Sharing the Process : a. favorite design

Guest Contributor Post by Heather Smith Jones of Blue Sparrow Press.

Hello and welcome to another installment of Sharing the Process! Today we hear from Amber of a. favorite design. She talks about her love of typography, her creative history and meticulous process. Plus we get peeks inside her totally great letterpress studio. You can almost smell the ink and paper! Thank you Amber for taking time to talk with us about your work and process!

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I’ve been playing with paper since I can remember. In fact, one of my most favorite holiday traditions as a child was visiting grandma and grandpa’s on Christmas Eve and opening my annual gift of construction paper and markers. I would retire in a corner for hours to draw, fold, cut and glue to my heart’s content. Then in highschool, I was fortunate enough to enroll in a graphic arts program at our local trade school. That’s where I ran my first press, an AB Dick duplicator. I remember walking in the room the first day and standing in awe, gazing at the presses, light tables, stacks of paper and being engulfed by the scent of ink. It was magical; today instead of a school, it’s my own studio. I have yet to lose the feeling of awe or magic.

In college I studied graphic design and had the most amazing typography teacher, George Thompson. He was the first to introduce me to letterpress printing. I had of course seen it before in my art history classes, however, I had never experienced the craft until then. For our final project we had to handset a paragraph of type and print it on specialty paper with a platen press. From the moment I held the composing stick, I was hooked. Touching each piece of metal filled me with romance; who had touched these letters? What had been printed with them? The history of the fonts, composing sticks and press further sparked my interest and I began collecting wood type and books on printing, design and; typography. It was official, I became addicted.

Once out of school, I worked in the agency, corporate and; not-for-profit world for several years. I eventually decided that world was not for me. I began freelancing and; picked up a retail job at a stationery store I frequented. The owner was very supportive of artists and; his employees. He encouraged us to sell our handmade goods in the shop and; let us keep the profits to supplement our income. I had always made my own cards, jewelry, books and; ornaments so I naturally started creating at every opportunity. First, I created cards using my antique typewriter, then my gocco, and; then I discovered Columbia College Book and; Paper Center. It was there I took my first letterpress class… and my second… and third… and volunteered on my days off. I embraced letterpress printing and; surrounded myself with it. Unlike my earlier experience with letterpress printing, I learned a more modern way to printing using photopolymer plates instead of type and; blocks. This opened a whole new world of opportunity for me. Instead of designing with existing fonts and; images, I could create any design I wanted on the computer, then letterpress print it.

In 2007 I purchased my very first press, a 1913 new style Chandler and Price platen press. Shortly after, I quit my retail job and; decided I would design and; print for the rest of my days.

My style is definitely influenced by my training as a designer. I love the grid, typography and; being able to take a simple idea and; create a finished product. There's a great sense of pride and; satisfaction in taking my concept to finished piece and; being involved in every step of the process. I find inspiration in my surroundings and; upbringing. Typography, Midwestern flea markets, music and; Americana are reoccurring a. favorite design themes.

I’m not sure there is a “typical” day at the studio. As a business owner, designer and; printer, I’ve become a master juggler of time and; projects. However, my most favorite days at the studio are design or print days. I often save up printing projects and; will spend a week printing for eight hours straight, thousands of impressions a day.

My design process is never a scheduled event. Instead, I have about 5 ongoing journals and; notebooks. There are pages and; pages filled with ideas, sketches, thoughts and; random-randomness. I’m one of those people that has to contemplate things endlessly before executing. This process works well with letterpress printing. I find printing is often the best time to let my mind process, problem solve, brainstorm, finalize designs or just be. I keep a sketchbook nearby at all times to jot down ideas. The smell of ink, the stack of blank paper, the hum of the press and; thunk of impression, it's magical.

Every so often I sit at my mac and; start executing my sketchbook and; notebook ideas in illustrator. Sometimes it takes a couple hours, weeks, or even years to complete. Yes, years… have I mentioned I exhaust all ideas before finalizing them? I meticulously thumb through swatchbooks of paper, Pantone books and; fine tune each design until I finally feel I can't improve the idea anymore. It also helps that my husband is an art director, he helps me talk through and; complete my ideas. Once the design is ready, I print out an inkjet proof for reference. I then separate each color of the design in illustrator, adding crop marks, logos and; copyright info to each item. Once all the files are separated, I set up my film. I then upload the files to my service bureau, who outputs negative film - the only item in my process I do not create myself. The film I use is a negative, meaning anything that will be printed - design, text, graphics, etc. is white and; the background is black.

Once I have my film, I make a photopolymer plate. Typically, I make several plates at once. Especially since each two color card fills half a plate. The platemaker I rent is a stacked unit with exposure, washout and; a dryer. The first step to making a plate is exposing the photopolymer with UV light, while the film is on top of the polymer. Anything on the film that is white allows light through, exposing the plate. The areas that have been exposed harden the polymer. Next, I wash out my plate. Anything not exposed washes away with warm water and; brushes. After that, I dry the plate and; finally the plate is post exposed. The finished plate is a hard, raised polymer that will press into the paper when printed.

Back at the studio, I add an adhesive backing to each plate. Since plates are usually much larger than my finished project, I have to cut the plates apart. Letterpress printing requires your form to be type high. Since polymer plates are thin, I use a metal base to make my form type high. Once the plates are apart, it is ready to be mounted on the type high base. The plate sticks to the base with the adhesive I added to the back. The base has a very useful grid that I use to make sure my design is mounted straight.

I keep an inkjet print out of each design nearby to reference paper, color, design, etc. and I usually start the printing process by cutting my paper. Once cut, I count and; stagger the sheets in 20 piece sections. Even though I have a counter on my press, this allows me to glance at my stack and; easily gauge how far I am in my pile. After the plate is on the base, the paper counted and; stacked on the feeder board of my press, I’m ready to mix ink.

Most PMS ink colors are made of a combination of a couple core colors mixed. With my Pantone Formula Guide in hand, I measure ink and; mix. Testing and; comparing along the way to make sure my ink is the correct color and; consistency. Following the mixing, I put the ink on the ink disk of the press. The ink then is evenly distributed on the disk. Now, I’m ready to put the chase in the press. The chase holds the type high base with my plate on top. Finally, it’s time to make an impression.

An impression is made on the tympan of the press. Once made, I can measure where my paper guides will be. My platen press requires me to hand feed each sheet manually, one color at a time. In order to keep the impression registered/straight, I have to secure my paper guides and; make sure all is precise. This process takes time and; somedays it is easier than others. Once everything is square and; inked up, I’m ready to print!

The actual printing time is often shorter than all the meticulous prep work. The first print of each new design is the most exciting. Seeing an idea come to fruition after weeks, months or years of labor is extremely gratifying. There's something empowering about working with 1500 lbs. of cast iron machinery from the early 1900's to create a tactile and; vibrant print. The attention to detail and; patience required for printing has made me a much better designer. And honestly, I love it!

a. favorite design

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Heather Smith Jones M.F.A., is a multi-media artist, arts instructor, and author. She lives with her husband in Lawrence, Kansas and loves painting, printing, and drawing in the studio that he built. Find out more about what Heather does here:

Website :
Blue Sparrow Press :
Poppytalk Handmade :

Jan Halvarson


rachael adele said...

i would have just died with excitement if i had been taught how to use a letterpress in school! the cards in the first images are beautiful.

Geralyn Gray said...

I sell Amber's cards at my store and I have to say she IS MY favorite!!!!! I love the jukebox greeting cards!!!

Isabel MH said...

The cards look amazing.