Finding a Press

For those wish­ing to print let­ter­press, the choice is wide-but it’s all second-hand, nowadays. Ads in news-sheets such as the Oxford Guild of Print­ers and that of the Brit­ish Print­ing Soci­ety, loc­al auc­tions and eBay provide leads. All the type you are likely to be offered is of a stand­ard height, so inter­change­able between machines of dif­fer­ing size and make. Prices are essen­tially nego­ti­able, there being no ‘book’ or ‘offi­cial’ scale it is simply a mat­ter of arriv­ing at a fig­ure accept­able to both parties.

Small presses requir­ing little space, which can be lif­ted by one or two people and car­ried in a private car are more in demand and thus cost more. That includes most bench-moun­ted hand-presses, smal­ler treadle-platens and smal­ler gal­ley presses. Nev­er inten­ded to print more than roughly-inked read­ers’ proofs, few gal­ley presses incor­por­ate any means of accur­ately pos­i­tion­ing paper and are best suited to short run posters, smallish lino-cuts, etc. Some, such as the later Far­ley series, with adjustable impres­sion height, auto­lift, grip­pers and feed-board, and occa­sion­ally with a prim­it­ive self-ink­ing sys­tem can, with great care, pro­duce con­sist­ent high-qual­ity res­ults; rel­at­ively light and com­pact, these are worth seek­ing. Super­fi­cial rust is eas­ily cleaned but the resi­li­ent ‘cloth­ing’ of the impres­sion cyl­in­der should be sound. This ‘rub­ber coat­ing’ can be replaced, but meas­ure up and get a quote.

Appear­ance can affect price, the more dec­or­at­ive machines fetch­ing more than their aus­tere coun­ter­parts. The first gen­er­a­tion of iron hand-presses, with hori­zont­al platens — Albions, Columbi­ans, Imper­i­als, etc. are much sought after, in their smal­ler sizes, as ikons of interi­or dec­or­a­tion and tend to pass a gen­teel retire­ment in car­peted print­ing works foy­ers or enthu­si­asts’ draw­ing rooms. Their cur­rent value is thus around 500 times what they were deemed worth 50 years ago. Like pro­fes­sion­al view-cam­er­as, they are cap­able, in well-informed sens­it­ive hands, of high qual­ity work of amaz­ing ver­sat­il­ity, but demand a well-planned almost cere­mo­ni­al approach. For texts they def­in­itely con­sti­tute ‘the long way round’ — if you reg­u­larly make cof­fee in a Cona you will prob­ably enjoy using one; if the ‘des­tin­a­tion is more import­ant than the jour­ney’, stick with self-ink­ing ver­tic­al platen and cyl­in­der presses.

The prices of most oth­er presses bulki­er than the smal­lest treadle platens reflect the space required to house them and, per­haps more import­ant, the cost of hir­ing spe­cial equip­ment — or pro­fes­sion­al help — to carry them. Awk­ward loc­a­tions neces­sit­at­ing hoists and some dis­mant­ling to get a machine out of its cur­rent home can reduce its value to zero, irre­spect­ive of con­di­tion. Once you have learn’t your way around them, lar­ger pro­fes­sion­al machines can more eas­ily deliv­er high qual­ity print­ing than their small cheaply built coun­ter­parts. Some, when new cost the price of a decent car when a small Adana cost the price of a wheel­bar­row! If you have space, a machine which owes little more than the cost of trans­port can thus prove a good bar­gain.

How­ever, few of us require high speed — even by 1950s stand­ards — the abil­ity to hand-feed paper of awk­ward shape and sub­stance being our pri­or­ity. So the mech­an­ic­al com­plex­ity of fast pro­duc­tion machines requir­ing expert main­ten­ance might be best avoided. The bet­ter-class hand-fed platens to con­sider include the Arab, treadle or power-driv­en and the much heav­ier, powered Vico­bold and sim­il­ar art-platens. But using an treadle platen demands good co-ordin­a­tion of hands and foot; oper­at­ors of un-guarded platens fre­quently lost a fin­ger or two in the bad old days!

Per­haps the most ver­sat­ile-and easi­est to use and main­tain are the pre­ci­sion repro. presses of the 1950s and ‘60s. Most com­mon are those by Vander­cook, their Brit­ish cop­ies by West­ern (later re-badged as S.B. Pre-Press), FAG and Little­john.

All fea­ture a dress­able cyl­in­der, allow­ing pre­cise make-ready, single-phase power ink­ing which is eas­ily dis-con­nec­ted to allow hand-ink­ing when required, and pre­ci­sion hair­line register with micro­met­er adjust­ment. The smal­ler ones, print­ing around 15 x 22 inch have a hand-wound impres­sion cyl­in­der, lar­ger ones, up to four times that size have power-driv­en cyl­in­ders, usu­ally 3-phase; con­vert­ers are avail­able.

The smal­ler ones, occupy­ing a 6–7 x 3 foot space, weigh around 12cwt. and can be loaded via the powered tail-lift of cer­tain hire-firms’ vans or pick-up trucks. They can be rolled over hard sur­faces using suit­able lengths of scaf­fold pole or hired machinery skates and will pass through domest­ic door­ways (with handles of machine and door removed). Two people can, with a little thought move, install and level them without prob­lems — the lar­ger ones require more of everything-oth­er than cash! Sev­er­al firms can re-clothe the ink rollers. Most of the more pre­cise wear­ing parts are obtain­able new, as Vander­cook spares, from the USA, most oth­er bits and pieces can be repaired by ‘black­smith’ tech­no­logy or found in engin­eer­ing sup­pli­ers or motor­cycle shops — again, try Yel­low Pages.

As with all things…caveat emptor!

Additional Notes