Wisconsin man salvages printing presses and builds a second career

Platen press
Coughlin works with a platen press, this one made in St. Paul by the Kluge company.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Mike Coughlin has been enamored with printing since his first newspaper job many years ago, with the Crookston times.

"I used to go in the back shop and kind of haunt it -- watching the guys do the typesetting, and go down to the press room when the press is running," Coughlin said. "And it was all fascinating to me, and I never dreamed at the time that one day I would eventually have my own shop, but it rather intrigued me."

Coughlin picked up his first printing press in the late 1970s. During the days, Coughlin edited a trade magazine. In his off-hours Coughlin took on small print jobs in his basement.

Printing presses
On the left, a row of printing presses, some dating to the 1880s; others as newly built as 1942.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

At the time, printing technology was rapidly changing. The industry was turning to electronics and computers, and away from the old presses.

Coughlin bought a well-used platen press. But when new print jobs came he needed additional machines, like a letterpress. Soon his collection started taking shape.

"[During the] '70s and '80s there was a real movement to dump a lot of this stuff. Get rid of it. Throw it into the trash heap. Sell it overseas," he said.

But Coughlin was showing up for his day job with ink on his hands, which his boss didn't like, saying freelance printing was getting in the way of his editing. The boss handed him an ultimatum.

"He said, 'You've got to make a decision. Either you're going to quit working here, or you're going to quit printing at night.'"

You sometimes find real blessings in things that were kind of ugly at the beginning.

Coughlin muttered something about needing better soap, and sure enough, he was fired.

"I needed to then turn to this as not so much as a hobby but as a way to replace my income," Coughlin said.

The first years were tough. He had kids in school, so Coughlin found odd jobs--hefting luggage for Northwest airlines or driving the Zamboni at hockey games.

But once the kids were on their own, it was time for Coughlin and his wife to make the move--all the way to Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

He now has a wide open shop just a stone's throw from Lake Superior. Among the contraptions in the shop is a Linotype machine.

"It was the workhorse of the printing industry for type setting for close to three-quarters of a century," Coughlin said.

Linotype
The Linotype machine served as the workhorse for printing for much of the past century. Coughlin types at a keyboard, which triggers a succesion of letter molds that will make a single line of type at a time. Today, the work is done with electronics and computers.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Most of the shop is crammed with machinery: printing presses, a book binder, and many of the machines are a century old or more.

The Linotype is the most animated. The device turns typing into solid plates of letters, the plates that will print the pages of a book.

It's an amazing thing to watch. Coughlin types at a keyboard. As fast as he types, steel letters drop into line. The letters will press into a hot mold that becomes the form for printing. The machine is a whirr of motion. An auger rolls at the top. A steel arm reaches and grabs, and the character bits move into place as fast as a shuffling deck of cards.

For Coughlin, it's still fascinating, even after 20 years.

"They're fun to watch. They're just amazing representations of genius of people to make machines, and to make them that so they run and run and run. They last as long as they have, and they do beautiful work."

Coughlin's shop, Superior Letterpress, is a working museum to an almost lost art. He prints books, letterhead or business cards. Work comes through the Internet, with customers as far away as Saipan and Austria.

Hand held type design
A design used in printing with hand-held type. In this kind of printing, each character is lined up individually, by hand.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"One day somebody called and said 'Do you do wedding invitations?' And I looked around, and I didn't have any jobs in the house and I said 'Well, yeah I do wedding invitations.'"

But his love is making books. Coughlin can print, sew and bind books. In the warm months he even makes paper--although that's a somewhat messy outdoor job.

He lives where he wants and does what he loves -- all thanks to getting fired a couple of decades ago.

"You know, life takes some strange twists and turns, and you never know where it's going to end up. I had no idea that I would lose my job, and walk the streets for a long time looking for work, and doing this to fill in. You sometimes find real blessings in things that were kind of ugly at the beginning."

And, when he's gone, Coughlin knows he's leaving something behind. If maintained right, he said, these machines can keep printing for centuries.

To see a larger version of the video showing Coughlin's printing press and Linotype machine at work, Click Here

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.