Welcome 2015, PBS “Craft in America” & Letterpress Renaissance!

Posted on January 07, 2015 by Yoshiko Yamamoto

Sheep New Year Card for Facebook.indd

2015. . . Born in the year of the sheep, I’m excited about this auspicious new year. . .

As I write this blog, I’m eagerly looking forward to a visit by the film crew from PBS’s Peabody Award-winning series “Craft in America,” a wonderful educational TV program that features iconic figures known and respected for their art and craft.



The executive producer Carol Sauvion and her team will arrive at our studio in Tacoma this Saturday. They are going to film our work process from sketching, everything from carving blocks, making polymer plates, to printing on our letterpress printing presses. I’ll be making a special new note card “Winter Cardinals” for this PBS show.

Cardinal color image medium size

What a great way to start a new year!

Many Changes & New Studio Space

But looking back on the year past, I must confess I’m so glad we’re done with 2014 and that 2015 is here now.

Last year was a year of change and transition. I do appreciate good changes, but even as good as they were, there were way too many. We first moved our home to Tacoma, and spent months searching for the perfect studio space. After signing a commercial lease for our new studio, we spent months gutting out the debris, building a showroom and kitchen, cleaning, painting, adding shelving and storage and replacing broken windows, finally reaching the day we were able to move our antique printing presses.IMG_1780Somewhat “shellshocked” from all the change, now I can look around our surroundings with a smile. Yay, we survived 2014!

Castle buildingI really love our new studio space. Compared to our former home/studio in a small town of Port Orchard –a large suburban house with a two-car garage (which served as our pressroom for the last decade) — the new location is nice and airy, zoned commercial, and perfectly laid out for a small letterpress-printing business.


But part of me sorely misses the quietude, the gentle breeze and sunlight, the trees and birds of our old home/studio. I fondly remember the time our backyard hens forced open the sliding door and marched inside to see what we were up to that day. A raccoon family often came and lazily hung around in our enormous maple tree. Our children used to race to eat cucumbers and peas as they matured in our backyard.


But even without those pleasing natural elements I have to say that the new studio space is quite functional and wonderful. With ample room we can work comfortably without bumping into each other.

Now that our studio is open to public, occasional visitors come by.

 IMG_0018I enjoy giving a quick tour of our old printing presses. “This one is our real workhorse, Heidi, she was built by German press makers and I have to say this prints more than 100,000 note cards a year for us. And that ‘Old Gordon’ is so beautiful, don’t you think? Look at the curve on the flywheel. . . But all these presses have one thing in common. It’s a relief printing process where raised area of the block receives theink for printing. ” I LOVE using and learning to use these old presses, some dating back to the 1890s and our newest one is from the 1950s.

Often our visitors are amazed to find that we actually use these old presses to print all our note cards and block prints. With prevalence of digital printing, giclee, color copies,and offset printing, it is understandable. Why do people like me use old presses to print, when newer technologies are available?

Why do we letterpress today?


The Economist in its recent issue published a short article about the recent renaissance of old printing (esp. letterpress).  http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2014/12/renaissance-printing

In a nutshell, the article describes the two chief reasons for the rebirth of old letterpress printing. One is that younger generation got “digital fatigue” and they’re looking for “individualized products and hands-on experience”. Hear, hear!! Enough screen time, enough scrolling!! They want real sweat, smear, and smudge. I can relate to that!!

Another reason is that paradoxically computers helped save the dying trade of letterpress printing and helped spread its popular appeal.  Rather than learning the craft of setting metal type to print, now we can compose sentences in the computer and make a polymer plate to print from.negandplate_thumb

I use both hand-carved blocks and polymer plates for our work at the Press.  The polymer plates are durable and suitable for our note card production as we usually print as many as three-thousand note cards at one time. Linoleum blocks won’t last more than 200, 300 imprints and so I use them for our limited-edition prints.

Philosophically too I’m attracted to both the handcraft of the hand-carved blocks and also the digital advantage that polymer plates offer. I have been using this hybrid method for years and I think I’m always trying to gauge the balance between the “hand” and the “machine.”

YY Carving 1

As William Morris said over a century ago, my goal is for us to be “the masters of our machines and not their slaves,” to find the balance between our hands and machine.


I think this quote is not relevant just for us printers. I think it’s relevant for woodworkers, textile artists, factory workers, writers, cooks, homemakers, office workers, medical professionals, store clerks, janitorial workers, and all humans who work.

And so here I am, in my new studio, carving a new linoleum block and taking breaks to sip tea and type this blog entry. Often I think of the age-old question. . . how do we make our work pleasurable and meaningful, not just for myself, but for all of us who work at our studio?

I hope your new year will be a great one too!

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