Letterpress isn’t novel to brothers DJ and Matt Schutt — but rather the old-fashioned technique their father, who had decades of experience in commercial printing, taught them in the garage. That was Donald’s makeshift printing shop, a retirement project turned family business sparked by the discovery of a 1907 Chandler & Price press in someone’s attic nearby.
It was the ’80s, and letterpresses had already seen their heyday. But they called on that first press for small jobs or favors (raffle tickets, business cards) as well as other tasks like die-cutting. So it stuck around — and fittingly was the last piece moved into the new shop in the 2000s, once the commercial printing operation had stretched the family garage to its limits.
Nowadays, the 111-year-old press is back in high demand with the resurging interest in the craftsmanship and tactile quality this traditional method produces. And so the brothers created The Pickle Ship in 2014, two years after their father passed away. The artisan print shop showcases their unique expertise, which also includes embossing and foil stamps — and many lessons learned from their father. “It’s like he’s standing here with you,” the brothers agree.
Matt hand-mixes all of their inks, the two repair the antique printing equipment themselves (and lend their knowledge to others), and by the nature of the process, they personally see — and touch — every single piece they print.
1. Set the engraving
A custom metal engrave plate is created for each letterpress piece (not individual wood letters like in eras past) — and the brothers work with Rapid Service Engraving, a local family business founded in 1904, to craft them expertly from clients’ designs.
When it’s time to print, the engraving is attached to metal honeycomb and secured using toggles that expand to fit the hole with an old-fashioned key.
2. Mix the ink
Vibrant, metallic, subtle — Matt can mix it all. He hand-blends every hue they print with from the vast collection of ink jars stacked atop his workbench.
3. Ink the press...
The same two-step process happens for every single color featured in a design...after a thorough cleaning of the press, of course.
The final color is transferred to the ink plate, the round portion at the top of the press. High-quality letterpress paper can absorb an impressive amount of ink, so it’s important to use enough for a rich, saturated finish.
4. ...then the rollers
The three rollers are central to the printing process: They fluidly roll over the ink plate, picking up the color, then down to the engraving to transfer it.
But first, the rollers need to evenly distribute the color across the ink plate. Each time the rollers pass over its surface, the ink plate rotates — ensuring every part of its surface, and the rollers’, are covered.
5. Align the paper
To ensure consistency across an entire batch of, say, invitations while hand-feeding paper, guides are placed on the tinted sheet and backing that rests on platen (the tilted surface where the paper lies). This way, each time Matt slots in a new piece of paper, he knows exactly where it needs to hit.
6. Print and repeat
Watching the brothers in full printing mode is a mesmerizing art form — set to the tune and motion of the press. Once all the elements are prepped and in place, muscle memory kicks in.
The rollers swoop up to replenish ink as the platen with the blank paper moves forward to meet the inked engrave plate. Matt pulls the large lever to his left just then to put it on impression. Then, as the rollers come down to coat the engraving plate once again, he removes the finished printed piece and sets another blank one in its place — and starts the flow all over again.
Putting their father’s collection to daily use
The letterpress that started it all, a 1907 Chandler & Price, crossed the Schutt’s path by chance back in 1984. When their father, Donald, heard about the 8-by-12 foot press by word of mouth, he decided to buy it. (Yes, that included moving the approximately 700 pound press down from an attic in Boston, N.Y., first.)
Now the workhorse of their letterpress business, the press isn’t the only piece of equipment their father collected that still lives as a vital part of The Pickle Ship workshop today: The type cases (wood storage cabinets), letterpress drawers (pre-divided for this specific purpose) and an impressive assortment of wood type were all finds he tracked down, acquired and passed on.
The Pickle Ship