Hand & Eye Letterpress, 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.