What do you get when you combine old printing presses nobody wanted with antique lead and wood type? When you’re Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing the answer is art!
Squarely in the stream of the artisan revival, Kotasek is passionate about his craft. “People say all the time, ‘Oh, you’re a letterpress printer? That’s a dying art.’ I always tell them, ‘No! It’s a reviving art!'”
Kotasek lives with his wife, Nichole and son, Charles on a hilltop outside of Le Sueur. While the property has been in his family since his grandfather’s day the trio lives in a house he built with his own hands. The peace and quiet is immediately apparent. For a family who loves science and nature the location is ideal.
Dummy the Shop Cat is the official greeter on entering the converted granary studio. At once fascinating and charming, type cases, ink, finished printed projects, guitars, and of course a printing press populate the space.
People say all the time, ‘Oh, you’re a letterpress printer? That’s a dying art.’ I always tell them, ‘No! It’s a reviving art!
Kotasek estimates there are only a few dozen shops now doing letterpress in Minnesota. But how is letterpress different from more modern printing methods?
In the letterpress process, raised artwork, usually wood or lead letters and lead or carved linoleum illustrations are mounted securely, inked and applied directly to the paper using a printing press.
On the other hand, most modern printing techniques use an offset process which involves the intermediate step of transferring ink to a rubber roller which in turn prints the paper. Many large shops have even moved beyond offset printing using multi-million dollar inkjets to produce work faster and cheaper than older methods.
Tin Can Valley?
On the About page on the Tin Can Valley website, Kotasek has a little bit of fun with his visitors. He offers three explanations of how his business was named and suggests only two of them are true.
- A play on Tin Pan Alley, a musically notable region of New York City.
- A reference to the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant known for the invention of modern vegetable canning.
- A hat-tip to Wallace Trunkler, a farmer in the 1950s who brought home cases of rejected cans from the local canning company to feed his pigs. For fifteen years he threw the empties into a ravine until a sudden snow melt, contributing to the flood of 1965, washed the cans onto the nearby highway blocking the southbound lanes. The ravine was dubbed Tin Can Valley.
Exclusive to readers of MankatoLIFE, Kotasek admits, “They’re all actually true!”
Path to the Print Shop
Kotasek recalls the beginning of his journey, “The whole art thing was always there for me. I hated school so I sat and drew pictures all day.
“In the 90s I did old barn drawings and people started asking for prints. I thought if I’m going to offer prints I want to do them myself.”
He continued, “It was the summer of ’99 when I heard a show on MPR about the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis. I went there and I saw these old printing presses. They reminded me of my old farm equipment! I thought, ‘I can do this! I know how this works!’ Mechanical stuff just comes to me.
“A couple of weeks later there was an ad for a local newspaper trying to hire a printer. I walk in and they have all this old equipment there too. I told the second-generation owner, ‘I’ve got no experience but I want to learn how to print so I can make copies of my art.’ He said, ‘That’s kind of crazy! I think we can give you a shot!’ I figured I’d give them two years. Two years turned into fifteen years but I loved it!”
At the beginning of the new millennium many small newspapers were going out of business. Additionally, the Digital Revolution was in full swing resulting in the obsolescence of a lot of printing equipment.
“All these newspapers had print shops,” Kotasek recalled. “Buildings were getting torn down or re purposed. I visited the Hanska Herald and bought some cabinets and other equipment. It was one of the last times I had to buy anything.
“It got around that I would come and get your equipment. Pretty soon I started getting calls from newspapers that were closing, ‘We’ve got equipment. The building’s getting torn down in two weeks. We want it out of here.’ I have a machine shed filled with equipment.”
Kotasek’s newspaper employer graciously allowed him to work on his own projects from their shop until he finished converting his family’s granary and setting up his own in 2016.
Gig posters were my first big thing. I love working with bands and musicians.
With the revival of letterpress printing, one of the most common jobs is wedding invitations. Kotasek related his experience, “Future brides are some of the best people to work with. I’ve always had great luck with them. They’re always so excited.”
He especially enjoys working on anything related to the music industry, “Gig posters were my first big thing. I love working with bands and musicians. I’m a musician and I love working with other musicians. It gives me an excuse to go to shows. If I wasn’t printing I’d probably be working in music production.”
2017 saw some new emphases, “I’ve just started doing greeting cards. I did my first show this summer. For years my mom did shows. When she was raising us she did art and went to shows. So I grew up going to shows with her.
“Now she’s doing re-purposed jewelry mostly because she wanted to do the shows. I put together a suitcase of my art and she takes it with her and sells my stuff. My odd little greeting cards have been doing really well.”
Beautiful & Functional
The workhorse in Kotasek’s shop, his most recent acquisition, is a Chandler & Price 8×12 Newstyle press that came from the Silver Lake Leader in Silver Lake, Minnesota.
“This printing press, when you get them from the factory they come with a treadle,” he explained. “Most print shops would get them and throw the treadle in the garbage and hook up an electric motor. I just cleaned this machine up. It had 50 years of ink and grime covering it which kept it pretty rust free.”
Kotasek estimates the press was manufactured in the late 1920s, “Back when machines were beautiful and functional.” And so was the printing.
Tin Can Valley Printing Company is accepting work and can be reached through their website at http://tincanvalley.com/