Walk into the inviting glass storefront of The Mandate Press and you will see a sign that reads:
This Is a Printing Office
Crossroad of Civilization
Refuge of all the Arts Against the Ravages of Time
Armory of Fearless Truth Against Whispering Rumor
Incessant Trumpet of Trade
From This Places Words May Fly Abroad Not to Perish on Waves of Sound
Not to Vary With the Writer’s Hand, but Fixed in Time Having Been
Verified by Proof
Friend You Stand on Sacred Ground
This is a Printing Office
Ben Webster, tattooed and bearded, greets you with a ready handshake and an easy smile. Ben’s interest about printing was sparked by a U of U Book Arts Program class. Around the same time, a friend told him about an old printing press sitting in his basement. That press had belonged to his friend’s dad. Ben bought the press, disassembled it, reassembled it, and his life as a printer was underway.
He set up in an old Ducati dealership in downtown Salt Lake. The shop retains a warehouse feel and is decorated with eclectic furniture, antique presses and samples of the company’s work. It is a perfect setting for a business that combines art, machinery and innovative craftsmanship. “I grew up on a farm,” Ben says, “and saw a parallel between the presses and old farm equipment.”
The Mandate Press is the largest Utah letterpress operation. In letterpress printing, movable lead type is inked and pressed into paper to form an impression. The method Ben uses is not unlike the process Gutenberg used when he invented the first press in the fifteenth century.
His machines are antiques, some 100 years old. As the industry evolved from typesetting to offset printing, some old letterpress machines ended up in basements or garages. The presses’ gears, wheels and plates are a steampunk dream. A plaque attached to one press imparts craftsman pride: “Manufactured by the Challenge Machinery Co. Chicago USA For the Western Newspaper Union Salt Lake City, Utah.”
Ben credits Martha Stewart for the resurgence in letterpress printing. Her magazine featured letterpress invitations and created a demand. People loved the rough feel of the pressed images. Ironically, Ben says, old-time printers would have considered the impressions bad form. Their goal was a smooth surface.
In modern “boutique printing,” making the printing plates has been digitized. In the movable type process, each page is set up with individual lead letters and characters. Printers had multiple drawers for each typeface, or font, and size. Modern letterpress shop owners pride themselves on how little lead they keep in the shop.
At Mandate, the process begins with a digital file made into a negative and then, using a special machine and UV light, the negative is turned into a plate using a photopolymer. With adhesive on the back, the new plate is affixed to a metal base to achieve the right height to fit in the machines.
Ben loves working with the presses. He came up with the name for his business as he was thinking about the mandate of the people, their voice, and freedom of the press. “Presses gave people access to learning they never had before. Gutenberg’s printing press was the Internet of its day.” §
The Mandate Press is located at 1077 South Main.