January 16, 2019
Artcrafts Engraving Co.
DEFINITION: Devoted to a task or purpose. Exclusively allocated to or intended for a particular purpose.
Striding through the doors of Artcrafts Engraving Co. transports you from the modern streets of St. Joseph back through our history in manufacturing. Walls are covered floor to ceiling in our city’s past, with logos, artwork, and advertisements dating as far back as the Aunt Jemima Flour Mill, complete with a Jefferson Highway sign tucked away in the corner. The smell of metal tooling and photography chemicals fill the air, while the sounds of whirring equipment underlie the rushing waters of the entryway koi pond. Still, despite the sights and sounds, what will strike you most is the unyielding passion the dedicated people of Artcrafts bring to their craft.
Founded in 1913, Artcrafts Engraving was more than just an engraving company. From the outset the owners employed advertisers and artists to meet the needs of the growing industries of St. Joseph. According to W.H. Guenther Sr., the company’s first president, the corporate mission was simple: “Whatever the client wants, whenever the client wants it, we’re gonna get it to them.” With several skilled artisans on staff, Artcrafts soon set themselves apart as a company that could “do it all.” One Artcrafts Engraving alum, Fred Harman, was an early collaborator with a young fellow named Walt Disney. As if working with one of the most influential people of the 20th century wasn’t enough, Harman also was a co-creator of the Red Ryder comic strip – whose most memorable addition to pop culture wasn’t actually the heroic red headed cowboy, but rather the licensed carbine action air rifle it inspired.
In addition to their renowned artistic work, Artcrafts Engraving also cut a name for themselves with their wide variety of highly specialized photography equipment. An early model 360 degree camera was used to take many early photos of St. Joseph, including a collection of the town’s first motorized fire engines at the corner of Noyes and Ashland in 1923. Of course, one can’t mention their impressive camera collection without addressing the 15’ elephant in the room. This photographic giant was used to scale up small proofs to gigantic proportions long before the days of digitization existed! Now we can just click, zoom, cut, and paste our way to a larger image, but for decades it required real photographic artistry to scale an image up without losing clarity, or resolution.
While they provide a wide variety of graphic arts services for customers in over a dozen states, the most common request is for photoengraving, which is used in the printing industry to transfer a design to a product. Clients send a digital image file, which is edited and optimized on the computer by Artcrafts. The digital image is then used to create a film negative (black and white), which then gets sent to the engraving equipment. Simply put, the film negative is placed on specially coated magnesium plate stock, and then exposed to light and chemicals which precisely etches the metal that is not covered by the film negative image. Any imperfections from the etching process are then cleaned off the remaining magnesium plate, and the engraving is complete.
Artcrafts Engraving has remained a family oriented business, passing from W.H. Guenther Sr. to son Bill Guenther, who worked side-by-side with his intelligent and competent wife Elaine Guenther for over 50 years. Today Elaine and her multi-talented daughter-in-law Tammy Guenther are jointly running the business, two capable women finding success in the historically male-dominated printing industry.
Tammy is the wife of Bill and Elaine’s youngest son Max Guenther, who grew up around Artcrafts and remembers being given small jobs around the shop to keep him occupied and out from underfoot. While he eventually would move to Hawaii and become a partner in an award-winning architectural firm, Max is a St. Joseph native at heart and has spent the last several years splitting time between designing beautiful structures in Hawaii and planning for the future of Artcrafts in St. Joseph.
As stewards of a business with a legacy of over 100 years of creating exactly what their customers need…the Artcrafts team is keeping an eye on the future of the industry, evolving the company’s offerings as the needs of their clients change and grow.
“We have a lot of unique stuff here, equipment and proofing presses that are historical and almost impossible to find,” says Max. “If you look at many of the big names in St. Joseph history – Aunt Jemima, Big Chief, Chase Candy, Hillyard, Goetz, Wire Rope – our plates had a part in all of their histories.” Looking around the walls at Artcrafts Engraving, from historical cameras, hand tinted photos, and original artwork, it’s clear that this St. Joseph gem has had a major part to play in our city’s rich history.
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