Empowering manufacturers. Creating jobs. Transforming our city.

Dependable Letterpress is a San Francisco letterpress print shop specializing in fine printing and custom work. Joel and his skilled craftspeople share a passion for paper.

We got a chance to interview Joel, owner of Dependable Letterpress, in June 2017.

Check out their website here. You should also stop by their store at 1192 Illinois Street in the Dogpatch for the complete experience: they are open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday, and Joel meets people on weekends by appointment.

Joel Benson, Owner (left) and Tho Tran, Press Operator (right).

Joel, what is Dependable Letterpress?
We are a specialty print shop that specializes in a heritage print process. We emphasize top-quality materials as well as printing, because our clients are largely from the design or luxury industries where that kind of thing really matters.

We’ve got three Heidelberg windmill presses, among others. This print process is at one level obsolete but on the other not — because it produces a printing effect that cannot be done any other way. They haven’t figured out how to make an impression into paper with an inkjet printer yet!

I actually just talked on a panel for SF Design Week about the resilient interest in analog technology. Even though digital technology is becoming so all-encompassing, there’s still this real core appreciation for analog. We are all human beings, and even high tech companies’ employees appreciate materials and special things like our products.

How did the company get started?
I started in 2002 as a single-person operation and built it slowly over the years. It was a slow, organic growth, and we did very little marketing. Even recently, it’s mostly been word-of-mouth.
We just celebrated our 15-year anniversary on April 1st, 2017.

Joel, what’s your story and background?
I am from here originally, and went to UC Santa Cruz for College.
I started learning to print in College, then got an art degree in print-making. I didn’t have the idea to have my own business at that time but I enjoyed printing and the history of print-making and book-making.

I apprenticed for a company that made limited-edition books, then worked for a commercial printer here in San Francisco and learned the discipline of commercial printing as opposed to art printing.

In 2002, fifteen years ago, I was looking for work and not finding anything, and thought that maybe I should start my own company. A friend hooked me up with a press and I got going! For the first year or so, everything I earned I turned back into buying more equipment, and then quickly realized I had so much that I needed to rent a space, and… you just keep adding things.

I hired my first employee in 2004. We are now three full-time employees, including myself, and two part-time. My two longest-serving employees have been with me 8 and 9 years.

Who are your main clients?

One of my favorite clients is the Musée Mécanique out of Fisherman’s Wharf. We print the fortunes that are vended out of the fortune telling machines. You put your coins in and the little dummy moves its hands. The cards need to be a certain thickness, too thick for most printing presses, but our machines can do that… so we keep printing these fortunes for them! It’s a special stock we have custom-made specifically for the Musée.

We also work for a lot of the big tech firms. We’ve printed for Apple, AirBnB, Youtube, Google… many of the really big tech firms. Some people think that’s really odd that these super high-tech companies want to print that way. But our core client base is designers, as they have the highest appreciation for what we do.

What’s new at Dependable Letterpress?
The newest thing we’re working on is putting in a little store [at 1192 Illinois Street, San Francisco].
We have not really been the kind of shop that makes ready-made products, we are primarily a contract printer. But over the years, we have started offering design services, which has resulted in leftover ideas and things we really wanted to turn into cards.

We will focus on selling these cards right here, and will not offer them wholesale for the time being. I was also surprised to see people walk in the door and want to buy something, you know? Passers-by wanting to spend some money and asking, “what do you have for sale?” We figured we really had to put something up!

Why manufacture locally?
I grew up here. What we do is really tactile, with specialty materials and a specialty process that most people don’t understand very well. It really serves to be where my clients are and where they can come in, see things, touch the paper, realize that two papers have a different finish and choose the one that’s important to them. This would be much more difficult to do over the Internet, or by mailing things back and forth.

What we do is such a tactile, even sensual experience that it’s much better to do it in real life. That’s why I really want to stay here, that’s been my priority rather than just looking for cheaper commercial space further out.

I live in the Mission, and I can ride my bicycle to work, and to me that’s worth a lot. It’s a quality of life.

Why did you join SFMade?
I joined SFMade because it simply seemed like a good idea!

I resonate with SFMade’s appreciation for the local, really. Even while San Francisco needs housing and I’m happy to see all the construction that’s going on as a result, it is also difficult to see all these warehouses being converted into condos, because once it goes that way, they will not be converted back into workspaces. I am all for integrating people’s work with their lives.

-an interview by Janet & Pierre @ SFMade