Typesetting and woodblock printing may seem a bit antiquated and obscure, but when Japan Woodworker’s catalog production manager Doug Loyer was on the lookout for a cool cover image on the subject, he discovered a graphic design treasure in his own back yard.
Marietta, Ohio, is a quaint, historical, and artsy community just a few minutes from our corporate headquarters in Parkersburg, West Virginia. It is there that Loyer found Bobby and Sara Rosenstock’s justAjar Design Press, where award-winning posters are created using tools from the past — carved wood blocks (woodcuts), vintage type and a manual letterpress machine. Sara teaches graphic design at Marietta College while Bobby runs the letterpress shop, which is a collaboration of her design expertise and his printmaking skills.
The art of creating multiples from a carved wood block is an ancient graphic process. The colorful, etched designs have a whimsical, nostalgic feel. “It’s not like a Photoshop filter that you click to make things look worn,” Bobby said. “It’s worn because this piece of type was in a print shop somewhere in Ohio in the mid-1800s.”
Bobby said the look of their work is most often compared to Hatch Show Print in Nashville. “They are owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and did the old advertising posters for Elvis, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, to name a few, so I consider that quite a compliment,” Bobby remarked. “We are one of only a handful of companies who still do printing this way. Most shops screenprint.”
Preserving and sharing the age-old crafts of typesetting and woodblock printing is a labor intensive process, but the quality of the posters cranked out by justAjar speaks for itself. “We hand-carve a block for every color; we hand-set wood and lead type—no digital printers or computers used here,” Bobby stated.
DESIGN & COLOR SEPARATION
In preparing a poster job for printing multiple copies, the design is first sketched on paper, with Bobby and Sara often working together on the concept.
Once finalized, the next step is to plan out the design’s color separations, typically two to three colors plus a black outline, known as the keyblock.
Bobby traces the final drawing onto tracing paper and then uses carbon paper to transfer the color separations onto individual wood blocks – one for each color.
Though the multiple colors are all printed onto one sheet, this photo shows how each color separation would look if they were ran through the letterpress individually. Combining those three colors plus the keyblock onto one poster creates the final look.
Bobby carves the images into 3/4″ birch plywood in preparation for printing, taking out the negative space on the block in reverse of how it will be printed.
Each color separation is meticulously carved individually from the other colors with its own block.
“Some woodworkers are surprised I use plywood,” Bobby shared. “But it’s affordable and doesn’t warp.”
Depending on the complexity and color separations, Bobby estimates he spends between two to four days carving the blocks for a project.
Sharp tools are important in creating the clean lines of justAjar’s signature look. To keep their tools sharp, Bobby uses a Japanese waterstone sharpening method in-house, but also has them professionally sharpened at Woodcraft twice a year.
The final step before printing is to select the vintage type-style to accompany the graphic.
Trays of numerous styles of type — antique wood or lead blocks dating back 200 years — line the walls at the justAjar studio. Over the years, they have collected type from old print shops, flea markets, garage sales or through online letterpress communities to amass a large variety of styles from which to choose.
Sara acts as the company’s typographer, helping to select the best font to complement the look of each project.
Once chosen, the type then gets set by hand, letter by letter, onto a block that goes onto the letterpress, lined up with the graphic blocks.
The woodcuts and type are next lined up on the Vandercook letterpress, where Bobby uses metal shims and plates to align each print job. The Marietta Brewing Company poster is in position on the press bed and ready to print, in the photo at right.
Using oil-based lithography inks from Renaissance Graphic Arts for the color on each print, Bobby hand-cranks each poster through the press multiple times depending on the number of colors in the design.
No drying time is required between each crank of the letterpress. The black outline woodcut, or keyblock, is typically printed last on the press. Once that outline goes over the colors already printed, the design comes to life!
Posters are usually printed onto heavyweight cardstock paper from French Paper Company, a sixth-generation, family-owned paper mill in Michigan.
As small business owners themselves, Bobby and Sara like supporting a family business.
Each print job takes up to four days once on the letterpress. Though Bobby says he really likes the carving process, he finds the repetitive nature of the printing process to be soothing after a few days of intense carving.
Watch this short film as Bobby Rosenstock talks about his craft and his “Printmakers Paradise” while he works on the image featured on the October Japan Woodworker catalog cover. Video produced by Jeremy Aronhalt and directed by Richard Sibert.
Past poster projects line the walls of the justAjar studio, while woodblocks from old print jobs stack up in the back “until Sara makes me get rid of some,” Bobby joked.
Additionally, Bobby and Sara hope to have their retail storefront in Marietta open by November, having recently moved to the Front Street location. They plan to be open for customers at least one day a week and for special events or by appointment. Follow them on social media to find out more.
justAjar is a Letterpress, Printmaking and Design shop based out of Marietta, Ohio, owned by Bobby and Sara Rosenstock. They make artwork such as posters, greeting cards, and art prints for events ranging from community barbeques to music festivals. Their work includes web design and logos, as well as custom illustration for projects of any size.
Bobby first fell in love with printmaking in 2003 while he was attending Alfred University of Western New York, where he and Sara met in the dorms on the first day of school. He made a trip to Tasmania, where he learned about the ancient graphic process of creating multiples from a carved woodblock.
After earning their degrees from Alfred, Bobby and Sara criss-crossed the country from New York to Portland for commercial jobs before coming back east to further their educations. Bobby received his MFA in printmaking and book arts with a focus in letterpress printing from the University of Arts in Philadelphia, while Sara holds a MFA in Graphic Design from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The couple finally landed in Marietta in 2009 when Sara took a teaching position with Marietta College, where she introduces students to both the old way of designing art alongside more modern digital methods. They are the parents of daughter Elle, 3, and they are expecting another daughter to arrive any moment!
To learn more about the Rosenstocks and their printing business, visit justajar.com or justajardesignpress on facebook.com. To purchase completed artwork online, view their Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/justajar.
We hope you'll be inspired!