Shop Talk: Preserving the Art of Letterpress

NOTE: An edited version of this complete article appears in the Shop Talk column of the May 2012 issue of Sign Builder Illustrated.

Whenever you make your pilgrimage to Music City, USA, allow some time for Hatch Show Print, a Nashville, Tennessee institution now esteemed the world over as practitioner and proponent of the art of letterpress printing in this digital age.

Just around the corner and down the block from the Ryman Auditorium, birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry, much of Hatch’s own enduring legacy is rooted in American popular music. Step inside it’s unassuming door on Nashville’s lower Broadway, and its rich history literally shouts from walls emblazoned with eye catching posters and signs once used to promote entertainers products, events, and venues.

Further back, one can glimpse letterpress production on aging presses, surrounded by shelves stacked floor to ceiling with hand carved wooden blocks of graphics, photo plates and type and which make every job produced here a uniquely Hatch print.

“This is still a working print shop,” says Manager Jim Sherraden. “Here the printer is the designer and the designer is the printer.”

“The work we do has been described as a tonic for the information age,” adds Sherraden, repeating one friend’s apt observation.

A print shop, yes, but truly one of its kind.

Hatch_2_DennyAdcockPushing 133 years old, Hatch Show Print may be the oldest surviving letterpress sign shop still in operation in the United States. No Macs and Illustrator files here; every sign and design is hand assembled from that archive of graphics and text, then run through the press one sheet at a time, the number of passes totally dependent on the colors required.

“The work we do has been described as a tonic for the information age,” says Sherraden. “And we’ve always been a blue collar printer, [as] these were once considered a poor man’s poster.”

Now owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame, this shop hosts an estimated 20,000 visitors each year. Sherraden, his staff of ten, and as many as five interns in any season politely tolerate intruders throughout their work day, as tourists stop by to gawk at that wall of posters, watch the printing in the back, inquire about buying those hand-carved blocks, and ultimately settle for a souvenir re-strike of thirty Hatch classic posters available for purchase.

The enduring appeal of those posters only begins to suggest the contributions this shop has made to popular culture in the South over the last century. Considered disposable, in their time, those signs have a new audience. Sherraden is regularly invited to lecture on letterpress, and Hatch’s history in it, at schools and trade gatherings throughout the country.

Training Tomorrow’s Designers

Hatch_3Many of the interns who get to work a season at the shop first meet Sherraden at these lectures, eager to experience what seemed an endangered craft only a generation ago.

“Hatch’s program aims to provide these students an opportunity to learn about typography from the ground up, and [this] will inevitably make them a better digital graphic designer,” explains Sherraden.

The presses here are all are much older than the students—the latest model dating from the 1960s. The shop has four Vanderook Universals for standard-sized posters, and a Miehle for larger format work up to 28-by-42 inches.

Work is printed on International Paper’s Carolina C1S 15pt paper, Domtar’s Cougar Natural 80-pound cover weight, and French acid-free commercial paper. Bowers offset inks, with an opaque additive, have traditionally been used.

“This takes time,” notes intern Megan Fox from Marietta, Georgia, during a pause from a project on one of the Vandercook Universal presses. “I have to select and then put together the blocks in the composite frame, mix the inks by hand.

“You get a real feel for what you’re doing that’s just not possible when you design on a computer.”

A Real Appreciation

The letterpress look now so appealing to students has also brought new appreciation of the art and craft, as historically practiced at Hatch. After all, how many sign producers have their work featured in a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian?

American LetterPress, The Art of Hatch Show Print has been traveling museums throughout the country in a four-year tour which launched in 2008. Co-sponsored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it showcases 126 of Hatch’s historic and contemporary posters and 29 hand-carved blocks.

What’s more, a variation of the shop’s “make readies” for signs and posters— monoprints made from those historic blocks as a limited series by Sherraden— are now esteemed as something of an art in themselves. He’s had several gallery showings of what he describes as “a real celebration of our archive.”

Hand-crafted Authenticity

Hatch_5All this attention has only helped Hatch in what remains its primary purpose as a letterpress shop. What visitors and clients now appreciate—and the design community has really responded to—is the hand-crafted authenticity of the signs produced here. No two are ever exactly alike. In fact, an operator actually handles and evaluates every sign coming off the press.

That look (which can only be imitated with today’s digital methods) conveys an integrity designers and art directors want for whatever they’re marketing. Sherraden and staff have used letterpress to create designs for packaging for everything from trendy watches to ice cream.

The same sign posters the company once produced to promote upcoming shows are now sold as souvenirs at concerts for today’s leading performers. When Columbia Records wanted to convey some traditional cool for the recent compilation The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, they turned to Hatch for the cover design.

“We’ve always [catered] to the music industry, but what’s special now is the appreciation of our craft,” notes Sherraden. “One of the reasons we survived is because Nashville’s performers always needed posters to promote their shows.”

Struggles To Prosperity

Even that connection couldn’t spare Hatch many of the struggles that ultimately ran many other letterpress shops out of business.

When Sherraden first joined Hatch in the early 1980s, he didn’t see printing as his future. “I really was more interested in the history of Hatch and its collection than in the printing,” he admits. “It was a great opportunity to become part of a company which had contributed so much to ‘Southern Culture.’”

Those were lean times for letterpress: “The shop got into such a financial hole, that, by 1984, the risk of it being sold piecemeal or just sold was a reality,” says Sherraden.

Hatch_4Job orders were small and covered a little of everything—revivals, wrestling matches, stock car races, concerts at Vanderbilt university, and performances by local bluegrass and gospel acts.

With the help of Kenneth Hinson, a printer who joined Hatch before Sherraden’s arrival, the company survived, and Sherraden himself became a master of letterpress. “[Hinson] was a very humble person,” Sherraden says of his mentor, “and he taught me this by example.”

In the late 1980s, good things started happening for Hatch—some with immediate benefits, and some which wouldn’t pay off for several years.

In 1986, the company and its archives were acquired by Gaylord Entertainment, the owners of Nashville’s OpryLand theme park, and its historic work for country favorites was featured there.

In 1992, Gaylord donated the shop and all its holdings to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which now owns and operates Hatch as part of its holdings. The gesture recognized and validated the contributions and role Hatch posters had played in building an audience for the many stars of country’s golden era: Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, The Carter Family, and Roy Acuff to name just a few.

With that, the company moved from its old location (in the shadow of the Ryman) to its present 5,500-square foot home on lower Broadway. “Once we were on Broadway, several things happened at once,” recalls Sherraden.

Hatch_6_CMHOFAMThe popular appeal of CDs had record labels employing Hatch to give the covers of reissues of old recordings on disc a historic, authentic look.

“The advent of digital type brought phone calls from ad agencies wanting to use us as the alternative to the ‘same old digital stuff,” adds Sherraden. “And one booking agent, who used [us] for advertising his bands in the 70s, was now calling us and asking to create really nice posters to give to all those bands as gifts, after they had made the ‘Big Time.’”

All of this made Hatch Show Print that rare survivor for whom recognition comes before it’s too late. It’s resurgent success runs counter to the norm for letterpress.

The business is now self-supporting and profitable as a print and design shop, producing more than 600 projects per year.

Clients are loyal and patient: Job turnaround at Hatch averages five weeks, with the minimum print order for 100 posters running around $400.

Sherraden has played a pivotal role in Hatch’s turn-around, but he’s quick to credit everyone else for that success: his staff, the musicians and promoters who have always been the firm’s core customers, the benevolence of Gaylord Entertainment and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and those tourists who continually demonstrate their appreciation of the company (and all its represents) by making this one stop on their Nashville tour.

Hinson’s words help keep him grounded, wherever he goes, whatever challenge the day brings: “He was fond of saying something like, ‘I've been printing for sixty-three years, and I’m still learning,’” recalls Sherraden, “with the emphasis on the ‘still learning.’ This is sound advice for anyone who thinks they've learned it all.”

Spoken like a true printer.

NOTE: Below are photos of some of the posters that Hatch Show Print has produced.

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