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Meet the Team: George Graves

by Sabrina Garber

If you haven't already noticed, we've been singing George's praises ever since he took over press operations last October. Behind in printing our fall release when he started, we left him with the not-so-easy task of getting us back on track. He accomplished this and more, keeping the presses running and helping us to organize and streamline our production and QA. I mean the guy loves labeling drawers and moving huge pieces of furniture around. He's also a sucker for Cool Runnings, plaid flannel shirts, and a cup of joe. But probably the best person to talk about George is George himself! Read on to learn more about how he and letterpress were destined for one another ... 

Meet George Graves | Blog | Smudge Ink(photo credit: Studio Nouveau)

What path led you to become interested in letterpress?
Letterpress first hit my radar toward the end of my college years. I was studying graphic design and my typography professor noticed that I gravitated toward typefaces that resembled old wood type. I would often choose very bold, slab-serifed display type and so she asked me if I knew about letterpress. Looking back, the similarities that she saw are obvious, but I was clueless at the time. It was those old wooden fonts, the tactile nature of letterpress prints, and the demands of working within the limitations of the medium that first drew me to letterpress printing and led me to focus my senior thesis on the method. After growing weary of computer work and struggling to find work in the design industry, I set my sights on an apprenticeship in letterpress printing as a way to work with my hands while still putting my education to use.

Meet George Graves | Blog | Smudge Ink(photo credit: Thy Doan)

What do you love most about letterpress?
This is a tough one. I love the presses. The little quirks and unique personality that each one has. Learning to operate and maintain a new press. Troubleshooting the numerous issues that might come up on any given day. But I love the letterpress community, too. I’ve found so many open doors in the industry from the Pacific Northwest to Florida, and from San Francisco to upstate New York. Besides just opening their doors to a fellow pressman, many of the printers I’ve visited across the country have become close friends and go-to resources when I find myself in a jam. When it comes down to it, the part I love the most is the fact that this is how I make my living.

Meet George Graves | Blog | Smudge Ink
Where do you regularly turn to for creative inspiration?
Although I’m now a printer, I still like to keep an eye on the design industry. The latest print projects are of particular interest to me as I want to be careful to never underestimate the possibilities of letterpress. At home, I never have to look very far for inspiration because my wife is a graphic designer and hand letterer. Our conversations are always full of plenty of design and printing geekery.

What do you find is the most challenging aspect of the printing process?
The most challenging part of the job is the first time I face each new issue with a machine or a specific print run. Luckily, this can also be the most rewarding part of the job. Resolving an issue that I've never faced before brings such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Granted, these issues never pop up at convenient times and that gratification doesn’t come until you’ve pushed through hours, sometimes days, of stress and frustration. Of course the hope is always that each victory will hold little lessons that will help me through the next bit of troubleshooting.

Meet George Graves | Blog | Smudge Ink
Which presses have you used? Do you have a favorite? Why?
All told, I’ve run more than 20 different presses: C&Ps, Vandercooks, Heidelberg windmills and cylinders, Kluges, a Brausse, and a Frontex Automatic Cylinder. The Heidelberg K-line cylinders are my favorite presses, hands-down, and I have a tough time imagining that changing. The Heidelberg windmill wins for ease of setup and use, but the cylinder presses get better ink coverage and impression. The K-line presses are the smaller of the Heidelberg letterpress cylinders, but are large enough to run a 12x18” poster. Plus, the smaller size makes them more manageable to run and allows them to run jobs that would be too small for the larger cylinder presses. Add the fact that these presses pretty much run themselves once they’re all dialed in, and if I had to choose just one press to run everything on, the K-line would be an easy choice.

Meet George Graves | Blog | Smudge Ink
(photo credit: Studio Nouveau)

What is your #1 piece of advice for someone who wants to learn about letterpress? Is there anything you wished you had known as a beginner?
The only thing I really wish I had known sooner is just that letterpress exists. It is hard for me to think back to my college years, being unable to take a letterpress 101 type course until my final semester, and not wonder what more time on press as a student would have done for me. At the same time, I don’t consider myself a printmaker and I think that is where most of the school programs and workshops tend to lead: fine art, design and printmaking. Instead, I see myself purely as a pressman. Printing is my trade and it is a service industry that I work in. A pressman’s job isn’t to pursue his or her own vision, but to execute the design or vision of the client—in my case, Smudge Ink. I think this is the biggest thing I would want to clarify for anyone looking to get involved with letterpress and especially for anyone that I might personally be training. The first step to planning your route is deciding which end of things you ultimately hope to land on.

What would be your dream letterpress project?
Easy. A 1950s COE box truck rebuilt to carry a mobile, production-ready press shop. The dream would be the combination of a custom letterpress shop, a bit of a retail offering, and an in-house stationery line created by my wife. The truck would allow us to tour the craft shows without getting behind on custom orders. Plus we’d have the ability to do demos at the shows. It’s a pipe dream, but one that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about. I'll admit I’ve even run the numbers once or twice …

Meet George Graves | Blog | Smudge Ink
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Breakfast is the favorite meal in our home, so on Saturday mornings you can always expect us to go above and beyond. No instant breakfast or cereal here (maybe Cinnamon Toast Crunch on my birthday). Breakfast is followed with coffee, reading, and the dogs. We have two nine year old lab-mix, litter-mate, shelter dogs that have us tightly wrapped around their paws.

Thanks, George! Keep your eyes out for more from our trusty pressman in  the upcoming Dear George series. In the meantime, you can find more of George's recent work here and follow him here!

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