Behind the Scenes | Sargent Brothers Printing Press

A family-run letterpress shop runs with a keen eye for detail and a respect for the history of the art form.

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Ben Sargent spent 35 years as an editorial cartoonist for the Austin American-Statesman, and he also spent the better part of two decades designing an intricate, functioning model train scene from northern New Mexico, which keeps silent watch over the old, trusty equipment in the Sargent Brothers Printing Press shop. In other words, Sargent is a man well-versed in details, which makes him perhaps the perfect person to have inherited a family printing press.

“I love the craft process,” Sargent says. “I like being able to use my hands on iron and steel and lead equipment to make something that looks good.” Joking that the process of printing is 90 percent patience and just 10 percent ingenuity, Sargent explains that the work is always an exercise in detail and precision.

Central to this exercise is a 10- by 15-foot Chandler & Price platen job press, built in Cleveland in 1905 and in Sargent’s family for three generations and counting. Beneath the press, ink collects on the concrete floor, and when Sargent turns it on for a demonstration, its spinning gears whir like a fan. It is an unmistakably physical machine, perfectly suited to a process sought after precisely because of our own tactile cravings. The room smells like the ink, but also like solvent, and, Sargent explains with a laugh, “probably a hint of cigar smoke—this is a cigar-friendly kind of area.”

Sargent also has under his charge an impressive collection of handset metal type—more than 230 fonts in a collection of sizes, faces and styles. They sit nestled in organized trays adorned in peeling labels, waiting to be put to use. Nearby is a framed notice—no poetry or other uplifting materials, please—and a paper explaining Murphy’s Law, tacked to the container for the metal type.

Sargent’s father and brother bought the press in 1928, and it has been in the family ever since. “My dad one time told me that when a boy get’s printer’s ink on his shirt, it takes three generations to wash out,” Sargent says. His work comes from area designers and individuals craving that hand-printed feel. And he says that the style today leans deeper, more obviously “impressed,” than ever before. Sargent flips on the model train he’s spent so many years building, explaining over the sound of a huffing train that he also works as a volunteer conductor and chairman for the Austin Steam Train, and it becomes clear all over again: This is a man absolutely devoted to machines—and the details that make their function so beautiful.


Photography by Jessica Attie

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