Art Business: Building Your Own Printing Press

Painter John Himmelfarb had been making prints for almost 40 years, but it wasn’t until Hudson Hills Press produced a catalogue raisonné of those prints in 2006 that the artist realized prints were an essential part of his career, generating 10 percent of his income selling art. A year after the catalogue was published, Himmelfarb bought a $17,000, 7'-x-4' etching press that occupies a large portion of his Chicago studio.

 Pipe Up by John Himmelfarb, screenprint, © 2011, 21.75" x 21.75", ed. 24
Pipe Up by John Himmelfarb, screenprint, © 2011, 21.75" x 21.75", ed. 24

“Now, when I have an idea or inspiration, I don’t need to rent a shop or wait to get invited by a publisher or university to do a print edition,” he says. He no longer has to pay $300 or more each day and be “creative on demand” during shop hours. “I’m on my own turf, and I can control the process more,” Himmelfarb explains. If sales continue as they have in the past, he figures, the printing press will pay for itself in one year. In the 1990s Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick bought a printing press for a few thousand dollars, and the cost was recouped within three months.

Sales of artist printing presses have increased sharply in the last decade, and a variety of factors are driving the move. There are fewer fine-art print studios, and those that remain are more expensive. “Many artists want to make prints in their own studios, rather than traveling somewhere to do it,” says Amber Millen, a saleswoman for Ettan Press Company, in La Jolla, California. Additionally, printmaking used to be associated with hazardous chemicals, but the new generation of materials features water-based inks and nontoxic solvents that make home-studio use less worrisome. For all artists, control is a major consideration.

Because most artists don’t want to deal with the massive presses used by commercial print publishers, manufacturers are producing lighter, less expensive machines. “I started out as a printmaker and engineer,” says Mel Whelan, the president of Whelan Press, a printing-press manufacturer in Santa Fe, “and I got tired of moving 1,800-pound presses through windows and doors.” Putting his engineering know-how to work, he developed a line of smaller presses that create full-size prints (22" x 30") and range from under 100 pounds ($1,495) to 396 pounds ($6,000). Whelan sells approximately 200 printing presses per year, and about half of those sales are to artists.

Artists represent only about 25 percent of the customer base of Takach Press Corporation, a manufacturer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but that is up about 50 percent over the past decade, according to salesman David Takach Jr. The bulk of Takach’s sales are large costly models to commercial printers and university print studios, but the company also makes smaller, lighter machines, such as a 250-pound press (18" x 36" and $3,875) that is a favorite of artists.

Dean Clark, the president of Printmakers Machine Company and Graphic Chemical & Ink Company, both based in Villa Park, Illinois, says his printing-press sales to individuals have also increased significantly. Many buyers make their purchases online, ordering tabletop and small table presses, the most popular of which weigh 55 pounds (9" x 18" for $675) and 90 pounds (12" x 24" for $1,405), as well as larger models weighing 270 pounds (18" x 48" for $2,840) and 550 pounds (27" x 48" for $4,400).

“We redesigned our presses a few years ago to be smaller, more stable and economical, suitable for someone’s home,” says a spokesman for Dick Blick Art Materials, the Galesburg, Illinois-based catalogue art-supply company, adding that the most popular presses are the most portable—one weighs 38 pounds (9" x 18" for $464) and another weighs 26 pounds (12" x 24" for $432). Similarly, just more than half of all printing-press sales for Jack Richeson & Co. in Kimberly, Wisconsin, are for its two “baby” presses—a 69-pounder manufactured in Brazil (12" x 19" for $475) and a 45-pound model made in Italy (71⁄4" x 121⁄2" for $350), according to Colleen Richeson, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Daniel Smith, the Seattle-based catalogue art-supply company that sells Ettan, Jack Richeson & Co., and Whelan printing presses, as well as printmaking supplies, have many customers who want a lightweight press for use outside of their studios, particularly at art fairs or workshops. “Artists in the educational market are interested in safety and durability for multiple-use instances, such as with students who have never done printmaking before,” says Christopher Ramsey of Daniel Smith’s educational services department. “Lightweight design and portability are also concerns in the educational market, where presses may only be used a couple of times a week.”

Of course, not every artist who purchases a printing press has a success story to tell. After purchase one must learn or know how to etch or make a lithographic image on a printing plate, operate a printing press, and find buyers. The inability to master any of these skills may make it difficult for the printing press to pay for itself in the future. However, the affordability and design of the new presses makes it possible for all artists to further develop their skills.

by Daniel Grant


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