After losing his job as a Web designer during the dot-com era, Dan Rugh and his wife, Shannon, decided to launch their own T-shirt screen-printing business, Commonwealth Press, out of the basement of their South Side home. Last month they moved the company into a loft space above a beer distributor on the corner of S. 20th and East Carson streets, where they now hand-screen shirts for obscure punk-rock bands, big businesses and nearly everything in between.
How did you get started as a screen printer?
I started right out of college. My first job was up in Erie, and I was screen printing onto Frisbees. It was as close to a sweatshop as you could get.
Had you done any screen printing before that?
I had a class where we did it one time in college, but not really. I learned it through printing Frisbees. The process always amazed me, and eventually I moved to Virginia to live with a friend of mine and got a job in publishing. I was a production artist; I worked for their full-color scanning department. I worked in children's literature. And that's where I learned [computer graphics programs]. After that, I got a job working with a Web design firm. And during my last semester of grad school, as part of the whole dot-com crash, the company went out of business. I started getting some bigger freelance [T-shirt] clients, and they wanted more precision. I had one client that really wanted some [precise] stuff, so I looked into this [pointing at his $4,000 four-color screen printer]. My company was paying for my school the whole way through, and when they went under, I took out a student loan. There's my student loan [points again to printer].
Who were you printing shirts for when you first started out? Friends who were in bands?
Absolutely. The cool thing about this is that I've always done Web design for friends' bands. And I actually helped put out some albums. I was running a Web site called 814, and it was just centered on all my friends' bands out in Altoona. So I started putting out a couple of my friends' albums and promoting them on this Web site. And just by these guys playing shows and giving out my stickers, next thing you'd know, I'm getting more [Web site] traffic and this band needs more shirts, and that band needs more shirts. I just got so busy, and when Shannon moved here, she was selling cars. It took me months -- months! -- to get her to quit her job and come help me. I was like, "Please, I need some help!"
How did you know for sure that you'd be able to make a living at this full time?
The leap was actually when the Internet company I was working for went under. To be honest, I don't think I could have done it otherwise. I was just kind of like, "What are you going to do now?" So I went to the Small Business Development Center at Duquesne University, and they helped me out. To this day, we still haven't advertised the business. It's all word-of-mouth.
How much time do you spend working here?
It's weird; we were just talking about how life has become work, and vice versa. It's hard to say, but we're probably here 14 hours a day. But we live right up the street, and if I hit the light right, I only have a 43-second commute.
So are you making good money now, or is it kind of a touch-and-go situation?
We're existing. It's not like we're going to run out and buy a car or anything. Right now, we're just trying to see how this is all going to work. It's so much fun. It's addictive as hell!