Hand & Eye Letterpress, London

Hand & Eye Letterpress: fine printers and suppliers of letterpress type, London

Phil Abel runs Hand & Eye Letterpress, London.

6 Pinchin Street, London E1 1SA

Establishing Hand & Eye: Phil’s Account

For most of the time I owned it, my Arab platen lay in pieces.

My part in its story starts with a fire in a local school which resulted in the print room being dismantled. Some years later, in the late 1970s, they were keen to clear out the old equipment and a chance meeting with the art teacher led to them offering it to me. Rounding up a group of friends to help with the move, I came away with my first full-size cases of type, two stones, several Model platens, a small treadle platen and the crown folio Arab.

All of this was heavy, of course, and difficult to move, but the hardest of all was the stripped-down Arab. There were two great pieces of cast iron, both heavier at one end and so particularly awkward to lift and carry. To make matters worse, one of them was hinged. Some of it was painted royal blue, but where the metal was bare it was coated with a thin layer of rust. We managed to lug all this down the steep steps into my mother’s cellar, none of us imagining that it would sty there for six or seven years.

This was quite a haul for me. I had started printing on an Adana 8 x 5 with a few miniature cases of Times New Roman and Palace Script. Now I had more presses than I could possibly use and copious supplies of Baskerville and Gill Sans. There were various plans for setting this all up and using it, but they came to nothing. Gradually homes were found for the other presses, leaving me with the Arab and the type, cabinets and stones. At first the type was sorted and printed on the Adana, but as I became more involved in work and house renovation that trickled to a halt.

Then my employers and I parted company. I relished the freedom, applied unsuccessfully for a few jobs and wondered what to do with myself. I was about to turn thirty, and reckoned that if I did not try printing for a living then I might never have another chance. Four months after becoming unemployed I opened the doors of Hand & Eye Printing.

The name, subsequently changed to Hand & Eye Letterpress, was chosen to reflect the philosophy behind the venture. Interested in the idea of craft work, I had read about Eric Gill and his views on the subject. They resonated with me, and I hoped the name would convey my intention to produce jobbing printing to high standards.

It seemed that the Arab fitted in with this well. Treadle powered, I thought it would help avoid the evils of machine made things that Gill warned against. The fact that it was powered by a renewable energy source, namely myself, also appealed.

There remained the question of how to convert the several pieces of metal and wood into a working printing press. Indeed, I had no idea whether the machine was complete. A printers’ engineer was recommended to me, and he surveyed what I had and thought it would work. He knew about treadle platens, having crushed the end of one of his fingers in one as a boy.

Early one snowy January morning the machine back came up those cellar steps and was taken to my new workshop in the East End of London. Liam had been right, and that afternoon it was in one piece. However, the rollers had long since perished so I could not print anything on it, and the guard was incomplete, but the machine turned over. I decided I could work without the guard, and Liam introduced me to the venerable and local firm of Harrild & Partners, who had the rollers recovered for me. He also sowed the seeds of the Arab’s demise.

Teasing me a little, he said I would really have arrived when I had a Heidelberg platen, and told me how a minder used to run three of them at once: one on a long run, one on medium runs and one on short runs. Although I never expected to have that amount of work my imagination was fired. What I did not then realise was that you can turn out a lot of work that way but it is unlikely to be very well printed.

Just as I was getting my new business organised Matrix 4 was published. I did not know the journal then, but I was told about the article on the Arab in that issue. Fortunately I was still able to find a copy by the time I heard about it. Geoffrey Osbourne’s piece was of great interest, and his list of serial numbers told me that my machine had been built in 1911.

Once the new rollers arrived I had the painstaking job of adjusting the impression. I imposed a full forme with new type at each corner and adjusted the four impression bolts behind the type bed to get an even impression. Then I had to do something about the roller tracks. The leather that had originally covered them was old and tatty and a replacement had to be found. Seeing some discarded carton straps in the street one day I realised it was about the same width as the tracks. After packing out with strips of board and paper the rollers ran along it at the right height.

Up till then all my printing had been done on the Adana. I knew it was not big enough to produce the quality I wanted, but had no idea how fortunate it was that the Arab had come my way. Its great advantage was that the platen pivots right down by the floor rather that near its own base. Consequently as the machine turns over the platen is almost parallel to the type bed as it approaches it. The press is therefore more forgiving of incorrect packing of the platen than, say, a Heidelberg. This was a lesson that only came home to me later in my career.

The machine produced some nice work once was it was set up properly and I had got used to handling it. Looking back, it is amazing to remember that it printed the text of catalogues for a West End art gallery. Sometimes the sheet required was big enough to overlap the platen, but since it was hand fed this did not matter. I became adept at interleaving and could turn out a thousand sheets an hour. The trouble was that the treadling was damaging my knee. By the end of the first year I had to get larger premises and a motorised press. It took another year, but eventually I had both.

Although the new place was two and a half times the size of the old one I had filled it up before I even moved in. I had bought two proofing presses and a guillotine as well as a Heidelberg platen. The Arab was squeezed into the front by the window onto the street. It must have been many years since a treadle platen could be seen in operation in Clerkenwell, a traditional home of London printers. It attracted a lot of attention, particularly from former comps and minders who had moved onto other careers. It brought in quite a lot of work, too.

Quite by chance, the engineers from whom I had bought the Heidelberg were in the process of clearing out the premises of the recently demised Excelsior Printing Company. One winter evening they took me up to the dark dingy building in Edmonton, where I found some remnants of their handling of the Arab. There were parts lists and brochures, one of them a splendid item complete with ribbon and tassel. I kept them for some time until I realised that St Bride’s Printing Library was a better place for them than in my filing cabinet.

It took some time to learn to get a decent result from the Heidelberg but as I did the need for the Arab declined. My plan had been to have it motorised, but eventually I realised it would have to go. A sentimental attachment to it was overruled by the discovery that I could fit a Vertical Miehle into its space. They could be picked up for next to nothing and it would allow me to print a bigger sheet. I found one in due course, and looked for a home for the Arab. Scrapping it would be a last resort, so I advertised it in Exchange & Mart. The dealer who answered was planning to export it to Sri Lanka, where it would not be bothered by the high temperature and humidity. I like to think of it out there still, running as well now as it did when it was made more than ninety years ago.

Woodletter or Poster Types

Bigger type to produce those wonderful inky letterpress posters

Woodletter in Case
Woodletter in Case

Small printers would be asked to produce all manner of work, and one part of their service would be to produce posters.  Naturally they needed much larger type than used for books or jobbing work and poster types emerged as a class of type of their own.  Beyond 72pt (1 inch) it was usual for type to be made of wood, and it was measured in lines, 1 line being equal to 1 pica or 12 points.  So, wood letters 1 inch tall would be 72 points called 6 line.

Woodletter is traditionally stamped with the maker’s name on the top of the capital ‘A’.

Poster Type Makers

Robt. De Little of Vine Street, York are perhaps the most famous makers of woodletter.  Established in 1888 they ran until 1997 when demand fell to make the business unsustainable.   Their equipment went to the Type Museum, London who presumably have the equipment in store.  They were able to supply plastic-faced woodletter to improve the quality of the print and wear.  Claire Bolton of the Alembic Press researched their history and published accounts of their enterprise.

The famous metal typefounder Stephenson, Blake of Sheffield originally supplied wooden type made by another firm.  In 1907 they established a Woodworking Department and began producing woodletter a year later.  SB’s 1910 catalogue was the first to include their own poster type.

Both of these firms seemed to concentrate on servicable types; rather than the exotic, multiple-colour type that you could see on circus or theatre posters.

Renovating Woodletter

While today’s printers enjoy the unique effect that comes from slightly worn wooden type, earlier printers were keen to print a pristine image.  An article in the Small Printer in the mid 1980s suggested this —

  • Fill any cracks in the letter with a wood filler and allow this to dry
  • Place an empty chase on a perfectly flat surface.  Prop each corner of the chase with two or three layers of board.  This  thickness will be needed later to be applied to the back of the letter.
  • Place the letter in the chase face down and lock it up.  The result should be a face-down letter with a slight gap between the chase edges and the surface
  • Using a very fine abrasive paper, lightly sand the face of the letter until the chase and the abrasive paper meet: at this point you should have a smooth letter face, but not quite type high
  • Apply the same thickness of board to the back of the letter that you used to prop the chase up.  This should bring it back to type high

I personally would prefer not to do this sort of thing, but the demands of the moment often made printers do strange things with woodletter.  I’ve seen Vs become As by the addition of a cross bar and being turned over; and also the backs of seldom-used letters (like Zs) become new letters through hand carving.

Buying and Selling Woodletter

The market today is one area of letterpress where prices bear little relation to the value or original costs of the type.  There are three big consumers of woodletter: ebay sellers who occasionally break up large founts to sell individual characters; furniture makers who want to use it within pieces of furniture, for example a coffee table; and small printers who are keen to use it for its original purpose.

If you’re selling poster type, consider using the British Letterpress Classifieds service to reach printers directly; or contact me for specific advice.

Current Practitioners

There’s a wonderful charm to letterpress posters, and many contemporary letterpress printers still enjoy working with letterpress posters.  The grandee of woodletter printing is Alan Kitching who produces energetic letterpress posters — I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen them in popular circulation.  He claims to hold the largest collection of wood letter in the UK after he took on the types from a theatrical printer poster.  Ian Mortimer of IM Imprimit also claims to have Britain’s largest collection of woodletter and prints servicable posters on his Albion presses.  Also in London is Phil Abel at Hand & Eye currently selling posters through his online shop.

Justin Knopp’s Typoretum uses woodletter to produce excellent cards and posters.