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Making a Life in Print

Jan 23, 2013

by Linzee McCray

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

There are those who bemoan the death of print in this digital age, but it’s alive and well in the life of Tim Fay. For the past 25 years, Fay has been the editor and publisher of the Wapsipinicon Almanac, an annual 160-page compendium of Midwestern-themed essays, stories, reviews, poetry, and artwork he produces in the shop attached to his home. In addition to printing it on a Miller flatbed 2-color cylinder press, folding, stitching, and trimming the paper, and scoring and gluing the covers, Fay is the almanac’s editor and publisher, sells and designs ads, and distributes the volume to bookstores, galleries, and co-ops from the trunk of his car.

Linzee McCray

Tim Fay’s shop includes equipment from defunct print shops across the Midwest.

“I thought it would be an interesting way to try and make a living,” says Fay. The Wapsipincon Almanac, with its print run of 1600 volumes, accounts for about half his income. The other half comes from small printing jobs — the day I visited he’d just run the 2013 events schedule for the Anamosa Bowhunters on his 1904 platen press. “I haven’t done a brochure in years,” says Fay, who acknowledges that job printing is on the downturn and that digital printing now comprises a significant chunk of the industry. “I do envelopes for dentists and the local quarry,” he says. “I’ve done a few books of poetry.”

The living Fay ekes out of his work is not for everyone. He keeps costs down by living in a building he constructed himself on a farm that’s been in his family since the Civil War. His half print shop/half house includes a woodstove that supplies heat on cold Iowa nights, a tiny kitchen occupying a corner of the living area, and a stairway that dominates the room’s center, leading to sleeping quarters. Printed material is stacked everywhere and between the bookshelves that line the walls hangs the artwork of local artists, friends, and Almanac contributors, including folks Fay approached in 1988, when he decided the time was right for a publication examining the ups and downs of rural and small town life.

A recent issue of the Wapsipinicon Almanac.

“I wasn’t seeing a lot of good journalism, so I went around selling ads and bothering people for essays,” he says. Today about half the almanac’s writers and artists submit their work for consideration to Fay, and the subject matter — often with environmental, historical, and political themes, frequently laced with humor — has expanded beyond Iowa to the Midwest.

Fay’s also expanded his printing skills over the years. His early interest in presses coincided with the beginning of the end of small print shops and meant that much of his printing education was catch-as-catch-can. “Presses were being junked and hauled away at the time,” he says of the 1970s and ‘80s. One of his first real teachers was Brother Mark, a monk at the nearby New Melleray Abbey, whom he met in 1977 and from whom he got his first press. “He was working on a big prayer book and I started going up there a lot,” says Fay. “When he died in 1996 they called me and asked me to ‘get rid of all this.’ Most everyone who is an expert in this stuff — printing an entire magazine as opposed to printing invitations — the people who know this level of the technology are dead.”

Linzee McCray

Folded signatures await collating in Fay’s printshop.

Today, Fay’s closest printing contemporary is 40 miles away and so he’s thankful for the rising interest in printing. “In the ‘80s, letterpress was just about dead, except for some very fine, high-end work,” says Fay. “I used to have to seek people out and now there are bookarts programs, and letterpress discussion groups on the Internet.”

While Fay loves printing, extolling the sturdiness of presses and sharing stories of old-time operators, he doesn’t romanticize the work. “There’s a reason letterpress printing is obsolete,” he says. “It’s hard, physical work, time consuming, and you use funky old equipment that takes a lot of maintenance and is not user friendly.”

He admits that he waits a couple of weeks after distributing issues of the Wapsipinicon Almanac to peruse it, and when he does, he sees mistakes. Still, the satisfaction of producing it, of working with talented writers and artists who care about the nuances of Midwestern life as much as he does, keeps him going.

“I like the process, I have the equipment, and it’s paid for and built to last forever,” he says. “There’s a look and feel to letterpress that you just can’t get with digital or offset printing that I like and people comment on. It’s not perfect but you notice a difference. I can’t think of anything I’d be doing that would be better work for me.”

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4 Featured Comments

  • PruAtelier

    Jeanne B from PruAtelier said 6 years ago Featured

    Another great story extoling the benefits of resurrecting old time craft and its idled machinery and tools into a modern world! The fine delicacy of old print garnered from tired old behemoth machinery is quite the contrast to today's flat looking items printed off the computer!

  • bdelpesco

    Belinda Del Pesco from bdelpesco said 6 years ago Featured

    What a great article. I just rented the film Linotype on itunes (http://www.linotypefilm.com/), where Tim and his shop are featured in an assortment of printmaker profiles. He's doing great work, and it's wonderful that you've featured him here to help keep passionate print lovers in front of other print lovers. Hats off to ink, and presses and the hands that bring them together!

  • haruaki

    Tiffany Key from resinjewelryHARUAKI said 6 years ago Featured

    I appreciate how candid Tim is here about hard-work and little monetary reward. He seems to be the type of person who wakes ready to get his hands dirty, a reward in of itself.

  • girlprinter

    Carolyn Fraser said 6 years ago Featured

    Thanks for this profile, Linzee. The resurgence of interest in letterpress over the past decade or so has mostly come about because of social stationery. A little lost in this I think are the people printing what used to be described as "amateur journalism" and the fine press book people. I'm fascinated by what these people write and make.

65 comments

  • KnobhillCrafts

    Jeff, Luann Summers from KnobhillCrafts said 6 years ago

    wow, what a picture. I too was a printer, using a linotype and heidelberg 10x15 printing press. I relish when I see the type cases for sale in flea markets. It bring back the good ole times and great memories.

  • byDelirium

    Angela from DeliriumAccessories said 6 years ago

    Amazing!!

  • seasidecloth

    seasidecloth from seasidecloth said 6 years ago

    This is such a great story. Love the photos of printmaking and the equipment. Best to you and congrats on your feature !

  • SusanFaye

    Susan Faye from SusanFayePetProjects said 6 years ago

    There is something so beautiful about "old-fashioned" printing of words and art on paper-- Kudos to you for keeping this beautiful art alive and living a life that is honest , sustainable and meaningful! Best wishes for continued success.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    Such a great story. It must feel amazing to be able to keep this art alive. Your work is beautiful!

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 6 years ago

    Smart! All the best!

  • vinylclockwork

    Scott from vinylclockwork said 6 years ago

    Awesome stuff great story

  • AlisaDesign

    Alisa from AlisaDesign said 6 years ago

    Fantastic article!

  • jamasters

    Jess Masters from RefinedRock said 6 years ago

    Great story-very inspiring. Being born and raised in Iowa myself I appreciate hard work and the well earned benefits!

  • lucysangster

    Lucy Sangster from UseOrOrnament said 6 years ago

    Learning an arcane art from a monk sounds like the start of a great novel :-) thanks for sharing your passion, your house sounds amazing too!

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 6 years ago

    Amazing ! Working space adorable !

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 6 years ago

    The dying and rebirth of print described in this promising post brings to mind the revival of interest in *real mail*. Websites like Postcrossing and The Letter Writer's Alliance have rekindled this growing flame. I am proud of Tim in his noble efforts to keep print alive, just as I myself am proud to be a part of and a promoter of the renewed postal interest in mail. There is a tangible, intimate quality of physical letters and postcards; of newspapers and pamphlets. And there is a certain magic about old print shops and post offices you just cannot find any where else.

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 6 years ago

    Tim, thanks for keeping an amazing art form alive. I've printed cards and small prints on a letterpress and know how hard it is -- I can't imagine doing a whole magazine! Hopefully there are a couple people studying at your knee.

  • PruAtelier

    Jeanne B from PruAtelier said 6 years ago Featured

    Another great story extoling the benefits of resurrecting old time craft and its idled machinery and tools into a modern world! The fine delicacy of old print garnered from tired old behemoth machinery is quite the contrast to today's flat looking items printed off the computer!

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 6 years ago

    Great great! I completely enjoyed reading this.

  • aostudio9

    Adrienne from DabAndDabble said 6 years ago

    My Grandfather had a print shop and seeing this photo I'm reminded of the cacaphony of machines in motion and the sharp smell of printing solutions. Definately an influence on my love of typography, photography and books. I love that you can access books through technology but nothing can really duplicate the feel of a book in your hands.

  • LoveButtons

    Julia K Walton from FireHorseVintageHQ said 6 years ago

    Beautiful work!

  • furniply

    Ingus Jākobsons from Furniply said 6 years ago

    Great story!

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 6 years ago

    Awesome article and your work!

  • HereandThereShop

    HereandThereShop from HereandThereShop said 6 years ago

    Great article. It is so nice to hear how much he enjoys what he does....

  • designlab443

    Tracy from designlab443 said 6 years ago

    Letterpress printing is so lovely, it has a great history to it... thanks for sharing the story.

  • WoodenItBeadLovely

    Leslie M from WoodenItBeadLovely said 6 years ago

    The paper, ink, and books. The textures, smells and the crackle of pages turned. The uneven print that adds such character, charms the eye and sometimes communicates more than the subject itself does. All of these things appeal to the heart and soul. They have the power to catch our attention, slow us down, make us think. We are reminded of where we have come from: hard work, acquired skills, grit and determination. It is great to see that we have not lost this valuable medium! Kudos to Mr. Fay and thank you to Ms. McCray for sharing!

  • gescate

    Gino Escate from Gygante said 6 years ago

    Great story!

  • thebibliophile

    thebibliophile from thebibliophile said 6 years ago

    Wow, brilliant story, it's so nice to see that there's still interested in these things even in the digital age!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 6 years ago

    I hope Tim has an apprentice to pass his knowledge on to, & his equipment in due course, this kind of art/skill/craft should not be lost.

  • ProfessorTiny

    Susan Sanford from ProfessorTiny said 6 years ago

    Wonderful read, I have forwarded the link to a couple of friends, one a printmaker and the other a letterpress printer. It is very heartening to read about a place for this traditional work in the community.

  • bdelpesco

    Belinda Del Pesco from bdelpesco said 6 years ago Featured

    What a great article. I just rented the film Linotype on itunes (http://www.linotypefilm.com/), where Tim and his shop are featured in an assortment of printmaker profiles. He's doing great work, and it's wonderful that you've featured him here to help keep passionate print lovers in front of other print lovers. Hats off to ink, and presses and the hands that bring them together!

  • olusholaj

    Shola from YarningKnots said 6 years ago

    "The beatings will continue until morale improves. ~Management"

  • Lberks

    Linda Berkson said 6 years ago

    A subject close to my heart. Love letterpress, or any print items. Great to see someone is preserving this form of communication. Bravo!

  • GladysGlover

    GladysGlover from GladysGlover said 6 years ago

    Way to go, Tim. Always a big fan of the Wapsipinicon Almanac, from Galena.

  • LovelyFurnishings

    Carlos Alberto Renteria from LovelyFurnishings said 6 years ago

    Lovely article. Wish it had more pictures. His work is a true passion, keep it going!

  • ladygatsby1

    Martha Muthoni from LadyGatsbyLuxePaper said 6 years ago

    Awesome. Loved this so much. Thank you.

  • FireLake

    Kay from FireLake said 6 years ago

    Really an inspirational story. It takes genuine passion to work hard at a craft and keep it alive. Well done!

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts said 6 years ago

    It's so good to see someone keeping an old art form alive! Sounds very labor intensive, but the results must be worth the effort! Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it!

  • SamSammie

    Sam from SamieSam said 6 years ago

    Love all those drawers of type. Really exciting! Keep printing!

  • DewyMorningVintage

    DewyMorningVintage from DewyMorningVintage said 6 years ago

    Love the vintage feel! It is great to see an old process still in the works today. :)

  • luckyduckletterpress

    Patrick Barrett from luckyduckletterpress said 6 years ago

    Nice article! Keep up the great work!

  • Waterrose

    Rose Waterrose from Waterrose said 6 years ago

    It's so nice to see those printing presses! Thanks for keeping it alive!

  • tishalee2

    Tisha Lee from TishaLeeSmith said 6 years ago

    What a great story, thank you!

  • LucyRoseDesigns

    Kelly from LucyRoseDesigns said 6 years ago

    What excellent work you do, sounds like a lot of hard work to produce the Wapsipincon Almanac, must be wonderful to get to read one. Keep up the great work!!

  • hubinshow

    hubinshow from hubinshow said 6 years ago

    Meticulous work with pleasure!

  • FreshFromtheFlame

    FreshFromtheFlame from FreshFromtheFlame said 6 years ago

    Handmade at its finest.

  • SPAULEY

    Susan Pauley from SPAULEY said 6 years ago

    I have 30 years of ink under my fingernails. Thanks for this article, Linzee.

  • gaiadesignstudios

    gaiadesignstudios from GaiaDesignStudios said 6 years ago

    what a great story!

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 6 years ago

    I'm so glad to know there's still someone printing an almanac by hand like this. Great story. Thanks!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 6 years ago

    Wonderful story...I love when someone actually works hard to preserve a skill of the past....attempting to keep it alive....You see skills like this becoming a thing of the past.....Kudos to you!

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 6 years ago

    Good story.

  • GourmetHandbags

    Sonya from GourmetHandbags said 6 years ago

    The digital age has its benefits but so much tradition gets lost and done away with. I’m glad some people are keeping it alive.

  • iris756

    IrisLighting from iLighting said 6 years ago

    Print work is really an art form. It should be more appreciated.

  • haruaki

    Tiffany Key from resinjewelryHARUAKI said 6 years ago Featured

    I appreciate how candid Tim is here about hard-work and little monetary reward. He seems to be the type of person who wakes ready to get his hands dirty, a reward in of itself.

  • GrowingUpWild

    Kelly Engel from GrowingUpWild said 6 years ago

    I love to see this art form being preserved! This almanac would be such cozy reading material for a weekend in the woods. I will definitely be getting it for my husband for his birthday. Congratulations on the feature and thanks for doing what you do!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    Fascinating stuff, I always find these peeks into other peoples lives interesting just goes to show you can do what you love in life.

  • saulebaltaa

    Liga from DIYDigitalStudio said 6 years ago

    Amaizing!

  • christinacountryman

    Christina from PupukeaGirlVintage said 6 years ago

    Good for You! Awesome Work!

  • EurekaGuides

    Eureka Internet Guides from EurekaGuides said 6 years ago

    Amazing to see this set up and get a glimpse into a world I know nothing about.

  • girlprinter

    Carolyn Fraser said 6 years ago Featured

    Thanks for this profile, Linzee. The resurgence of interest in letterpress over the past decade or so has mostly come about because of social stationery. A little lost in this I think are the people printing what used to be described as "amateur journalism" and the fine press book people. I'm fascinated by what these people write and make.

  • kgpaintings

    Kirsten Gilmore from PaintingsByKEGilmore said 6 years ago

    I appreciate that you are willing to put in the extra work with an older method to get the artistic results you want. I think that certain sort of stubbornness is a good trait. :) I love hand drawing with pen and ink and a variety of nibs for just the same reason: quality trumps convenience.

  • theMagiciansCat

    Cassidy Millar from TheMagiciansCat said 6 years ago

    So incredible and inspirational!

  • CindyEllison

    Cindy Ellison from CindyEllison said 6 years ago

    What a story! I love it! This is such a blessing that the equipment fell into loving hands.

  • nativestrandsjewelry

    Rachel from PeppersJewelry said 6 years ago

    The pictures of the shop are amazing.

  • jadlimcaco

    Jad Limcaco from StunningScriptures said 6 years ago

    Great story! This is something that I wish I could learn!

  • StayArtisan

    J.K. Ramirez from HudsonBlueArtisans said 6 years ago

    Great story! I tip my hat to you sir. A Franklin.

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 from breadandroses2 said 6 years ago

    " I try, with the Almanac, to avoid the slickness (in content and appearance) that, I think, cheapens so many publications." Wise words and so applicable to much of what is touted as 'Handmade' these days. Tim Fay would garner the respect of Henry David Thoreau and surely has mine. Thank you so much!

  • DavidMcconochie

    David McConochie from DavidMcconochie said 6 years ago

    These old techniques definitely lend something intagible. I think being aware of the process and the imperfetions really adds a dimension.

  • butikonline83

    Hendri . from butikonline83 said 6 years ago

    I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this special read. I definitely savored every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

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