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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part in a series by the creators of Pressing On: The Letterpress Film. Explore the previous installments:
The Letterpress Journals, Part 5: Hot Metal Junkie
by Andrew P. Quinn
Our first interview for principal photography was with Jim Daggs. The part I like most about shooting documentaries are the interviews. I’m very interested in how all the other people in this world are experiencing life. If I could, I’d love to hear everyone’s story but being an introvert makes this difficult. I’ve never been the type of person to just walk up to someone and strike up a conversation. If I do, I end up skipping the casual conversation and try to start prying into the deep stuff. People don’t always take kindly to this. Interviews on the other hand are great for this. You schedule a time, everyone knows what they are getting into, and I can just let curiosity guide the conversation.
Daggs was a great person to get started with. His story aligns really well with the story of letterpress, and how it’s gotten to where it’s at. He became interested in letterpress at the age of 12 and after spending half his summer staring in the screen door of a print shop, the master printer took him under his wing. Jim explained, “I think the first thing that I experienced was the sound of the Chandler & Price press that he was feeding, and was fascinated by the mechanics, and the sound.” This would become the genesis of Jim spending his whole life practicing the craft and what he called his “first love.”
Jim told us about his first hand experience with the transition to offset in commercial printing that inadvertently gave birth to his collection. When the rest of the printing industry accepted the change, he chose old technology for the quality, “We went back to setting the newspaper on Linotype machines and printing it on a Flatbed Miehle press. I had publishers calling me up and said, ‘We heard a rumor that you went from offset back to Letterpress?’ And I said, ‘We sure did.’ ‘Well that’s crazy.’ Probably, but we can now pay our paper bill. We were actually able to put out a newspaper that people said they can read, and so yeah we went backwards.” Daggs described how he and his partner would print the day’s paper and rush out to drive around to press shops where they were throwing letterpress equipment out the back door and they were snatching it up for themselves.
He collected a functioning shop that still looks brand new today, a testament to the care Jim puts into everything that he does. Tall Intertype machines sit stoically, ready to have their pots turned on to heat molten type metal and cast slugs once again. We all had the chance to set type and stared in awe at the remarkable, complex machine and the time that went into the design of it. Next to his Intertypes and racks of matrix magazines are shiny metal and black Heidelberg windmills, racks of rare Ludlow fonts, an immaculately organized shop.
Jim proudly describes his shop as fully hot metal, “You won’t find any moveable type here.”
Since the interview I’ve come to understand that much of the letterpress community has a deep respect for Jim. Those who know him not only envy his collection but also appreciate his willingness to share his vast wealth of knowledge and kindness. Additionally, most people consider him to be a “fine printer” as in fine arts because the work he creates is as close to perfection as it gets.
As if Jim wasn’t interesting enough, he’s also the mayor of Ackley, Iowa where he, his wife, their business Ackley Publishing Company, and his hot type print shop reside.
In the end I asked Jim if he considers himself to be a master printer like the gentlemen he apprenticed under. His response just summed up what a wonderfully humble man he is. “When I die, and they carve a description on my stone it will simply say Jim Daggs: Printer.”
Here’s a brief video introduction of Jim, self-proclaimed hot metal junkie sharing his battle scars.