They stopped making the Heidelberg Windmill printing press in the late 1970s because technology had moved on and we were headed, whether we knew it then or not, into an age where more and more of what we read and watched was digitized on screens, not pressed into paper.
Google and Wi-Fi and Wikipedia would become everyday words, and our 45th president would make news simply because of what he tweeted. If you wanted to know what letterpress printing was, you either had to Google it or make the drive, as we did on a recent weekday morning, to the outskirts of Grass Valley, turn onto a long, narrow private road and make your way to a 14-acre secluded hilltop.
In a building that’s as much a museum as it is a production facility, four employees and several Heidelbergs are still cranking out work the old-fashioned way. The hulking black Heidelbergs, with levers, knobs, rollers and plates, hiss, hum and go clickety-clack, over and over. It’s quality ink on high-grade paper, and the words seem so impressive and permanent that you can’t help but run your fingers gently across the page, as if to confirm in a tactile way what your eyes are telling you.
Full Circle Press and proprietor Judith Berliner may be throwbacks in this fast-paced, high-tech, 21st-century world of ours, but she and her small staff believe they are still making a difference and doing something that matters.
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“There is a still a select group of people who want to put invitations in the mail and want to give people a really beautiful business card,” Berliner said. “In a world where everything is really flat and the bar has been lowered when it comes to printing, it becomes like a little gift. I know for a fact that people will hold onto a business card that has been printed letterpress longer. They might not even know why, but they keep it.”
Her small but devoted list of high-end clients, which include tech powerhouses and world-class restaurants, seems to agree.
“We’re doing handcrafted wines. The market that we aim to have is those with a discerning palate who are interested in collecting,” said Wesley Steffens, general manager and associate winemaker of Vineyard 7 & 8 in St. Helena. “We love the fact that each step of the printing process mirrors that and the old way of letter-pressing just gives it that much more soul. It’s who they are as people.”
The boutique winery has Full Circle print business cards, letterhead, press kits and special menus for events and holidays.
“It’s trying not to miss a detail. For us, it’s all about how we present our wines. It definitely becomes a conversation piece,” Steffens added.
Full Circle was the company Apple called upon in October 2011 to print the programs for Steve Jobs’ memorial service – FedEx delivered special paper, and a private courier dispatched from Cupertino waited in the parking lot while Berliner and crew revved up the Heidelbergs and printed into the wee hours.
“We cried all the way through that one,” Berliner said.
“Goose-bumpy. It was totally an honor,” added longtime employee Liz Thiem, the creative director who also handles sales and marketing.
The French Laundry, the renowned Michelin three-star restaurant in Yountville, uses Full Circle Press because those in charge know first impressions matter. The restaurant also enlisted Full Circle to print the exclusive menu for French Laundry founder Thomas Keller’s 60th birthday. “TK6T,” as the menu was called in 2015, featured a platter with pickles, okra and deviled eggs, and a main course of bone-in rib eye, roasted salmon and buttermilk fried chicken. If you were lucky enough to get invited, there’s a good chance you were smart enough to take the menu home and get it framed.
The Kitchen, Sacramento’s most expensive restaurant, has had its monthly prix fixe menus printed in Grass Valley since 2014, when it was looking for new ways to elevate even the smallest of details.
“Details are everything. It’s the detail that sets it apart,” said Josh Nelson, co-founder of The Kitchen and CEO of Selland Family Restaurants. “It’s not necessarily just how it looks. It has a lot to do with how it feels when you pick it up. It’s probably as much the intangible as it is the tangible part of it.”
Indeed, many who pick up a menu printed on a letterpress may not even know how it works or why it matters, but there’s a good chance they get the message subconsciously. Beyond menus for premier restaurants, Full Circle prints high-end business cards, wedding invitations and all kinds of other things in the luxury marketplace.
“It sets the tone for the event. The thickness of the paper, the way the ink sets on the paper, the detail. We hold the bar real high on our quality control,” Berliner said.
Berliner has a rich history in printing going back decades, beginning with her late father, Harold Berliner, a former Nevada County district attorney, bibliophile and Renaissance man. He is credited with writing the words to the original Miranda warning in the late 1960s – “You have the right to remain silent” – and Judith Berliner remembers as a 14-year-old printing up Miranda warning cards that would be shipped off to law enforcement agencies throughout the nation. Her father also ran a boutique press that printed limited-edition, hand-bound books for collectors.
“I think he paid me like 50 cents an hour,” she said, recalling her work on the Miranda warning. “We are all very proud that my dad wrote that and we’re sorry we didn’t get a penny every time somebody said it. It’s one of the most quoted paragraphs because of all of the cops-and-robbers shows. My ears perk up whenever I hear it, and I’ll say, ‘My dad wrote that.’ ”
As a young woman, she couldn’t wait to move out of Grass Valley for a more urban life and she worked for a time in the printing industry in Sacramento. In 1991, Berliner returned home and launched Full Circle Press. The name is autobiographical, and she works at the family compound where much of her father’s old monotype and linotype equipment remain on display.
Maybe it’s something of the rebel in her that has her reading books on her Kindle, though she still likes to keep a stack of paper volumes on her nightstand. Many of her longtime clients, including Apple, are as high-tech as they come, though there’s something about ink and paper that keeps them coming back under special circumstances.
“We are one of a very select group of species on this planet where we have these acute senses and an emotional capacity to appreciate them,” said Stanlee Gatti, a San Francisco event planner and longtime Full Circle client. “One of those senses is touch and feel, the way our eyes see things. We’re really moving into a world of seeing things one way – off of a blue screen. It’s not that I don’t want things to progress, but I’m one of those who still values the diversity of the creative process.”
Letterpress, Berliner explained, is a form of relief printing using plates of a raised surface coated with ink. The process is versatile, including ink on paper, foil on paper and a few other specialty applications. Nothing is rushed. The detail is painstaking. Perfection is the only standard they know.
When Full Circle gets an assignment from a client, employee Nathaniel Cartmell gets the process started by taking the materials in PDF format and turning that into a piece of film placed over a section of photo-sensitive material. It’s exposed to ultraviolet light, which turns the plate into a mirror-image stamp to be used on the press. It’s a meticulous, time-consuming process that is fast becoming a lost art.
“I find value in anything where you pay attention to the idiosyncrasies. How much time we spend at every single part of the process. It makes a product where, when you hold it in your hand, you can see the amount of time that was spent on it,” he said.
Those plates with the raised letters in mirror image are then taken to one of the Heidelbergs in the next room, where Berliner or senior pressman Ethan Cameron oversees the printing on machines that were made as far back as the 1950s.
“We have a stack of paper and this tray is going up incrementally. Each time it goes up, there’s air that comes up and separates the top few sheets. … The ink comes to the paper on rollers, and the ink rolls over the plate, which is then pressed into the paper,” he said as the machine was in motion. It generally takes a second or two per page.
Asked what he tells his friends when the topic of job descriptions comes up, he said, “No one really knows what I do. It’s hard to explain without having it right in front of you.”
Then, with the noisy Heidelberg at rest for a moment, he got philosophical about this practically ancient art, clinging to life in a world where we see words but no longer touch them.
“The impression you get with letterpress, you can’t really compare it to anything else. It makes whatever is printed one-of-a-kind and tactile,” he said. “I love my phone very much, but this is an incredible medium as well.”