I met Dave Johnston as he was wandering through American Steel Studios for his first time. Having just signed his lease, he was exploring the property with a friend, his mouth was open as he was staring around him trying to figure out what, exactly, was going on here. I approached and was met with a quick smile, strong handshake, and childlike enthusiasm for this place he was discovering. Since then we have learned what a wonderful person has joined the AmSteel Community. He shows off his equipment with pride, explaining how he makes his own type and proudly displays his antique collection of machines and type face. I also discovered that Sharp Teeth Press has the largest holding of Hebrew matrices in the US. His art is exemplary, and we couldn’t be happier to have him with us!
Dave Johnston will be demonstrating his craft with us at Maker Faire May 18 + 19
About Sharp Teeth Press
We use some of the oldest and most significant advances in printing technology to print our books and stationery (we also print wedding invitations of your design or our own). Applying classic design sense with modern materials allows us to achieve an aesthetic only rarely seen in this modern age. More than just a letterpress print shop, STP aims to maintain and operate machines that are scarcely seen and difficult to run.
The primary focus of Sharp Teeth Press is to use machines built in the United States in the middle part of the 20th Century to produce limited and first edition books. Our equipment includes: Vandercook 32-28 proof press, Monotype Composition caster with computer-driven interface, Monotype Monomatic caster, Cost-Cutter saw, several hand-made bookbinding tools, and twenty or thirty drawers of type.
American Steel: What do you do?
Dave: I’m a letterpress printer, typefounder and bookbinder. That means that I’m also a publisher and book designer, a craftsman, and lastly, an artist. I print from metal type, handmade engravings, and hand-drawn images. I sew and bind all of my books, usually with handmade papers on the cover. I also print stationery such as wedding invitations and business cards.
AS: Why do you do what you do?
Dave: I fell in love with letterpress printing because of the machines and the process. It’s simply more satisfying to me to understand exactly how a machine works to produce something. Folks my age are growing up with what I’ve heard called “black box syndrome” where everything we buy is just a box with a power button. It breaks, but you don’t know why, and you certainly don’t know how to fix it, so you throw it away and buy another one. It’s a horrible relationship to have with the tools that make our lives great, and I’m trying to avoid this sort of casual, careless relationship with machines in favor of one that is careful and dedicated.
AS: What brought you to American Steel?
Dave: I’d been printing in my garage for a couple of years, but as I continued to collect machines and make noise, I could tell that I was becoming an unwelcome neighbor in my residential neighborhood in San Francisco. I needed a space where I could work all night, and where no one would be bothered by the small amounts of solvent I need to clean my press. So, I spent a few weeks looking around at available spaces in the bay area, and feel that I was incredibly lucky in finding a space at American Steel Studios. Here I’ve got an infrastructure of artists and craftspeople, plenty of room and plenty of power.
AS: How have you been able to contribute to the community?
Dave: I will be supplying custom printed goods to my neighbors. I am also working with an Oakland organization called Endless Canvas, and together we’re publishing a thoughtful book about graffiti and donating a portion of profits to a local youth-based arts organization.
AS: How has working at AmSteel helped your business grow?
Dave: American Steel has provided me with enough space and power to do the things I need to do to make me happy. They’ve also invited me to this year’s Maker Faire, which is a great opportunity to teach people about antiquated methods of printing. I’m sure the open studios this May will provide further exposure of my machines and my craft.
AS: What attracted you to Oakland?
Dave: I lived in Tacoma, Washington for four years, which is kind of like Seattle’s dirty little brother. I feel like Oakland and San Francisco have a similar relationship. I’m drawn to places that kind of have a bad reputation — those reputations are often wrong and overgeneralized. And the neighborhood where American Steel is located is the best kind of neighborhood for me. I wanted to move to a place where I wouldn’t be pushing anyone out of a space, or replacing an old, family-owned business with my own, and I think that the warehouse district where American Steel is located is the kind of place where I’m not really in danger of doing anything of that kind.
AS: Who is attracted to your work?
Dave: People who appreciate my work are usually craftspeople themselves, or are interested in printing and publishing culture. My books often appeal more to art collectors and fine book dealers rather than the general reading public because they are not cheap. However, I am trying to publish books that aren’t too highbrow to include people that might not otherwise be interested in my work.