Hard pressed: Billings letterpress studio breathes new life into old artform
By Darrell Ehrlick DAILY MONTANAN
People rarely sit down to write letters anymore. Even email seems laborious when compared to texting.
So imagine how few people still set type by hand.
Heck, how many folks even know what that means?
For Erika Wilson of the Windy Mill Press, after her first attempt at a hand letterpress, she was hooked.
“Immediately obsessed,” she said.
Her studio is in a Billings office complex where lawyers, engineers and other professionals have offices with waiting rooms, computer monitors and Keurig coffee dispensers.
Wilson’s is full of machinery that is decades old. Her hand-operated press is a well-oiled machine built sometime around 1900. She got it from a fellow letterpress printer in Seattle. It’s attached to wooden beams that could have been easily cut from a floor. When she runs the platen and rollers – part of the press – its smooth, fluid motion makes muffled sound of plates touching the rubber press rollers. There is no squeaking, no machine motor noise.
It’s in perfect condition.
Wilson knows the 37 different points on the press that need oiling in order to keep it running smoothly.
She makes signs, cards and handbills with individual lettering and sometimes, hand-carved wood type. That type of technology weaves throughout the state’s history. These heavy, but not hulking, machines were brought by wagon, rail and steamboat to far-flung places in West, destined to become the vehicle to the rest of the world when these presses were used to create newspapers and other printed materials.
The technology is so rarely seen that people passing through the office building on Poly Drive, across from Rocky Mountain College, stop to peer into the windows. Many have never seen these machines – or the process – up close.
“People can’t believe I use these,” she said. “They say, ‘You mean they run?’”
That process is both challenging, artistic, temperamental and time-consuming. Each letter has to be selected from a case of type. It has to be planned, spaced and set before the ink and paper.
“It’s more charming than digital and it’s more organic,” she said.
And it has to be set backwards, in a mirror image, so that when it prints, it reads correctly.
The smell is a combination of metal machinery oil and ink. To many folks familiar with newspaper offices or press plants, all that’s missing is the aroma of cheap coffee.
Wilson has been printing for more than five years, learning the craft by reading books, going to workshops and watching YouTube videos. There aren’t a lot of people sitting around with knowledge about hand-operated letterpressing. But she’s also become a teacher to students across the street, instructing a class on letterpressing and hand printing for Rocky Mountain College.
She often haunts antique stores, rummage sales and even county fairs, looking for people who still may have old cases of type. The market has changed recently. The individual lead letters used by many printing shops and newspapers have been popular in home design, and have been gobbled up by hipsters and interior designers, driving up the price dramatically.
She has some of the type from places like the Wibaux Pioneer Gazette. And she managed a beautiful collection of Cooper Black font from the News-Argus in Lewistown.
Her office is functional and well-decorated with prints she’s made as well as from others around the country making anything from advertisements to concert posters to handbills for political rallies.
She embarked on a project recently with Tom Tschida and the Northern Plains Resource Council that hand-set the type for the preamble of the Montana Constitution. She also made a poster used for a rally during the 2023 Montana Legislature at the Capitol that sought to preserve the state’s constitution.
She likens the work to the video game, “Tetris,” where puzzle pieces have to be arranged correctly.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to get the message to fit together,” she said.
Wilson grew up on a farm, and she credits her father with giving her a love of machinery. That has fused together with her love of art to make an artistic form perfectly suited to her, one of the “ladies of the letterpress.”
“I hate technology and computers and what comes along with it,” she said. “It feels good to make something with your hands and anything I make for somebody is unique and made by hand.
“I worry that our kids are too dependent upon technology, but this helps us remember where you come from and it lasts 10 times longer. We have to keep this art alive. Not everything can be made by Adobe Illustrator.”