Big Wheel Press keeps fading art of letterpress alive

  • Lead printer Chris Campbell uses a Heidelberg windmill press from the late 1960s to create cards last week at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lead printer Chris Campbell runs a Heidelberg windmill press from the late 1960s on July 19, 2017, at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller displays old wood type sometimes used at Big Wheel Press. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller talks about his Vandercook proof press from the 1960s. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lead printer Chris Campbell runs a Heidelberg windmill press from the late 1960s July 19, 2017 at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller displays cards printed using letterpress July 19, 2017 at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lead printer Chris Campbell oils a Heidelberg windmill press from the late 1960s July 19, 2017 at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton.

  • Cards printed on a letterpress are displayed at Big Wheel Press. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller runs a platen press from the 1920s on July 19, 2017, at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton.

  • A copper plate which is used to foil-stamp cards, at left, is shown with the card. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller displays broadside prints at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller talks about how he uses a modern attachment atop a Heidelberg press from the early 1950s to foil stamp cards,July 19, 2017, at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Owner William Muller displays award-winning cards on July 19, 2017.  The cards were printed using a letterpress at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Big Wheel Press lead printer Chris Campbell inspects a card he made using a Heidelberg windmill press from the late 1960s. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Lead printer Chris Campbell uses green ink to print on cards using a Heidelberg windmill press from the late 1960s on July 19, 2017, at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@NyssaKruse
Published: 7/23/2017 5:10:51 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Tucked away inside a sunny studio on Cottage Street, William Muller raises the dead — figuratively speaking, of course.

He has about 20 chuffing and whirring beasts in his shop, many of which he coaxed back to life after they were left for dead in dumpsters and dark basements.

His creatures were once thought to be a species close to extinction, but thanks to the care of specialists like him, they’re now thriving.

Muller, owner of Big Wheel Press, rescues and restores giant letterpress printing machines dating from the 1860s through the 1970s. He uses them to make specialized greeting cards, posters and more.

“We get called for rescues in print shops that close down,” he said. “We show up with a big truck and don’t know what we’ll find.”

Letterpress, a technique which dates at least to the 1400s, was once used to print everything from newspapers to greeting cards, but it went out of style in the 1970s and ’80s thanks to technological innovations.

The style is now seeing a renaissance in part due to a modern taste for all things vintage. But letterpress requires people like Muller to find and restore the machines and people to learn the technique, which most art schools have stopped teaching.

A rare breed

Muller, who opened Big Wheel Press in 2006, estimates only about 300 operations across the United States currently use letterpress printing and only about 50 are as big as his.

Though letterpress is already a rare technique, Muller has made his print shop even more specialized.

One of his machines can cut and press foil onto cards. He hired a bookbinder, so the shop now designs and binds notebooks in-house.

Big Wheel Press is also one just a handful of known shops in the world that can still cast Hebrew and Yiddish type. Most of the brass molds used to cast type were melted down during World War II or sold for scrap, but Muller found a collection of Hebrew molds a few years ago in a basement of a Massachusetts printing museum.

Muller, who is Jewish, uses the molds to make type for Jewish holiday cards and wedding contracts, called a ketubah.

“We like getting projects no one else can do,” Muller said.

Though Muller declined to say how many greeting cards he sells annually, one particularly popular baby card has been bought 5,000 times in a year.

The card typifies the multimedia style of many Big Wheel Press designs, featuring a fabric insert, letterpressed text and a cut-out of a baby onesie. It won a LOUIE, an industry award, this year in the category of baby cards over $4. Muller beat Hallmark for the honor.

Another of Muller’s designs, which shows a giant screw illustration above the word “cancer,” previously won the same award in 2016, though in a different category.

Big Wheel Press’s projects are designed by Muller and four other designers who live everywhere from Northampton to Brighton, England. The shop distributes cards to businesses across the world and does work with big names like Turner Classic Movies, Fujifilm, and the Container Store.

“We’re in about 1,000 stores right now, everywhere from Japan to England,” Muller said.

Big Wheel Press cards can be bought locally at Guild Art Supply, Kestrel and Cedar Chest in Northampton and at Amherst Books and A.J. Hastings in Amherst. Muller also owns Guild Art Supply.

Beyond cards, posters and notebooks, Big Wheel Press also designs and prints custom wedding invitations. Muller said they work on invitations for about 100 different wedding clients annually, though other letterpress shops often do thousands of wedding invitation projects.

“Letterpress would be dying out, but it became popular for wedding invitations,” Muller said. “People love the texture. They really want to feel it.”

Personal journey

Muller’s personal history with printing began when he was a kid. His parents bought him a tabletop printing press in 1964, which he used to make greeting cards and a newspaper for his family. Cards were also beloved by his mother, who Muller said sent them out for every holiday.

Now, he shares this family passion with thousands.

“I can come in with an idea and make it real and print it,” Muller said. “I can create things people love and make people feel good.”




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