Chris Fritton: Modern Day Itinerant Printer

For the past two years, Chris Fritton has been on the road, traveling to letterpress print shops across the United States and producing unique, regional prints at each stop. By showcasing the spirit of each region through his work, Chris intends to bring a nationwide community of printers together with his project; The Itinerant Printer.

Itinerant printers (also known as tramp printers) began with the introduction of moveable type in the 15th century. As a way to learn the craft of printing, journeymen would travel to, and work in, a variety of printshops to accumulate knowledge of the trade before settling down and opening their own practice.

Intrigued by the history of these printers, Chris Fritton (former Studio Director of the Western New York Book Arts Center) wanted to re-envision the trade and bring it to back to the modern era through his project.

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Photo Credit: Jessica S. Smith

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With each stop along his journey, Chris hosts a variety of events, educating others about his experiences and sharing the history of itinerant printers. “I want to raise the level of visibility of letterpress printing: you wouldn’t believe how many people visit my events, exhibitions, lectures, and pop-up shops that have no experience with letterpress. The events are held to spread the message to students, printers, and designers that letterpress isn’t just about letters. The medium has so far to go, and the potential is unlimited.”

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Chris also creates one-of-a-kind prints at each shop he visits to mail out and share with people who follow the project. The prints are unique to his style (no bite or impression will ever be found), yet also hold the spirit of the shop they came from since they are produced only using the materials each shop has.

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“I find myself attracted to filigree lines, bright colors, and using antique cuts in unique ways. Although I don’t disparage any of the other aesthetics or modes of working – I work almost exclusively with wood & metal type, border & ornament, and on hard, wood-based, bright white paper. I love the mystery when someone sees a print that doesn’t have a traditional “letterpressy” look, and they spend time wrestling with the notion that it might be a screen print, a lithograph, or a digital print.”

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In order to get the striking bright colors and style he desires, Chris is selective about the paper he uses for his prints.

“I’d been using Mohawk Superfine long before The Itinerant Printer trip – so it felt natural for me to work with a paper that was familiar – something where I’d have the ability to predict its response. I love Mohawk Superfine Smooth Ultrawhite 100 cover because it provides such true, bright color. I only use oil-based ink, and it gives me the perfect amount of saturation so that I can get a strong color field without it bleeding out. It’s a great paper with a great history, and in a world where letterpress printing has shifted toward thicker cotton-based papers, it provides a nice counterpoint – people are often shocked at the results because they’re so used to printing on paper with fundamentally different qualities.”

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And of course, traveling over a year throughout the United States comes with unique experiences that Chris will never forget. “Even though I’ve been printing for more than a decade, I realized on these journeys that there was so much more to learn. I’ve learned that I have a considerable amount to pass along to new printers, and I’ve learned that when I meet someone who’s been printing for 30/40/50 years, it’s best to shut up and listen. I’ve been to places such as refurbished plantation houses in coastal Georgia, to ghost towns in southwestern Texas, hobbit-like shacks in the forests of Washington, to the tops of the Smoky Mountains in Appalachia – printing is everywhere, and everywhere it’s different, and as one might imagine, everywhere it’s the same.”

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Back in February, Chris kicked off phase two of his journey with a trip to Mohawk, touring the mill and taking a peek at the Strathmore Archive. “I was really astonished when I visited the mill, and I couldn’t believe my luck – the day I landed and took a tour, they happened to be making the EXACT paper I’ve been using on The Itinerant Printer trip. It seemed like a great, tightly-knit community of co-workers who were all deeply invested in the company & cared about the product. It made me happy to be working with Mohawk.” Follow his journey at itinerantprinter.com or on Instagram.

Featured Image Credit: Liza Bambenek

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Comments (3)

  1. Posted by Bob Bennitt on 04.27.16 at 10:29 am

    This is really cool. I love fine craftsmanship. I also love the Mohawk Paper line, although it has been difficult for us to get in a timely manner sometimes.

  2. Posted by Nancy Swenson on 04.27.16 at 11:13 am

    How FABULOUS!!!!! We have a letterpress printer in our basement workshop but it is not set up YET!! Really am itching to do so. We used letterpress printers in the past and love the whole art! Have you been in touch with Sun Hill Press in Broofield, Massachusetts? Darrell Hyder has a beautiful shop and has been printing for YEARS! He is master and would be a worthwhile visit. Hope you come near us so we can come to your presentation. We live in York, Maine.

    Thank you for your effort in keeping this art alive!

    Nancy & Craig

  3. Posted by Tom Worth, Jr. on 04.27.16 at 11:14 am

    What a great idea for a project, Chris, and even better that you actually did it! It would be amazing to learn some of what you know about the craft. Are you going to be in Texas again? I am one of those “that have no experience with letterpress,” but have a profound love of paper and printing (which is why I love getting the Mohawk quarterly in the mail and always read it cover to cover).

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