In a pixelated world of images that dance across our screens and where laser printers spit out detailed images on glossy papers at lightning speeds, letterpress takes us back to time-tested methods that turn out colorful, embossed prints one piece of paper at a time for more than a century.
Letterpress printing, which is a technique of relief printing using a printing press, has gained a new level of popularity, helped along by folks including Oprah and Martha Stewart who have featured letterpress invitations in their popular magazines.
But for Louisville’s Hound Dog Press owners Nick Baute and Robert Ronk, their love of the old-fashioned art form started well before it gained its current popularity.
Baute and Ronk were fine art students at the University of Kentucky, experimenting with their own artistic expressions. Ronk, who grew up in Winchester, had a brother who was a printmaking major. His work, including that with wood cuts, exposed Ronk to the letterpress format.
After graduation, Baute, originally from Cincinnati, moved to New York and began working in a letterpress shop. Working in a shop that had functioned since the late 1700s, Baute began toying with the idea that he could start a business himself. During a visit to New York, Ronk and Baute started talking about joining forces to support their “habit” of their personal artistic endeavors.
Bringing Letterpress to Louisville
That eventually led to the college friends moving back to Kentucky and starting Hound Dog Press (1000 Barrett Ave.). The name stemmed from a hound dog Baute had in New York, and he started using the name for some work he produced there. It stuck, and now Daisy, the Bassett Hound who lounges around the shop, maintains the mascot role.
About 75 percent of Hound Dog’s business comes from local clients. And because each piece must be run by hand, individually on machines that are more than 100 years old, batch sizes are generally between 100 and 500 pieces. Wedding invitations, post cards, posters, business cards, stationery and other specialty projects are produced in the shop.
Baute and Ronk set up the shop to replicate what it would have been like in the heyday of letterpress, with retail in the front and the bustle of production visible for the public to see. It’s like stepping back in history.
Creating a Viable Business
When Baute and Ronk started building the business, letterpress as a viable business model was still in the early stages, so the partners had some luck finding equipment. That meant even acquiring some things for free, Baute says.
“We were still getting calls from grandmas and widows,” he says. “We got pretty lucky. We got in before the popularity really hit.”
Motivated by the desire to do what they loved, Baute and Ronk knew they weren’t on a path to becoming millionaires. They simply wanted to earn a living making art. So, they would head out to look at heaps of metal in barns, then find a way to haul it back to their work space. Initially, they worked full-time jobs, doing their letterpress work on the side and refurbishing the presses as they found them. Because of the community of letterpress operators, they were always able to get advice in restoring equipment or finding parts to repair machines.
In the early years, they kept it simple and had realistic expectations. Ronk slept on a cot in the shop. They ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“We didn’t try to go to big too early,” Ronk says.
First, they worked at a space in the Mellwood Art Center. Then they went to a space on Market Street. One year ago, they moved to their current space on Barrett Avenue where Germantown, the Highlands and Butchertown meet. They were just a shop of two with some interns. Now, they have a full-time and part-time employee and two interns.
“We’ve just grown organically,” Ronk says.
Amanda and Ty Bishop, owners of State Champs, a local sign painting and mural work company, have worked with Hound Dog Press on several projects, including having them print the couple’s wedding invitations. Ty Bishop, a graphic designer, has designed several things that Hound Dog has printed for clients.
“It makes him really happy when Ty sees any of his designs letter pressed,” Amanda Bishop says. “It lends this life to it that you can touch and feel. There’s so much life that comes from the pressing into the paper.”
For Bishop, who describes herself as a “complete luddite” who does not like technology, she says she appreciates the anti-technology aspect of the letterpress.
But that doesn’t mean it’s simple, Bishop says, adding that she appreciates that some of the designs can be quite complicated with the layering of the colors that can go on the presses.
Maggie Johnson came to Hound Dog four years ago as an intern studying graphic design at the University of Louisville and “completely fell in love with the process.”
Johnson says working with the inks and the presses was just more engaging than sitting at a computer, and she connected to it easier. Through working the presses, she learned about layering coloring and aligning graphics, pressing the images together to make the final product.
“You can see where the history of all our design software comes from,” she says. “It comes from this process.”
The papers are different. The colors are different. The weather changes how the rollers behave. The machines have different personalities. Johnson says it’s that personality, that character she believes connects to the clients that seek out letterpress.
“These machines are beautiful,” she says. “They are made to be aesthetically pleasing, little details here and there. There’s something about someone touching every single one. The personal detail is really attractive.”
Keeping it Authentic
Kristen Miller, who runs the Sarabande Writing Labs for Louisville-based nonprofit publisher Sarabande Books (2234 Dundee Rd.), has partnered with Hound Dog to publish anthologies of poetry produced through writing workshops serving women.
“Nick designs each of our beautiful covers personally,” Miller says. “It’s important that the physical product, the book itself, honors the richness of the work featured inside. I couldn’t be happier with each of Nick’s beautiful and considered designs.”
For Baute and Ronk, much more of their time these days is spent on running the business instead of the presses. That’s the reality of how the business has grown. But they are still the ones who deal directly with clients. You will still find them sitting at the table at a street fair or art fair event on the weekends.
It’s important to the owners to keep themselves integrated into each aspect of the business and keep it authentic. “There will always be at least one of us at everything,” Ronk says.