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.