Wisconsin printer presses on with antique machines

Letterpress printing, as depicted on this antique occupational shaving mug, is making a comeback. Image courtesy of Cowan's Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com archive.

Letterpress printing, as depicted on this antique occupational shaving mug, is making a comeback. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com archive.

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. (AP) – Michael Coughlin didn’t know it, but he picked a great time to buy old printing presses.

Lined up side by side in his print shop in this tiny Bayfield County community on the shore of Lake Superior are eight letterpresses and one offset press dating from the 1880s to the 1960s. There’s also a Linotype machine, large drawers containing metal and wood type in various sizes and fonts, and a bookbinding machine with four spools of white thread on top.

Much of his hardware was stuff others didn’t want.

“I got into it at a fortunate time when people were dumping out of it,” said Coughlin, who began acquiring presses in the early 1980s and has operated Superior Letterpress Co. in Cornucopia for a decade. “But now the worm has turned, and it’s in vogue like antique cars.”

Although Coughlin, 63, prints small press runs of books, newsletters, labels and other commercial print jobs, he’s carved out a niche for himself in letterpress wedding invitations.

Letterpress printing features impressions in the paper, and it’s growing in popularity for folks who want their business cards or wedding invitations to have an antique feel to them. Plus, a shout-out to letterpress invites from home decorating maven Martha Stewart helped when she began writing about them in her magazine a decade ago.

The two letterpresses Coughlin uses the most are machines manufactured in 1910 and 1942.

Different presses are used depending on the type and size of the paper. He’s got about 20 handset fonts as well as Linotype fonts and Ludlow fonts – he’s partial to Fairfield and Granjon fonts, though it’s up to the customer to choose which typeface they want.

While old printing technology is his stock in trade, the new technology enables him to run his shop. His customers find him on the Internet, order their invitations from across the United States as well as Europe and even as far away as the Pacific island of Saipan, then receive their orders via FedEx and UPS.

At some point in his printing career, Coughlin had to commit to either keep up with the new printing technology or focus on the old technology. Old trumped new for Coughlin.

“Letterpress is the type of thing that you can’t do on desktop publishing or offset, where the letters bite into the paper,” he said passing his fingers over the grooves of a wedding invitation on thick cream-colored paper. “You ask if it was a dying art. It was, but now it’s an art form.”

As letterpress printing is regaining popularity, print shops like Coughlin’s have sprung up like mushrooms, though most are on the east and west coasts, said Tracy Honn, senior artist at Silver Buckle Press, a working museum of letterpress printing in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Libraries.

She didn’t know of any other commercial letterpress operations like Coughlin’s in Wisconsin.

“Letterpress is alive and well. If it’s living in Cornucopia, it’s alive in other cities as well,” said Honn, who is seeing more young people wanting to take letterpress printing classes.

“There’s a certain attention to detail that is part of the tradition of fine printing. That same kind of detail can happen in offset or digital printing, but there’s that handmade quality (in letterpress printing) that people like to see,” Honn said.

While letterpress print shops might now be rare in Wisconsin, decades ago there were print shops in practically every community in the state, particularly those that had their own newspapers, said James Danky, who is on the UW-Madison School of Journalism faculty. At a time when there were hundreds of newspapers in Wisconsin, smart printing press operators also did commercial jobs when newsprint wasn’t rolling through their presses.

“They may have produced a newspaper but they didn’t mistake themselves for Pulitzer,” said Danky. “They did wedding invitations and farm sale handbills and everything else.”

Though the presses may look like dirty, impersonal contraptions to untrained eyes, to Coughlin each has a different personality.

“You look at these machines and you see the thinking that went into their technology,” he said. “They’re marvels. Sometimes they can be ornery. I know because I’ve hurt my foot kicking them.”


Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

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