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.