Man of Letters Makes Handcrafted Books in Northern Michigan Home

The two-track into Deep Wood Press is itself rough intaglio etched by rainwater and truck treads. On the right, bare black spires of oak and ash trees look printed against a gray sky; on the left, shaggy cedars root in thick moss and inky muck with the river babbling behind them. Texture and nature are religion here at the end of this path in a quiet corner of Antrim County, where metal roofs house iron presses, ink cylinders, wooden alphabets, and dozens more antiquated devices of the centuries-old craft of letterpress.

These are the outmoded tools that enable Deep Wood Press proprietor and artist Chad Pastotnik to turn slick molten lead into rigid typeface, lock letters into steel chases and press words and images onto handmade cotton paper. What rolls off his 80-year-old presses—acid etchings of Isle Royale or passages from Joseph Conrad—will make their way into the hands of university archivists and fine book collectors all over the world.

Thin and tall with long dark hair, a trim goatee and glasses, Pastotnik conveys a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that belies a man suited to a life of artistic contemplation. Raised in Cadillac, Pastotnik received a BFA in printmaking from Grand Valley State University and did his early work with hand bookbinding in Chicago, followed by a time at the University of Iowa before forsaking all urban clatter to return North.

While staying with a friend in Antrim County and fly-fishing for brook trout on the Cedar River east of Bellaire, Pastotnik came across an old fishing cabin with conservancy property on three sides and a ‘for sale’ sign tacked to its dock. This quiet refuge became Pastotnik’s home and the genesis of Deep Wood Press, which launched in 1992.

Drinking coffee in the radiant propane heat of his office and bookbinding studio, Chad Pastotnik belongs to the order he has created. The meticulous detail inherent in the craft lives in every angle and purposefully placed object. Workstations are neatly appointed with cutting tools and straight edges. Dozens of drawers are filled with neat stacks of handmade papers indexed by origin, size and fiber content, a secret nomenclature of English Somerset, German Hahnemüle and Italian Fabriano, papers whose soft omnidirectional grains absorb the crisp imprint of ink like nothing else.

Even the bamboo and fiberglass fly rods hang perfectly parallel on the wall, anticipating next year’s trout season. This is not a paint-spattered lab of mad whims and impulsive brush strokes. Much like casting gossamer dry flies to rising trout, letterpress is precise and premeditated with its reward carried in the process as much as the product.

The product is known as a “fine book,” an artful imprinting of images and text taken from wooden engravings, linoleum cuts and molded letters, books that bear no resemblance to the mass-produced pulp paper tomes or synthetic e-readers we use every day. Pastotnik’s books are manifold sensual expressions of their content, an alternative to new norms that Pastotnik sums up as “the feel of handmade papers and beautiful artwork versus the intangible screen.” Unlike a sterile inkjet paperback, the thick soft sheets have their own landscape of textures; and the pages, when open, drape in a way that belies a deliberate artistic choice. The binding boards and material covers—like goat leather and Asahi cloth—give the book tactile and even olfactory luxury with aromas of sweet cedar, musky leather and fresh linen. Every minute detail, from the shape of the hand-sewn spine to the cut edge of each page, represents hours of meticulous effort. Pastotnik pages through a copy of Winter Walks, a meditative essay by Traverse City–based author Jerry Dennis that’s illustrated with hand-colored wood engravings done by his longtime collaborator, Traverse City artist Glenn Wolff. The book invites a tactile, almost spiritual communion with the reader, Pastotnik explains, as the feeling of fresh snow seems embodied in the page itself.

As much as Chad Pastotnik’s fine books and prints are distinguished by the luxury of their textures and symmetries, it is the centuries-old aesthetic and science behind the presentation of text that lives at the core of his art. Whereas the average person might invest 20 seconds in the often arbitrary choice of a computer font for an email or invitation, Chad Pastotnik can pour for hours over drawers of metal and wooden letters to find the font and size that best expresses the spirit of its content: Garamond for an Aesop fairytale or Linotype Janson for Robert Traver’s iconic fly fishing story, The Intruder.

Until Pastotnik acquired a linotype machine three years ago, handset type was de rigueur at Deep Wood Press. He and his apprentices composed and set each line of text by hand, one letter at a time. Print-work on a book may yield only one or two pages a day, an extent of labor which, when combined with the high cost of handmade materials, prices the books between $100 and $1,000.

The hours of meticulousness and tedium have not gone unnoticed, however, as Deep Wood Press has garnered prestigious international acclaim for its publications, winning the Carl Hertzog Award for an exquisite illustrated edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Early on, Pastotnik relied on print runs of social stationery and corporate custom work to make a livelihood. But today, that work is replaced with international fellowships, university lecture tours and commissions by the likes of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles. Instead of printing invitations for manic brides, Pastotnik prints for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, numerous state archives and university special collections from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Auckland, New Zealand.

Pastotnik launched his traditional press amid an industry-wide technological overhaul, which proved a great advantage, though he concedes the timing was more coincidence than foresight. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, digital text was king, and print shops were all too willing to abandon their hulking old cast iron machines and go to metal plate lithography,” Pastotnik recalls. “Being the only person at that time in Northern Michigan interested in old intaglio and cylinder presses, one little newspaper article would get me a phone call offering free equipment.” With his oldest press manufactured in 1911, most of the cast iron machines and guillotines that fill the studio were had for free or the cost of moving.

But over the years, letterpress found a resurgence, and dozens of graduate art programs around the world scrambled to get the equipment—which nobody makes, of course. The upshot: supply and demand prevailed, and Pastotnik’s gear is now valued somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars range.

Still, Pastotnik’s reputation as one of the foremost artisan practitioners of his craft continues to attract donations of letterpress matériel. “I’m expecting 500 fonts of brass matrices (molds for casting type) that are being trucked from Los Angeles for the cost of freight,” Pastotnik announces almost giddily, wincing a little at the amount of space his new acquisition will demand.

Surrounded by his working artifacts, Pastotnik pauses for a moment to check an email at a neat desk appointed with the room’s only concessions to progress: a Mac keyboard and two thin, high-definition monitors he uses for blogging, iTunes and occasional design work. How does he feel about the advent of digital tablets and e-books? “I’m all for it,” he announces without hesitation, citing the innovations as important to the current renaissance of traditional letterpress. “When we arrive at one end of a spectrum we tend to value the other end that much more. There has been a real degeneration in the way we as a society have presented text in the last few decades, and I think people are now becoming more aware of the tactile quality of their medium of information.”

As commission work competes for time with new work of his own, there is no danger of the gears going quiet at Deep Wood Press anytime soon. Winding his way through the print room, Pastotnik pauses to show a zinc plate bearing a topographical etching of Isle Royale produced from archeological exploration of the island in 1929, an image to be reprinted for the Michigan state archives. Pastotnik’s twin loves of vintage Michigania and trout fishing have also incited a book to be called Michigan Trout Stamps, a 40-year retrospective of the beloved juried drawings that once adorned Michigan fishing licenses; Jerry Dennis will write an opening essay for the edition, which is due out this spring.

Deep Wood Press also reaches well beyond its riparian environs in 2013 with the release of The Hunter Gracchus, a short story by Franz Kafka accompanied by Pastotnik’s wood engravings, as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose, featuring intaglio prints by the artist.

Though our 21st Century lives are bombarded by text on the high-definition LED-powered screens of cell phones, e-readers and laptops, there is an alternative universe found in the artful and meticulous typesetting and printmaking of Chad Pastotnik. In the studios of Deep Wood Press, hunkered among old cedars beside quietly flowing trout water, there is a man for whom every letter matters. Every comma and period is plucked from its galley by his hand and a pair of oxidized tweezers, and deliberately placed to give pause to a future reader who will engage the text with all four senses. As our integration with the digital world deepens, Deep Wood Press, through its handmade books and broadsides, exists to offer its antithesis. Engaging one of Chad Pastotnik’s works is to enter a static sanctuary of tactile pleasure and intellectual delight that forces us to slow down, to savor the richness of words and to find refuge in the Deep Wood all around us.

Don’t miss this video of Chad Pastotnik at work in his backwoods shop.

This article and additional photos are available in the January issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Order your copy today!

Article Comments