kurts kustom

50 Years of Printing with Kurt's Kustom Promotions

Mike Clark is the associate editor for Printwear and Sign & Digital Graphics magazines. Contact him at mclark@nbm.com

For many decorators, screen printing is a lifelong endeavor, whether that means a passion for the craft early on, or a career path that finds its way into the world of inks, presses, and piles of blank T-shirts. For Kurt Pfister, owner and founder of Kurt’s Kustom Promotions, the foray into the screen printing world crosses multiple decades.  

Before screen printing, Pfister had a completely different idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Splitting his life between Miami and Detroit, he was introduced to multiple industries.

“My dad was a doctor, so I dabbled with the idea of doing that for a while,” explains Pfister. However, he adds, a curiosity of the ocean during his youth in Miami steered him towards marine biology.

After applying to multiple colleges, Pfister found himself accepted to a marine biology program in Hawaii in the late 1960s. Once settled there he found a job in the local service industry, working as a surfing instructor for a beachside hotel. Before long, he explains how screen printing T-shirts crept into his livelihood. While the hotel logo was brandished on various buildings and vehicles around the property, Pfister says employees didn’t have any branded T-shirts to wear.

“I scoured around the local area and found a screen-printing supply shop,” he states. “I asked him the cost of one wood frame, one X-acto blade, a quart of ink, and some lacquer film.”

Using his supplies, including a decal of the hotel logo, Pfister began printing a batch of branded hotel T-shirts. Hotel management took notice and he soon found himself with his first official job. Pfister began sourcing T-shirt suppliers and accommodating the hotel with various designs for its gift shop and staff T-shirts.

kurt's kustom promotions
Pfister manually screen printing shirts. (All images courtesy Kurt Pfister)

Pfister notes that his early screen-printing business was the epitome of manual printing. In addition to printing shirts entirely by hand with handmade frames and stencils, shirts were air-dried from the warm Hawaiian air.

As volume and demand continued to grow, Pfister moved his business into a space in downtown Honolulu. Scaling up for larger jobs, he built his own manual press from plywood and angle irons for single-color prints. While business continued to flourish with the surfing instruction community and other tourism industries, Pfister found himself at an impasse as the early 1970s arrived. A major strike in 1971 by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) caused ripple effects throughout industries in Hawaii, amongst other places.

“When the boats stop coming in (to Hawaii), you’ve got nothing,” says Pfister. Hotels around the area began to shut down, and blank T-shirts gradually stopped shipping in.

Pfister headed back to Detroit to continue his screen-printing endeavors, taking in jobs with a four-color press and a dryer. Gradually growing his client list, Pfister unknowingly landed a large-scale job in 1974. The concession agent for Bob Seger approached Pfister’s shop to print 1,200 custom baseball jerseys for Seger’s upcoming tour. Still a rising figure in the rock world, Seger’s trajectory to stardom coincided with larger and larger jobs for Pfister’s shop. As the rocker’s crowds grew to stadium levels, Pfister upgraded to automatic equipment to accommodate the volume of shirt orders that arrived, sometimes coming as tractor trailer loads.

Setting him on the path to larger jobs, Pfister saw more wholesale clients come through the door from the hot market and team apparel world, including the Detroit Red Wings. Since the 1980s, he says it’s been a constant stream of these industries.

“The last 20-25 years has been contract work,” he says, adding that various distributors in the local area are repeat clients. “We’ve done work for Ford, ABC Sports, and General Motors.”

kurt's kustom promotions
Pfister at work in Michigan.

As his 50-year anniversary in the industry comes into sight this fall, Pfister also adds that the importance of a referral network still holds true despite his company’s thriving work. Communicating with other printers helps keep the flow of clients steady, he explains.

“We’ve partnered with two other printers in our area that run automatics,” he states. “If they get slow, we can turn some work to them, and if we get slow, they’re glad to throw some work our way.”

A good rapport with other printers, as well as keen attention to clients, he says, is part of what’s kept him busy in the industry for so many years.

“You’re not necessarily always going to bring in a million-dollar job,” says Pfister. “But you always have to make sure your customers are happy.”

For more information, visit www.kurtskustom.biz