precisely. The naked eye might miss it, but that doesn’t work for Kristensen. “If people can’t enjoy problems like this, it’s probably not going to be much fun,” he said.
Kristensen has worked in letterpress long enough to see the battle-scarred veterans slowly fade away. After thirty years, he’s still dogged and dedicated to his profession. His colleagues admire his spirit as well. “He’s single-handedly holding up the letterpress industry in the Boston area,” said Lisa Rosowsky, the president of the Society of Printers, a trade group dedicated to preserving the art of printing.
Letterpress is for many logical reasons is impractical. It’s slow and tedious. Printers, copy machines, and Photoshop imitate what Kristensen does. That’s the key word though, imitate. Kristensen’s work is the genuine article. He puts care and thought in every announcement, diploma, and certificate he makes. “The best thing anyone has ever said about my work is that it was so well suited to its purpose,” he said. That sort of thought and dedication can not be replicated by computers.
After three hours and twenty one tries, Kristensen finally gets the Thompson printing solid, precisely aligned sort. He now has to run through the rest of the alphabet to complete the set. The process goes smoothly. The machine is humming and the type sits on the receiving plate like hot lead cookies. He shows no wear or frustration after an afternoon of mistakes, adjustments, and troubleshooting. Even though the process looked mind-numbingly aggravating, Kristensen showed no signs of frustration. The most animated he got on the day was when he described his work as, “so goddamn much fun.”