Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress combines new and old technology
By Isaac Bonnell
Fifty years ago, the simple task of photocopying a document was a marvel of modern technology. Back then, new inventions like laser printing were beginning to take the place of moveable type and heavy iron presses. But that doesn’t mean that old-fashioned presses are obsolete.
In fact one local printshop, Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress, has seven vintage presses that form the heart of the business. Owners Carly James and Kevin Nelson have developed a niche for combining modern graphic design with old-style printing.
“That’s the hallmark of what we do: combine new technology with old technology,” James said.
James is the graphic designer of the pair; Nelson runs all of the printing. Together, they can design and print anything from concert posters to wedding invitations to whole books.
Since the printing is done with lead or wood type, it gives everything an imprinted texture that has come to define the company’s style. For designs that can’t be reproduced with lead or wood type, James and Nelson have developed a process to transform images from a computer into a physical plate that can run on the presses.
The link that connects the new technology to the old technology is a machine that takes a film negative and burns the image on top of a special kind of plastic, which is then scrubbed down to produce a textured plate that can be used for printing.
This process has greatly expanded the number of fonts available to customers, but many still prefer the look and feel of old type, Nelson said.
“Every letter in a wood type poster has its own nicks and rough edges,” Nelson said.
The etching press
Over the course of its five-year history, the company has focused almost entirely on letterpress printing. Thanks to a generous donation, though, it recently expanded into the world of etching.
James and Nelson recently picked up a 140-year-old etching press, which was bequeathed to the couple by an art professor from Cleveland named Carroll Cassill.
A couple years ago, Cassill and his wife Jean were in Bellingham visiting their grown daughter and they decided to stop into Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress for a tour of the printshop.
Then last year, the daughter contacted James and Nelson to say that her father had died and left them his etching press — if they could come get it.
“We just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to use this press,” Nelson said. “They are very rare and I’ve seen them sell for about $30,000. We get to use it just for the cost of moving it, which was about $2,000.”
So in July of this year they flew to Cleveland, dismantled the 4,000-pound etching press and brought it back to Bellingham where it is now the centerpiece of the Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress artist studio on North State Street.
“We want this to be a community of artists who are interested in printing,” James said. “And this etching press made the whole space make sense.”
The press was built in the 1870s for a print shop in Paris and made its way to America when Cassill bought it in the 1950s, said Jean Cassill, now 82, who moved to Bellingham recently to be with her daughter.
“I still have the papers,” she said. “It cost about $200 — the franc was so low at the time — and another $200 to ship. Carroll’s brother had a Fulbright scholarship there and he arranged for the shipping.”
Precision vs. speed
In an industry that has come to value speed and pages-per-minute, Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress has placed an emphasis on quality printing.
While modern presses may be able to print thousands of pages per hour, they trade speed for precision and usually operate within a margin of error of about one-sixteenth of an inch, Nelson said.
Not so with old manual presses.
“You have tremendous control with these presses — more so than with digital printing — down to a one-thousandth of an inch,” Nelson said. “It takes longer, but it looks great.”
Since printing with a letterpress takes longer, James and Nelson specialize in producing items that people want to keep. They aren’t the place to print your book report, but they are the place to print your business cards.
“Printing is more accessible now and it’s diluted the market,” James said. “On the other hand, it helps us because it make us stand out.”
Another factor that helps Bison stand out is that they mix their colors by hand. It adds a little time to the process, but not much. Besides, Nelson said, long hours are common in the print business.
“Back in the day, a good press operator was expected to produce 1,000 pages an hour for eight hours a day.” Nelson said. The company doesn’t produce that much volume, but “I’ve pulled more all-nighters running this business than I did during college.”
If it takes so much extra effort to work with manual letterpresses, why not just let them fade into history and embrace modern technology?
Part of it is the romantic element of keeping print traditions alive, James said. Bison is just one printshop among several on the West Coast that are part of a resurgence in letterpress printing.
And part of it is the simple functionality of manual presses, Nelson said.
“If computers were built to last 100 years, we wouldn’t be using these old presses,” Nelson said. “But these machines were built to last forever. They’re way over-built. These presses will still be producing high quality printing as long as there are still people around who know how to use them.”