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Northern Arts Series: Deep Wood Press
Northern Arts Series: Deep Wood Press Photo credit: Todd Zawistowski
Keeping alive the 500-year old tradition of fine letterpress (2008-09-26) We continue our Northern Arts series with a visit to the deep woods of Mancelona. It's a small village just north of Traverse City. That's where you'll find Chad Pastotnik hard at work, perfecting a craft that's been around for centuries.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra dropped by his Deep Wood Press studio for a lesson in the fine art of letterpress:

The first you thing you notice about Chad Pastotnik's studio is that minus Chad everything in it is old. It's almost as though you've stepped back in time to the days of Gutenberg and his printing press.

"Yeah, this is not Kinko's. It's not even your ink jet," jokes Pastotnik.

Hardly. This is hand set, letterpress printing. It's a fine art that's been around for 500 years and has recently undergone a kind of revival in the states. Book Arts graduate programs are popping up around the country and community art centers have started to offer letter press workshops. But none of that was around when Pastotnik was an undergrad getting his fine art degree in printmaking:

"At that point," says Pastotnik, " I didn't even know about the fine book tradition. I'd seen fine books, but I wasn't aware in the 80's what this whole thing was about."

So he honed his skills as an artist and as a book binder instead. That is until one day in 1992. That's when he received a small cylinder press for free from an old printing company in Cadillac. So he started to teach himself letterpress. He admits that at first, it was pretty rough...but he says the journey was well worth it.

"Well," he says, "I wanted words with my images and that was the way to go. You know, it's magic. It's alchemy in the works. It's turning lead into gold."

The art form itself requires an incredible amount of craftsmanship, not to mention patience. Because everything is done by hand. Starting with the paper which gets sliced down to size on a heavy piece of equipment that's shaped like a guillotine.

Then, it's onto the text. Every single letter you see on the page is hand set. Take for example the word "book." Each one of those letters is its own, individual lead cast. Pastotnik has thousands of these individuals letters stored in cabinets around the room.

One cabinet contains all Bernard Booklet Modern. And it goes from 8 point Roman italic all the way up to 24. "It's not just highlight and click," says Pastotnik. "You pick it up and put it in the stick."

Once all the type has been hand pulled and precisely set using the stick, the letters and ink get transferred onto the page using one of the hand presses around the room. Art work is added. And then the sheets are hand stitched and bound in real leather.

Pastotnik's book generally sell for hundreds of dollars. Which he realizes may sound expensive for a book, until you consider the labor that went into making it, not to mention the cost of materials. Of course, he also realizes there are quicker, less expensive ways to make a book than by hand.

"You can send your manuscript off to and get a bound copy back in a week for $12," says Pastotnik. "Why do you need me?"

So why do we need you?

"Because," says Pastotnik, "it's book as art, as opposed to a book for the sake of a vehicle for transmitting information. We definitely do all of that, but it's the finest aspects of what a book can be."

And he can point to some 500-year old examples to prove it.