Janelle Miller pumps a cast iron lever with her foot. Large wheels spin and turn as she hands-feeds sheet after sheet to capture a fresh layer of ink in her letterpress printer.

Miller can produce around 400 works of art per hour on this machine, which weighs 2,500 pounds and was built in the early 1900s. And, she didn’t want it to be any other way.

“We are not production. We don’t manage thousands and thousands of things. Honestly, we don’t want to,” she said.

Miller and Stacie Renne are behind Warrior Printress Letterpress & Design from Duluth. They print personalized wedding invitations, business cards and posters for Duluth Coffee Company, Tortoise and Hare and the Duluth Art Institute.

Janelle Miller runs a 100-plus-year-old printing press as she works on cards for a customer at Warrior Printress, located at the back of the Duluth Pottery building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth, Wednesday afternoon January 5, 2022.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

Their aesthetic is a mix of whimsical and funny with statements close to their values, Miller said.

Among their works: A framed sign reads “love wins” in all caps; a minimalist design of a winking Santa hovers above a ‘you’re dragging me’ greeting; and “Duluth: As queer as you are” appears above rainbow-colored letters.

Letterpress printers were discontinued in the 1980s.

“Literally, people were throwing them away just because they were going to? It’s a 2,000 pound paperweight,” Miller said.

Items made by Warrior Printress and Duluth Pottery
Items made by Warrior Printress share space with items made at Duluth Pottery.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

“It’s a great kind of steampunk artwork in itself,” Renne said.

While computers led to its demise, they are now contributing to a revival.

The art of letterpress printing, which requires the upside down and upside down arrangement of wood or metal blocks for a single design, can now be accomplished by printing a digital design onto polymer plastic plates. .

The combination of old and new is how they keep the business alive, Miller said.

Miller manages antique equipment; Renne focuses on graphic arts.

Warrior Printress' Stacie Renne Talks Logo Design
Stacie Renne talks about logo design at Warrior Printress on Wednesday, January 5, 2022 in Duluth.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

“A yin and a yang of design and engraving,” added Renne.

Miller launched Warrior Printress in 2012 after spending years as an apprentice at Kenspeckle Letterpress in Canal Park.

The craft is a weird balance between obsessing over details and inventing things on the fly. You need to have a mechanical aptitude and some creative problem-solving — and Miller has it all, said his mentor, Rick Allen of Kenspeckle Letterpress.

“When she worked with us, she really became our printer,” he recalls. “With the machine and the projects we were doing, I listened to his recommendations.”

It’s the hopeful transition of any teacher-student relationship: someone becoming confident and independent in their skills and knowledge, and then applying that, Allen added.

The pandemic prompted Allen to scale back his activity, which led to a move for Warrior Printress, which worked in their favor.

“If it’s possible to fly with 1,500 pounds of cast iron, they did it,” Allen said.

Stacie Renne checks out a test print at Warrior Printress under Janelle Miller's watches
Stacie Renne, right, checks a test print at Warrior Printress as Janelle Miller looks on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

Housed in the back of Duluth Pottery, Warrior Printress enjoys increased visibility with customers, a showcase space to regularly sell their work, and a larger creative environment.

Standing in their Lincoln Park spot, Renne demonstrated how they use their letter opener, aptly named “RBG” because it’s state-of-the-art and precise, Miller said.

Nothing about this process is about speed, said Renne, who joined the company in 2018. Everything is hand-cut, hand-printed, hand-folded.

Because of this, they each touch a single work about 20 times, and a lot of things can go wrong.

Janelle Miller of Warrior Printress points to a hand carved block print
Janelle Miller of Warrior Printress points to an impression made by a hand-carved block Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

Each letter of their wood or metal type may have a slightly different height.

Paper can be remarkably different between batches, you need to know how it takes and holds ink, and you always aim for consistency in custom work.

It can take a week to store the particular paper and a week to print, fold and cut projects. Type is a non-renewable resource, so there is special care in maintaining all elements of their tools and equipment – and they are constantly on the lookout for more.

For repairs, they may jump on a waiting list for a specialist technician. There is also an online forum and the original manuals to consult. Miller recently milled a spare part for the press out of necessity.

And there is certainly some risk associated with handling antique equipment.

“Most press people I’ve met in my 15 or so years in print, many have less than 10 fingers,” Miller said.

The presses are low maintenance – they are covered at night to reduce exposure to dust and they run like well-oiled machines. Literally.

Dry gears will cause problems.

“A puddle of oil under your press isn’t a bad thing,” Miller said, recalling Allen’s advice.

Warrior Printress prints hang on the walls of Duluth Pottery
Warrior Printpress prints hang on the walls of Duluth Pottery on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

All of this adds to the uniqueness of their works and rewarding parts.

“I am an artist through and through. … I can do what I think I’m on the planet to do,” Miller said.

“The beauty of what we do isn’t perfect – that’s sort of what it’s all about. Perfect is boring and not real.

“Maybe everything is perfect, and that’s even truer,” Miller said.

Rachel Wagner, Co-Founder and Acting Executive Director of Green New Deal Homes, hired Warrior Printress to create her logo and 150 hand-printed items to use as thank yous and acknowledgements.

“We are kindred spirits in business,” Wagner said.

“Not everything should be digital,” she continued. “Sometimes the way you move forward is with a handwritten note of request or reaching out, trying to establish a relationship. I have 150 chances to do it now.”

Janelle Miller runs a 100+ year old print shop to make cards
Janelle Miller operates a 100+ year old printing press to make cards for a Warrior Printress customer on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

Janelle Miller has taken the fandom to the next level.

Warrior Printress, the typography and design business she shares with Stacie Renne, pays homage to the television character Xena: Warrior Princess.

Kenspeckle Letterpress’ Rick Allen combined his early obsession with the show into the catchy business name it is today.

“We had started calling her our ‘warrior printer,'” Allen said.

The name is one that people often mistake, which Miller attributes to the popularity of content-sharing site Pinterest.

Miller is proud of his name and quick to correct when and if needed.

“It’s ‘Print-ress;’ we are printers,” she said.

“And warriors,” added Renne.

“We are also warriors; we want to be fierce printers,” Miller said.