Installing and Caring for Letterpress Machines

Arab Parts in Works
Arab Parts in Works

Back at the height of letterpress, buying a printing machine must have been a joyous task for those with the money and business to service a new press.  Machine makers from all over Britain had offices in London to showcase their wares; and there would be enough printers around you to seek advice on the characteristics of each press.

No printing machines are made in Britain any more, but you might be lucky enough to get hold of a new press from time to time.

Taking contemporary advice, here’s a run-down of what to look for and what the early steps are in commissioning your new press – they are as relevant to you whether you have a press that has never been used; or a workhorse of a machine that has worked non-stop for the last hundred or so years.

  • Foundations
    These need to be rock-solid and level.  If you’re machine is floor-standing you should check the levels as you assemble it lest the extra parts have cased it to move out of true.  Remember that packing under one corner might not have the desired result at the other corner, so check as you level
  • Cleaning
    Make sure everything is clean.  My experience of the Arab is that there are advantages and drawbacks – a machine is much easier to handle, work and care for if it begins clean; and cleaning is easier when you can reach each part.  On the downside, you might expose a reliance on accumulated grime!  If, perhaps, the bearings hold grit and this has caused wear, removing all the dirt might highlight ‘play’ in some of the parts.  It’s much better to know this now, though, so get it clean.   Pay particular attention to oil holes; and coat parts in oil as you work
  • Testing
    As you progress with installation make sure parts turn freely by hand; and repeat this process once assembly is complete.  If you have time (and energy) run the press without any forme for a period (half a day was suggested).  Use this testing to show that oil is reaching the right parts and that the movement is smooth. Caution: some machines can only be turned one way – make sure you don’t turn the machine against the normal direction of use
  • Adjustments
    There are plenty of adjustments to a new machine but get this right once and you should not have to worry about these things very often.
  • Rollers
    The general principle here is to deliver the right amount of ink from the roller to the type.  Rollers too low will slur or wipe ink across the type and the result will be very uneven inking of each character.  Rollers too high will result in too little ink hitting the type; and no amount of further inking will help.  Either use a roller gauge (looks like a short solid cylinder on a stick); or a large M or H locked up in a forme.  When the roller passes over the gauge a strip of ink around 0.25″ should appear – wider strips indicate too low; thinner strips indicate too high.  Using a large M or H, inking the surface of the letter (the face) plus a tiny amount on the shoulders is about right.  Getting ink on the shank or within the counters indicates the rollers are too low.  Remember that rollers might be an uneven shape and you should test along the length of the rollers (ie the right and left-hand sides of the forme).  Knowing that they are too high or low can be compensated for in different ways – on an Adana the roller trucks (little wheels) can be turned to face two ways and lower or raise the rollers.  On platen presses the roller bearers can be augmented – the Arab uses paper or card under the leather strips either side of the forme.  Art platen press users can adjust their roller bearers with a screwdriver.
  • Platens
    Platens can also be adjusted but this is notoriously difficult to get right.  Most platen machines (including hand platens) have screws or bolts at the back of the platen for adjustment.  I would test the machine first with a new tympan to see whether any adjustment is needed.  If you do have to move these bolts around then make a note of the number and direction of turns – tightening at one corner can have the effect of throwing another corner off kilter and plenty of problems ensue.
  • Tympan
    The tympan is the paper-based packing on the back platen (where you lay paper on and off).  The makeup of this will depend on your machine – each manufacturer recommended their own makeup.  Suggestions range from placing card next to the metal; then three sheets of normal paper; then two sheets of manilla; to Adana’s use of perhaps ten sheets of newspaper between light cardboard and the manilla top sheet
  • Oiling
    When new, the machine will need a good deal of oil; and will need to be oiled perhaps three time a day in normal use

In terms of looking after the machine, the biggest task is to keep everything clean.  Without cleanliness it’s difficult to maintain the machine; see potential problems or produce good-quality work.  If you’re in a high-production environment set time aside on a regular basis to tidy the machine.

Secondly, oil is needed by printing machines.  You’ll need to choose the right oil – tiny 3-in-1 cans are good for small parts on little presses; larger presses might benefit from diesel engine oil that’s a little thicker.  Your machine might recommend a particular type of oil.

Aside from your own considerations of space, the work needed, funds etc., there are some mechanical points you should look for.  You shouldn’t be taken in by a shiny, clean machine simply on that initial view.  Remove some of the guards or shields and see whether dirt is accumulated in the less obvious places; remove a few nuts or bolts to see if the threads are deep, sharp and clean.  Turn the machine over and see if there’s any rattling and that teeth on gears fit snugly with each other.  Listen for any variable noises or grating.  Look at the castings to see if a hammer or other inappropriate tool has been used to assemble the machine previously.  Finally, with the machine braked, pull the platens apart to see of there is play in the machine at all – if there is some slackness or looseness this will manifest itself in poor quality printing.