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