Interview with Debbie Lee of Penelope's Press

by Sara Tams of sarah + abraham

Shortly after launching OMHG in February I received an email from a reader named Debbie Lee congratulating me on the new blog. She mentioned that she lived in a nearby town, so I took a look at her blog and was so excited to see that she was in the process of starting up a letterpress business. I’ve always been drawn to letterpress stationery and curious about the printing process, so I boldly invited myself over to see her setup.

Since then we’ve gotten together a few more times with some other local designers/entrepreneurs, and it’s been so much fun getting to know her. A couple of weeks ago Debbie opened an Etsy shop, so I thought this would be a great time to introduce her and her shop.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a wife, a mom of 2 (soon to be 3), and sole proprietor of Penelope’s Press, a small design and letterpress studio located in a small suburb of Chicago.

2. What made you decide to start a letterpress business?

I’d like to think I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit since I was young.  When I was in junior high, my friends and I started a babysitter’s club, made flyers, and distributed them throughout the neighborhood.  In high school, I would buy candy from the warehouse clubs, Costco and Sam’s, and sell each candy bar for a dollar out of my backpack during class.

Then when I was older I had too many lofty, big ideas – I wanted to start my own scrapbook store equipped with a babysitting drop off area, I wanted my own rubber stamping company, I wanted to trek the world to collect fine papers and pens and sell them. One day I went to a local craft fair and picked up a letterpress bookmark from a vendor.  That night and for several nights after I kept touching the impression on the bookmark.  That bookmark eventually led me to the purchase of my first press.  I love creating with my hands, all kinds of paper, and the craft of letterpress… it only made sense to spread that love to everyone else.

3. Do you have formal training in graphic design or are you self-taught?

I wish I had formal training.  My degree is in English with a concentration in writing (hard to believe considering my love of writing in all lowercase and over use of ellipses). Thank goodness for the web and two of my friends’ husbands who are graphic designers – they are my “go to” with technical software program questions.  When I’m stuck and can’t decide on something design related, I ask my sister (not formally trained either, but has an eye for design and does a lot of my hand drawn illustrations for Penelope’s Press).

4. Please describe your workspace and process for filling orders.

I work from home and take over more space than I should.  Living in the Midwest, the winters are cold and summers are humid, so my first press, a Craftsmen Superior tabletop press, paper and envelopes, ink, rollers, and some type are in one room in the house. When my letterpress collection got out of hand, I needed a space that could handle the weight of the equipment, so my husband graciously let me have a quarter of the garage.  We had walls built, double doors and lighting installed, and the electric revamped to house two Chandler and Price presses (one motorized and one foot treadle operated), a Potter Proof press, a guillotine paper cutter, and a type cabinet. The oldest of my equipment dates back as early as 1903.

Working at home has both benefits and drawbacks so I have to utilize my time wisely.  My day usually starts at 7am.  I set the kids up with breakfast while I have my morning coffee and catch up on blog reading, emails, and check on my Etsy account, Facebook fanpage, and Google Analytics.  During the day, I mainly play with the kids and (try to) keep house.  Once the kids nap, I get a solid 2-3 hours to think of new designs, collaborate with my sister on artwork, list new items on Etsy, and write an occasional blog post.

My printing is almost always done after everyone is sound asleep and I usually make a post office run on Saturday mornings. I should also mention I have a very supportive husband who helps tremendously around the house and is “Mr. Mom” when I am swamped with custom orders and side projects. I also have an iPhone that I am attached to and sneak in email replies throughout the day.

5. What has been the hardest part about starting a letterpress business?

Getting the thousands of pounds of iron and metal to my home. I had to scour the web and ask, ask, ask to find a press. Then I had to check the equipment out to make sure it was in working order (some of which required hours of driving to remote places). After the inspection is made and the deal is finalized, the hard part is trying to figure out how to get it back to my home. In my case, I needed the time, manpower, a trailer, forklift, and pallet jack.

6. What are your future plans for Penelope’s Press?

I officially just opened up my Etsy shop a few weeks ago so right now I’m just trying to build my product offerings and customer base and get the word out that Penelope’s Press is open for business.  One day, I would love to be sold retail and be able to offer products wholesale.

5 comments

  1. Cassandra says:

    These are too cute!
    Debbie, what letterpress machine of yours do you find easiest to do standard stationery? Or which one is your favorite & why?
    I am interested in purchasing one for fun, but they seem like a huge commitment and like you said they take up so much space!

    Great interview!

  2. debbie says:

    thank you cassandra! i love all my presses equally, ha! honestly though, the different presses do different things.. the smaller the press, the easier it is to transport, but also constrains you to a smaller printing area.. the bigger the press, the heavier, but bigger printing area and more impression strength. pros and cons for both tabletop and floor presses. if you want to discuss more, you can email me direct at debbie@penelopespress.com… i’d love to share my experience with you!

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