Swan City Press is Looking for a Kickstart

Matthew Wengerd

Matthew Wengard is a bit of a renaissance man: jazz bassist, website designer and stationer. What’s that last one? Matthew designs and prints stationary. Invitations, advertising, thanks you notes and such are the stuff of Matthew’s passion. That love of paper has now led Wengard to start the Swan City Press Project, an effort to raise funds to restore a 90-year-old letterpress to working condition. No mean feat for a machine without a manual, support line or parts shop. We recently exchanged a few questions and answers….

What made you get into stationary? With two degrees in music (a BS in Music Ed and an MM in Jazz Studies), I didn’t really expect to take this path. Somewhere along the line, the jobs I was working started demanding a little design work from me: a poster here, a business card there. I started to realize that the same thing that appealed to me about jazz appealed to me about graphic design – the ability to create something by drawing on all the things that get me excited.

I could have gone a more traditional route – working for an agency or other in-house design department – but realized quickly that I’d be pretty far behind the design school grads who were already a couple years younger than me. Instead, I started looking to what I could marry to this infatuation with design. I kind of geek out on culture and etiquette. I carry a fountain pen exclusively and enjoy hand-written thank-you cards. Social stationery seemed a great fit. I’m already involved in all the things I enjoy and, by acquiring this letterpress, I get to add my obsession with machines and working with my hands; something my father instilled in me.

How did you discover the press? I’ve been using letterpress printers from all over the country for my invitations and social stationery. I’ve even used a printer in suburban Seattle. Because Florida doesn’t have the same history of the rust belt or New England, there aren’t nearly as many presses sitting around. A chance discussion with T. Michael Stavres from the City of Winter Have sent me to Duke Burr at Burr printing. He had several letterpresses in his shop but, like many printers, was still using them to die-cut paper or foil stamp diplomas. He mentioned that his friend Jesse at Truebloods might have an extra press sitting around. I could barely believe it! Truebloods is literally two blocks from my garden district home! In a small corner of Jesse’s shop is this beautiful piece of cast iron just sitting there. It’s likely Jesse stopped using it for printing about a decade ago and he stopped using it for die cutting at least three years ago.

Will you do the repair work yourself or someone else? I’m hoping any work to be done is within my capabilities. Much of it is about cleaning and oiling. The rest centers on buying and installing some pieces necessary to bring this press up to modern printing standards. Modern ink rollers are more reliable and longer-lasting. I’ll also be printing primarily with photopolymer plates instead of movable type (like Gutenberg); that means I’ll need a milled aluminum base on which to place the polymer plates.

Where will you put the press after repair? I’ve got leads on a couple downtown locations. I’m not sure our 1917 bungalow’s floors could handle it. The press won’t be profitable right off the bat. so some of the properties I’d really like downtown won’t be within my budget immediately. I’d really like to have this be a contributing part of the creative class that Lakeland’s doing so well to foster – perhaps open for demonstration during First Fridays.

What’s special about this type of press? Until recently, the pressman’s prerogative was to print with as little impression as possible – to kiss the paper. Since the rise of offset lithography and digital printing (the methods almost all the brochures, mailers, menus, and fliers you see use), the thing that really sets letterpress apart is the deep, tactile impression that is offers. You can get such a deep impression that, even without ink, text printed is clearly readable. This is what I did with my most recent run of business cards.

How hard is it to work a letterpress? There’s quite a few moving parts, but not much to manipulate with a press like this. The paper is hand-fed in the press, so the biggest challenge is not getting your hand smashed in it. Most of the work is done in mixing the ink and setting everything up for a good, consistent impressions. Once set up, it’s just step and repeat.

Could you tell the readers a little bit about the method you’re using to raise the funds? Kickstarter is a web-based platform that assists users in raising funds for creative projects. It’s successfully funded everything from movies and albums to a kit that converts the latest version of the iPod Nano into a watch (which was the most-funded project in the website’s history with nearly $1M). Though it’s set up like a PBS fund-drive, with gifts offered at each level of support, this isn’t charity. It’s a platform for commerce, where users get real value for backing the project. In my case, it’s low-price letterpress printing.

The unique challenge of Kickstarter is its all-or-nothing approach. You set a funding goal and timeframe during which backers can pledge to your project. If you don’t receive full funding by your deadline, no money changes hands. In other words, if I don’t receive all $4,250, I can’t get the press right now.

How does this relate to your company? This is a project of A Fine Press, my luxury stationery company. I think there are two types of people who will be interested in Swan City Press. The first group is those who love Lakeland and its history. This is a really cool piece of Lakeland’s past that deserves to be brought back to its glory. The second group is those who need to impress people with paper. Letterpress business cards, letterhead, invitations, and other stationery items aren’t all that common in Polk County and can really set a person or their business apart.

The project can be found at Swan City Press. If someone wants another form of letterpress printing than is offered, they can email me at matthew@afinepress.com to discuss it. I’d love to work with people to find a great fit for them.

What’s the question you wished we would have asked? What’s the answer? What’s the difference between “stationery” and “stationary?” Stationery is fine paper. Stationary is standing still. :)

Creative Commons License image credit: A Fine Press