Lincoln Park move helps boost Duluth printing business
“Most press people that I've run into ... many have fewer than 10 fingers," Janelle Miller said. While two were bandaged during a News Tribune visit, the Duluth woman had all 10.
Janelle Miller pumps a cast-iron lever with her foot. Large wheels churn and spin as she hand-feeds single sheet after sheet to capture a fresh layer of ink in her letterpress printer.
Miller can produce about 400 pieces of art an hour on this machine that weighs 2,500 pounds and was built in the early 1900s. And, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re not production. We’re not running thousands and thousands of things. Honestly, we don’t want to,” she said.
Miller and Stacie Renne are behind Duluth’s Warrior Printress Letterpress & Design. They print custom wedding invitations, business cards and posters for Duluth Coffee Company, Tortoise and Hare and the Duluth Art Institute.
Their aesthetic is a mix of whimsical and funny with statements close to their values, Miller said.
Among their works: A framed sign reads “love wins” in all caps; a minimalist winking Santa design hovers above a “you sleigh me” greeting; and “Duluth: As queer as you are” pops on top of rainbow-colored letters.
Letterpress printers fell by the wayside in the 1980s.
“Literally, people were just dumping these because what are they going to do with it? It’s a 2,000-pound paperweight,” Miller said.
“It’s a great sort of steampunk piece of art in itself,” Renne said.
While computers led to its demise, they’re now aiding a revival.
The craft of letterpress printing, which calls for the backward and upside-down arrangement of wood or metal blocks for a single design, can now be accomplished by printing a digital design on polymer plastic plates.
Combining the old and new is how they keep the business alive, Miller said.
Miller runs the antique equipment; Renne homes in on the graphic arts.
“A yin and yang of design and printmaking,” Renne added.
Miller started Warrior Printress in 2012 after spending years as an apprentice at Canal Park’s Kenspeckle Letterpress.
The craft is an odd balance of being obsessively detail-oriented and making things up on the fly. You need to have a mechanical aptitude and a certain creative problem-solving — and Miller has it all, her mentor, Rick Allen of Kenspeckle Letterpress, said.
“In the time she worked with us, she really became our printer,” he recalled. “With the machine and projects we were doing, I was listening to her recommendations.”
It’s the hopeful transition of any teacher-student relationship: Someone becoming confident and independent in their skills and knowledge, to then apply that, Allen added.
The pandemic prompted Allen to scale back his business, leading to a move for Warrior Printress, which worked in their favor.
“If it’s possible to fly with 1,500 pounds of cast iron, they’ve done it,” Allen said.
Relocated in the back of Duluth Pottery, Warrior Printress is afforded increased visibility with clients, a storefront space to regularly sell their work, and a larger creative environment.
Standing in their Lincoln Park spot, Renne demonstrated how they use their paper cutter, aptly named "RBG" because it’s cutting-edge and precise, Miller said.
Nothing about this process is about speed, said Renne, who joined the business in 2018. It’s all hand-cut, hand-printed, hand-folded.
Because of that, they each touch a single work about 20 times, and many things can go wrong.
Each letter of their wood or metal type can have a slightly different height.
Paper can be remarkably different between batches, you need to know how it takes and holds ink, and you’re always aiming for consistency in a custom job.
It can take a week to stock the particular paper, and a week to print, fold and trim projects. Type is a nonrenewable resource, so there’s extra care to maintain all elements of their tools and equipment — and they’re consistently on the hunt for more.
For repairs, they can jump on a waiting list for a specialized technician. There’s also an online forum and the original manuals to reference. Miller recently milled a replacement piece for the press out of necessity.
And there’s definitely some risk involved in handling the antique equipment.
“Most press people that I've run into in my roughly 15 years printing, many have fewer than 10 fingers,” Miller said.
The presses are pretty low maintenance — they’re covered at night to reduce exposure to dust and they run as well-oiled machines. Literally.
Dry gears will cause problems.
“A puddle of oil under your press is not a bad thing,” Miller said, recalling Allen’s advice.
It all adds to the uniqueness of their works and the gratifying parts.
“I’m an artist through and through. ... I get to do what I think I’m on the planet to do,” Miller said.
“The beauty of what we do, it's not perfect — that’s kind of the whole point of it. Perfect is boring and not real.
“Maybe it's all perfect, and that’s truer,” Miller said.
Rachel Wagner, co-founder and interim executive director of Green New Deal Homes, hired Warrior Printress to create their logo and 150 hand-printed items to be used as thank-yous and acknowledgments.
“We’re kindred spirits in business,” Wagner said.
“Everything shouldn’t be digital,” she continued. “Sometimes, the way that you move forward is with a handwritten note of request or reaching out, trying to establish a relationship. I have 150 chances to do that now."
What’s in a name?
Janelle Miller took fandom to the next level.
Warrior Printress, the letterpress and design business she shares with Stacie Renne, bears an homage to television character Xena: Warrior Princess.
Rick Allen, of Kenspeckle Letterpress, combined her early-aughts obsession with the show into the catchy business name it is today.
“We had started to call her our 'warrior printress,'" Allen said.
The name is one people often flub, which Miller attributes to the popularity of content-sharing site Pinterest.
Miller is proud of the name and is quick to correct when and if needed.
“It’s 'Print-ress;' we’re printers,” she said.
“And warriors,” Renne added.
“We’re warriors, too; we want to be fierce printers,” Miller said.