Cranking up Christmas

by Tom Campbell

  • Posted: 4 weeks ago

Christmas Card Design

Toolbox gets the lead out this holiday  

Anyone who's been to our office in December knows there is no shortage of Christmas cheer here at Toolbox Creative. A Very Toolbox Christmas rocks around the clock on Pandora, and we have deep conversations and lively debates about the best Christmas movies and holiday songs. 

My personal love of Christmas music is borderline obsessive. In an effort to feed that obsession a few years ago, I created a comprehensive infographic mapping out the best Christmas songs ever. Of course, feeding something only makes it stronger, so my efforts resulted in me going from being obsessed with Christmas music to being obsessed with Christmas music and knowing a lot about Christmas music.

The Toolbox Christmas spirit also extends to our love of holiday cards. Last year, we illustrated our favorite Christmas movie characters, debated whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is) and discovered Jonathan's uncanny knack for bringing abominable snowmen to life.

This Christmas, we decided to get our hands dirty, get back to our roots and create a letterpress Christmas card. Before Toolbox, Dawn owned a full letterpress shop, complete with a Vandercook, a Chandler & Price indelicately known as the Widowmaker and more than a hundred lead and wood typefaces. The guys she bought the shop from told her the C&P was too much press for a woman. That didn't go well.

Dawn, of course, proved those silly men wrong, mastered the Widowmaker, and in 2003, even did a week-long internship down at Hatch Showprint in Nashville, the Mecca of letterpress printing. It was like designer fantasy camp. The Johnny Cash poster on our fridge happened to be printed at Hatch during her stint. 

Alas, as it was hard to get a business off the ground and run a letterpress shop in our spare time, the presses couldn't get the love they deserved and we passed the shop on to folks who would give it lots of love.

Leterpress holiday cards, wood type

One of those fine folks was Steve Sedam of Ink Pop Studios, who was kind enough to lend us back our old wood type collection this holiday season. We sat with the type in our studio for a week or two and Shane and Jonathan played around with some compositions. We raided our storage closet and found some sweet blue linen paper left over from an annual report we designed about a decade ago.

While we had a feel for what we wanted, in keeping with the fun of letterpress, the design would not truly come to life until we all got our hands dirty.

The Toolbox Creative crew getting down with the Wolverines


Our holiday card journey took us a full 2,640 feet down the street to our neighbors at Wolverine Farm Letterpress and Publik House. Jess and the crew at Wolverine are the real deal. They really know their stuff and are keeping the art of letterpress alive and well in Fort Collins. The Wolverines welcomed us with warm beverages and the spirit of experimentation that makes letterpress a beautiful thing.

While day-to-day, some of us do design and some of us do all the other important work that allows designers to design for a living, this project was an all-hands-on-deck affair.

Toolbox Creative Holiday Card Design
Some of Steve's wood type, along with some sweet icons from Jess's collection.

Mind your Ps and Qs

Cradling our warm beverages, Lulu crafted a message for the interior, we selected typefaces and got to work hand-setting the card's interior message. We pulled out a couple drawers full of lead type and went about finding each letter one at a time.

Toolbox Creative — typesetting lead type

Shane gets the lead out, literally — typesetting the interior holiday greeting

While the drawers were well-organized, time had taken its toll on the most popular letters and there were not enough of certain characters within a typeface, so we had to improvise. We also goofed up. When you're looking at a lower case q in lead type, it's backwards, so  it looks just like a lower case p. So, while we intended for our message to be, You're just our type, the first proof came off the press as You're just our tyqe. Whoops. Turns out we were not minding our Ps and Qs. While there are several unsubstantiated sources for this expression — designers know it's hard to tell Ps from Qs and even harder to put them back in the right place when you're done. We experienced that firsthand. 

Toolbox Creative Letterpress design

Setting lead type is just like setting type on the computer, except you need to do it backwards and you shouldn't touch your face

Let it roll

Now it was time to get cranking. We ran the first color pass, a blue-on-blue pattern of Ho Ho Hos and fun little Christmas dingbats. Everybody took their turn inking up the press, hand-feeding one sheet of paper at a time and cranking the Vandercook. Now we know why Jess's right arm looks like Popeye's.

Lulu gets crankingLulu gets cranking on the Vandercook

We ran 250 sheets through the Vandercook, then printed the interior on the C&P and finally ran the second color on the front of the cards — an opaque white Toolbox tree-o-type.

Letterpress holiday cards


Toolbox Creative Holiday Card DesignFrosty beverages awaited us once we finished operating heavy machinery

Holiday Cheer

A good time was had by all, we cranked out our Christmas cards in about a half-day — record time for Toolbox. It was a ton of fun using muscles other than our brains to make design. 

Nothing says Merry Christmas like opaque white ink on linen

About Toolbox Creative:

Toolbox Creative is a B2B technology branding firm. We speak Engineer, translating complex technologies and bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it. We convert tech talk into brand love and connect tech companies with their customers.

We are on a mission to help technologists, innovators and engineers prove how their big ideas and innovative technologies can change the world.

Our Brand Engineering process empowers technology brands to take on the dominant players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increase their brand equity and grab market share.