Jeff Mueller of Dexterity Press

Pressing Business

Dexterity Press is a suitable name for the fine art press Jeff Mueller runs out of an Erector Square studio, in part because of the deftness required to print with Mueller’s 1905 Chandler & Price press. Participants in a letterpress workshop look a little bit nervous as they prepare to feed paper into the otherwise automated machine. They settle their stance and hover their hands over a pile of postcards printed with “HOPE” in red ink. They’re about to emboss an image of paper cranes onto the printed cards.

The press, which Mueller rescued from beneath a pile of junk in a studio down the hall—“the guy just said, ‘Get it out of here’”—has a large flywheel on one side. An ink disk bigger than a pizza tray rests on an angle at just about eye level. When the press is running, rollers travel from an ink reservoir at the top, over the disk and downward, passing over a vertically positioned “chase” that holds the design plate. As the rollers travel back up, the machine presses paper to the design plate, the two meeting and parting like the opening and closing of a suitcase or a giant waffle iron.

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The movement isn’t fast, but it isn’t slow, either. As you might imagine of a 1905 machine, some clanking accompanies the whir of the old motor. It won’t stop for you, so you have to tuck your card into the guides, watch it fold in against the design plate, then pull it out and replace it with the next card in one fluid motion, human and machine in perfect cooperation. Mueller has an obvious affinity for this antique. “At its highest speed, I can pull about 4 or 5,000 impressions on this press in a day,” he says. Though they aren’t quite as confident, the three women taking today’s workshop get the hang of it, too.

It’s not often that Mueller invites would-be printers into the studio. A couple of times a year, he runs a small workshop to teach people how the presses work and give them a chance to print a few projects. Today those include the postcards, individualized calling cards and a broadside—a poster of red type on chartreuse yellow color blocks that proclaims, “We find constant truth in nature where the heart always wins.” An image of heart-shaped red leaves on curling stems evokes arteries and veins.

Mueller’s interest in letterpress printing began with an interest in music. “I was looking for an interesting way to package my records,” he says. A friend was making LP and CD packaging that he liked, so he asked if he could learn the trade. “It’s been a labor of love ever since.”

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Mueller and his spouse, Kerri Sancomb, originally started Dexterity Press together in Chicago. They had met at the Kansas City Art Institute, where Sancomb earned her BFA (she later earned an MFA in Philadelphia) in printmaking and book arts. Mueller credits her with much of his artistry. “I steal from her all the time,” he says. “My stuff tends to be a lot more uptight… She has a much looser approach to composition,” he explains, adding that Sancomb’s “printing technique is perfect.”

The Chicago shop was taking in work from all over the country, so when Mueller and Sancomb made the move to New Haven in 2010—Sancomb is originally from Hamden—they were able to bring much of it with them. They set up shop in a different Erector Square studio than the one they’re in today, “and I was printing a job the day after we got here,” Mueller says. Sancomb still joins him in the studio on occasion for workshops and special projects, though she works full-time as an exhibits production manager at Yale’s libraries.

Letterpress printing is “relief-style” printmaking. Paper is pressed onto a raised image, usually “cut” onto a metal plate using a photo-etching process. Design plates might also be cut by hand in a material like wood or linoleum. Letterpress printing was at its peak in the early- to mid-1900s, Mueller says, after which offset printing “completely took over.” “Most people come to us when they have a project that they want it to feel more like it was done by hand and… a little bit more care was put into the actual manufacture of it,” he says. The 1905 press, in particular, “has a lot more of the hallmarks that you might recognize as being from letterpress, like broken-up type and sort of distressed and not super-elegant… Just kind of chewed up and gritty, and it has a little bit of story to it,” Mueller says. “People design fonts for thousands of dollars that sort of look like what this press just does naturally.”

Indeed, Mueller’s signature broadsides are beautiful, tactile posters combining blocky, somewhat distressed text with intriguing designs, often printed in just one or two bold colors. “Everything I print is more image-heavy than word-heavy,” he says, but he adds that the “marriage of words and images” has always appealed to him.

At the workshop, participants print the broadsides on a different press, a 1955 Vandercook proof press. (On this machine, Mueller can only print about 1,500 pieces a day, though the quality will be better.) Janna Wagner is taking her second Dexterity Press workshop. “I got interested in letterpress because I love stationery,” she says. She used to wonder why one little card cost eight dollars, but “after I had experienced it, I realized that card should be… 16 dollars because the time and effort that it really takes to create each piece is really a lot.”

In addition to the literal skill it takes to produce a beautiful postcard or calling card or broadside, there’s also skill involved in juggling the projects in this one-man shop. Mueller prints wedding invitations, artwork for illustrators, music packaging, business cards, stationery—“anything that comes in the door that we can print, we do.” One piece at a time, with dexterity.

Dexterity Press
Erector Square – 315 Peck St, New Haven (map)
(312) 213-4453 |

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, of Jeff Mueller, photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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