Sunlight streams through the broad windows of Carmela Heintzelman’s Lake Bluff design studio, Fiore Press Letterpress. Inside, Heintzelman leans over a composing stone, the perfectly smooth surface where she levels the plate she is about to print. Turning a cast-iron key, she locks little spring-loaded clamps (“quoins”) tight and hefts the loaded “chase” toward her Heidelberg Windmill press.
“It’s kind of like fitting the pieces into a puzzle,” Heinzelman says, explaining the centuries-old locking-up process. The chase looks like a cast-iron picture frame. Heintzelman has filled it with the printing plate for a card she is making, surrounding it with the wooden blocks and slats (“furniture” and “reglets”) and quoins that hold it all in place.
“Once you have everything fitted together nice and tight, it’s ready to go,” she says, easing the chase into the press.
The press, a solid ton of metal, squats stoically in the corner. It is known as a “windmill” because it has arms that swing around to grab and release the paper as it is printed. As Heintzelman turns on the power and engages the clutch, the machine whirs into life. Dabs of bright teal ink she has dotted onto the rollers spread in an even wash of color, coating the printing plate. An air blower ruffles the stack of paper, and as Heintzelman hits “go!”, the press’s arms swing around with a whoosh, grabbing and dropping paper down into the bed of the press. Then, in one smooth motion, the press shuts like a clamshell, pressing type against paper fiber to make the gorgeous printed impressions that letterpress is known for.
“It’s really like a dance,” says Carmela, shifting and moving with the press, making constant adjustments to keep everything flowing smoothly. “It took me at least a year to really get in the zone with this machine. Each Heidelberg Windmill has its own personality— its own quirks. You have to get to know what it likes, what it doesn’t like. It’s just like a person.” She laughs, adding “You know, it sat in my garage for a long time before I got over the fear of what it would take to master this machine. It’s not easy.”
That Heintzelman, a high-school Spanish teacher and mother of three, would be running this massive press, surprises a lot of people. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “People may be familiar with high-end letterpress stationery or wedding invites, but they have no idea what it actually takes to produce them.”
Growing up, Heintzelman always had an interest in graphic forms. “I loved patterns and typography, but I didn’t know that those were considered art forms. Because I couldn’t draw things like people or trees, I assumed I wasn’t an artist.” Still, she filled notebooks with the repeating patterns she imagined, “and I absolutely loved clean handwriting, and cursive letterforms. I was a big doodler, sketching letters in all sorts of ways, and made huge signs for my friends’ birthdays.”
Heintzelman first learned about letterpress printing in her 20s. “I had always been a fan of fine paper and was obsessed with letterpress-printed ephemera. But I never realized the printing process was something I could actually do myself.”
It was her life-long love of designing with type that got her through that door. “I had started designing wedding invitations and birth announces for my friends,” she says. “I would take the designs to big print shops in Chicago, usually owned by printers who had been in the family business forever.” But searching for letterpress shops closer to home, Heintzelman discovered (now-defunct) Evanston Print and Paper, not only a print shop, but a community forum that held letterpress classes.
“I was thrilled to discover I could learn how to print there!” she says. “I was immediately hooked.”
Heintzelman followed up with more letterpress learning at Columbia College in Chicago, and purchased her first press, a Vandercook Universal III—the flat-bed press most-coveted by the letterpress community. She added the Heidelberg Windmill six years later.
“The Vandercook is a great press and easy to use, but the Heidelberg Windmill is really the Mercedes-Benz of the printing industry,” she says. “The speed, efficiency, and precision that come with that German engineering is awe inspiring.”
To master it, Heintzelman attended intensive workshops in California. “Plus, there’s just been a lot of trial and error and I’ve done online tutorials. And,” she adds, holding up a thick binder: “The manual—I refer to it constantly.”
Since starting Fiore Press in 2003, Heintzelman’s business has blossomed—enhanced by her calligraphic skills.
“I took several calligraphy classes over the years, but it was a Modern Calligraphy class with type designer Molly Jacques that really sparked things for me,” she says. “Her course got me into lettering with brush pens and really moved me into the practice and development of muscle memory that is required.”
“Calligraphy and letterpress printing are really the perfect marriage,” Heintzelman adds. “I’m part of a group of calligraphers and lettering artists. It’s always a joy to marry their beautiful scripts with the handmade process of letterpress printing for them, in addition to creating my own calligraphic designs that I design and print.”
The majority of Heintzelman’s client work has been wedding and event invitations, “But I also do a lot of personalized stationery, business cards, and more recently, boxed note cards.”
To encourage people through the pandemic, for example, she has been making hand-lettered and letterpress printed cards emblazoned, “Sending you a socially-distanced hug,” “Hang in there!,” and “Sending Love from Afar.”
“The first printing run of those sold out in a day,” she says. “So, I’ve been printing a lot more. I’m now also working on more wedding announcements, boxed sets of notecards, and holiday cards— designs that I love and would send to my own friends and family.”
Heintzelman’s skills as a teacher are another path forward. She has offered workshops in hand lettering in the past, and, post-pandemic, plans to do an introductory letterpress printing workshop where people will be able to come and print a set of their own stationery.
“Letterpress printing and hand lettering are such beautiful expressions of art. With printing, I love rolling out the ink by hand, and running each piece through the press. I never tire of it. I think of each and every piece as a little work of art. It’s a joy for me to do this—and, to have the opportunity to introduce others to these processes, too.”
For more information, please visit www.fiorepress.com.