"A man without words is a man without thought.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden.
Nick Sambrato loves what he does and he loves doing it well. It takes only minutes in talking with Nick to find out that he takes what he does seriously, but not in a pretentious way. By showing and striving for quality in what you do, you can show that you are striving for quality in who you are. Late nights, dirty jeans, rough hands, tired eyes, all these things are badges of honor when you’re doing something you love. His work ethic and entrepreneurial drive are what brought him to the world of print, but not the sole reasons for keeping him there.
We love the idea of the craft and the type of man who takes pride in his work — sees what he builds as an extension of himself.
That's one thing I think of; those guys. My dad was a construction worker. It was his identity. He took pride in it. He built things, and he never got away from it. I've found, that has taken root in me.
My father talked about my grandfather who loaded trucks and laid bricks, that was what they did and what defined them. So the idea of working with your hands — my hands — came as second nature to me.
I hope that people will never lose the wonder that comes with gadgetry contraptions.
What drives you and your work ethic?
Everyone has to work for what they have. I'm Italian, and you're drilled with "everything we have, we've worked for and we've earned" — so that's what drives me. Who we are, we've earned. And there is this spirit that has followed through in my family, that immigrant "gotta make it happen" mentality.
My family was similar. My grandfather always played the hand he was dealt, without whining. It was the idea of hard work and personal responsibility. That's a gentleman, taking pride in what they do.
Absolutely. And you don't have to work with your hands to do that. It's about loving what you do. I'm a workaholic. It's about seven o'clock right now and after this, I'm heading back to my shop to print some more. Freedom is a misnomer, and I've always had that "work for yourself" mentality. To me, there's some pride in that.
I see working for yourself as creating, even if you're not creating with your hands. On a spiritual level, if you believe that something created us and you want to identify with that creator on a basic level, then creating something on your own is a good thing. It lines up with the entrepreneurial spirit. How I relate to something like that is I'm a creator.
How did you get into opening a print shop?
Initially, I never set out to be a printer. I'm an entrepreneur first and foremost. I'm 30 and I've probably had at least 30 jobs. This whole thing sort of fell in my lap when I bought a poster printing company.
I was trying to get some posters done for a band, and I started ordering these posters from a company we'd always ordered from. Their website wasn't working, specifically their credit card processing was just not working. I had a good enough relationship with the guys running it that I could call them. I got a hold of him and found out that they were over it, over running the business.
I thought, “I have couple of dollars”, literally couple of dollars, and I personally knew enough people using the company that I felt a "couple of dollars" would be worth buying it. I had a lawyer send a contract over right away, you know because it seemed like a really pretty incredible deal, what I offered them and what they agreed to. We signed the paperwork and I moved the entire contents of that business in my Mini Cooper.
They told me the basics of it and I came back with a friend, Joey. There we were, two assholes and a copy machine. I was just letting that thing do what it does. I was managing bands and thought I was going to stay in the music business, but I didn’t want to run a record label anymore. I was getting over the music thing and thought “maybe I can invest in this printing thing a little more”, so I started becoming more hands on.
What lead you from digital printing to screen printing and letterpress?
Eventually, I bought a friend’s (Austin) screen printing company. Screen printing blew my mind to pieces — printing gig posters with screens and squeegees in real ink (that ran). I learned how to screen print in two weeks, and that was it, I was a screen printer. That’s what made me fall in love with printing, because that was really printing.
Austin, who is now our head designer, he is the guy responsible for the Mama's Sauce brand. It’s weird, people ask me to go do talks on design and branding, but Austin is the actual designer. My role is more of a creative director, but I am honestly honored that Austin values my input as much as he does. The man is incredibly talented.
You’ve mentioned you love being an entrepreneur, what was your first business?
When I was 13 I started a bulletin board service. I had my IBM 386 clone with two floppies and 10 megabyte hard drive. I had two modems in there and two phone lines in my room, I was running a bulletin board with subscription service where people could log in and play ASCII games that I wrote. I remember the first check I got, for $300, from someone subscribing for a year to all the games that I had on my computer.
I was a little hobbit in my room, and I fell in love with the idea that “this is mine, I made this, I am running this.” From thereon, I set out to do my own thing.
(PART II continued below)
Do you find letterpress machines great visually? Or, are you in love with the tangibility of the end product?
Letterpress machines are beautiful. They move incredibly — you instantly see the ingenuity behind it and think of the great minds that put this together. It’s mind boggling.
Modern machines lack transparency; like in our digital press, which is a plastic box. That’s probably why the clear neon computer tower you had in the late 90’s didn’t last. You make it transparent and there’s no gadgetry going on, so where’s the wonder? Charlie would have been severely disappointed if he had walked into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and it was all dip switches and circuit boards.
On the other hand, you flip on this letterpress and all of a sudden everything is moving around, the wheel is turning and paper is being picked up by a set of vacuum tips on these weird and crazy finger arms. You watch it work, you instantly think, "it’s so simple" (yet you could have never come up with the idea to create this thing on your own). You respect it. On the same hand you think, "I can fix this machine if it breaks" but if your copy machine breaks, you throw it out and buy new one.
Can you give us a brief intro to letterpresses?
Letterpress had a run from 1450 until 1950 and offset had a run from 40’s, 50’s until I don’t know how much longer, but digital is already invading the offset world like little weird cyborgs — it’s like The Terminator of offset presses, and once The Terminator gets in there, eventually, the whole world is going to be run by robots. That only serves to make what we do a little more unique and little more sought after. We’ve reached a point where there are fewer and fewer letterpresses. I think there’s a company in Japan that is making little table-top, homemade hand presses, but people aren’t building production machines anymore. Actual production machines like this you will never see again.
Do you consider yourself a collector of letterpresses?
I wouldn’t say we are hoarding letterpresses, but I will call myself a collector. Between my table-top presses and my production presses, I am up to 8. They are beautiful. I walk into the back room, and we have a row of letterpresses just standing there. It’s just gorgeous to me. Each with their own unique character. I will probably continue to collect them, and if I ever move on from this venture to another, I will probably take a press with me, I just love it that much. I almost can’t see not having one in my garage.
Do you like the idea of tradition in being a printer?
I love the idea of traditions. We have interns at our shop and I keep an apprentice in the true sense of the word. There is something traditional about that, this trade kind of calls for it.
Do you see yourself doing this for a significant amount of time?
Like I said before, if I ever am not running Mama’s Sauce or working at Mama’s Sauce or Mama’s Sauce fails, I am going to pull my favorite press out of that sink hole and put it in my garage. I obviously couldn’t tell you how long Mama’s Sauce will be around, I hope it goes on forever. For me though, no matter where the wind blows me, letterpress printing will always be with me.
Photographs & Video: JonPaul Douglass
Interview & Introduction by Aaron Martin
Design by Danny Jones
Mama's Sauce: Three Italians, a bowl of ink & a printshop
Where did the name "Mama's Sauce" come from?
I was working with Austin and Joey — (we were three Italian dudes) when we got the screen printing shop. We couldn’t operate in the little 10x10 office that we were in anymore, so we rented a vacant house next door to mine. We screen printed in the living room, mixed ink in the kitchen, and had two bedrooms. One was storage, one was office space.
One night, there was culmination of events, and I asked Austin to do a mark for the company. At the time, I was mixing ink for a t-shirt in the kitchen, it was red ink in a blue bowl, and I had put too much additive in, I didn’t know what I was doing, and it made the ink chunky. With the stove behind it and the microwave and the refrigerator and it being in a bowl, it was almost like I could see spaghetti in there. I thought it was such a great parallel, being Italian guys.
Mama’s Sauce, that’s it!
Mama's Sauce Print Shop
1620 A Alden Rd
Orlando, FL 32803
Kluge: Wielding A One Ton Hunk Of Steel Everyday
The Kluge: a fully-automated, 20th-century press with pneumatic feed and sheet delivery.
Maintaing and using 8 letterpress machines at his print shop, Nick is weilding steel, oil, ink and paper on a daily basis.