Rediscovering the art of the printing press

by Eric Ginsburg

It`s hard to fully appreciate how much work goes into each print Ben Saperstein makes without witnessing the process. Operating a lever with one hand and a pedal with his foot, Saperstein was standing poised to snatch a greeting card out of the press with his other hand. If he isn’t quick enough, the card will roll under part of his printing press, getting entangled and either coming out bent or smeared with ink.

He makes it look easy, and so when he asks if I want to try plucking the cards I accept. Even though my only task is pulling the cards out in time, I still botch the first few and others periodically after, gaining yet another level of respect for the process. It’s 12:30 a.m. on a Monday night, and Saperstein has a few hours left before these cards will be complete. They’re the size of a postcard, and with two colors of ink on each side, each card must go through the press four times before it’s done. Multiply the task by nearly 400 cards, and it becomes clear why the process is so time-consuming. But Saperstein loves it. After wanting to do print making for six years, craving a more tangible and higher quality product in his design work, he found a hobby press that was really more of a toy.

He would sit in his room until 4 a.m. playing with the press until he started to get the results he wanted. It wasn’t until he discovered that there was a press in town selling a production printing press that his aspirations became more than an “isolated obsession.” Saperstein bought a Vandercook Universal 1, which he said is practical and versatile while remaining far more affordable than his dream press, though it still weighs around 2,000 pounds.

“There was no way to do it here [in Greensboro] without just going for it,” he said, explaining that he took a workshop outside DC but that resources here are limited. For each part of the print, he has to sort through a large tray subdivided into sections for each letter, number or symbol. The lead type quickly leaves a black finish on fingertips, and much of the lettering is so small it’s easy to confuse a comma for a period until after a test print. Printmaking, for now, is something Saperstein usually does when he

has extra time, either when he is contracted or when he’s doing it at-cost for friends. The package of red rags, used to clean off the ink rollers between colors, will be used up faster than the other supplies stored in his studio on the ground floor of the complex on the corner of South Elm and Lee Street. He splits the space with three friends who work in widely divergent mediums, with his filing cabinet of typeface, press and supplies tucked into the back corner. A recent print job — packaging for a Thou/Hell 7-inch split — proved to be the most challenging, in part because of the thickness of the sheets made scoring and folding difficult. As a primarily self-taught printmaker, he has figured out how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of his machine, occasionally growing frustrated with troubleshooting and being unsure how to fix printing errors.

The work pays off. The 7-inch split and business-size cards for the Greensboro Industrial Workers of the World, with one side full-bleed red coloring, are his favorite pieces. Troubleshooting also frequently leads to a better understanding of the process and his press. When he was printing the postcard-size cards, Saperstein couldn’t figure out why small red lines were showing up under a star. After feeding the paper in differently and toying with the type, he was able to print smoothly.

Saperstein recently applied to California College of the Arts to pursue his design talents in an academic setting. He would have to get a truck and drive his press across the country, because he’s not interested in giv- ing it up, and he would have to spend three to four times as much for the same press. With the Minneapolis-based Studio on Fire as inspiration, practical experience and possible academic training, it’s likely we’ll be seeing Saperstein’s work for years to come.

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