Washboard Press is a small letterpress print studio in Madison, Wisconsin working primarily in hand composition of metal and wood type. This means individual pieces of type–letters, punctuation, typographic symbols, and decorative ornaments–are assembled by hand and locked into a frame for printing on a press.
When many rows of type are locked up together, the resulting forme resembles an old fashioned washboard–textured metal surrounded by a wooden frame. And when I start printing, some of my presses look like a piece of antique laundry equipment, and sound like someone playing a washboard as a musical instrument.
But the real story behind the name is this: like someone today using a washboard to carefully hand wash a special piece of textile or clothing, every time I use my presses, I am making a deliberate choice to do things the old, hard way, because the the care and the physicality of that process mean that the results are very much worth that extra effort.
About the Printer
Washboard Press is owned and operated by Phil Hassett. As a drummer and percussionist since I was 11, it was the rhythm of letterpress that really drew me in. Rhythm permeates every part of letterpress printing. It is in the tactile and audible clicks of type being set on a composing stick or being distributed back into a case. It’s in the mathematical and visual patterns established by the regular sizes and subdivisions of type and spacing material, in the composition of a type forme. And of course there is rhythm in running a press.
I am something of a latecomer to letterpress, although I have always loved books and paper (my first business venture as a kid was trying to sell origami creations from a stand at the base of my driveway, the way many kids sell lemonade). I have been drawn to letterpress for a long time, but never imagined owning and running a press until my wife found a tiny 3×5 platen press and a jumble of type at a yard sale half a mile from our home in Madison, WI.
I learned the basics of presswork from workshops at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, WI, and from books and the online forums at Briar Press. In 2017 I took the opportunity to study ornamental type design with the incomparable Jen Farrell of Starshaped Press at the Penland School of Craft in Western North Carolina, and I continue to practice and learn the craft every opportunity I get.
About the Studio
Washboard Press includes a growing collection of presses, wood & metal type, and type ornaments. Larger prints and posters are printed on a Poco #0 flatbed cylinder proof press. This press was originally designed for proofing a type forme to check for composition errors and damaged type before sending the forme to a production press. All prints on this press are hand-inked using a brayer, which is time consuming but can allow for subtle effects that can be hard to achieve with automatic inking.
Cards and smaller prints are printed on a 6×10 Kelsey Excelsior. I also have two 3×5 Kelsey Mercury presses used for small cards, business cards, and public demonstrations, and I am presently working on restoring an Adana Horizontal Quarto press to use for demonstrations and other times I need a more portable press.
The type and ornaments in my collection include foundry type made in the mid and early 20th century, and type that was cast just last year. There is type made from wood that grew in the 19th century, and type that was molded from plastic in the 21st century. It is one of the joys of letterpress printing to bring together pieces from a great span of time and places and use them to make something new and beautiful, right here, right now.