Saturday, December 20, 2008

Triumphantly merry and bright!

My first Christmas cards on the letterpress! Now that everyone has theirs, I won't be spoiling any surprises by showing them here.

I printed these on my trusty Chandler & Price Old Style letterpress using polymer plates I designed myself.

The midnight blue and the silver are printed on separate print runs (and separate days, as it turned out) with a complete press clean-up and oiling in between.

Nothing like some silver ink on the press to get things feeling festive...

Special care has to be taken with two-colour jobs, to make sure the registration is right. A little misalignment will have the elements of the design printing in the wrong places, and that's never a happy thing.

But these worked really well! After a bit of fiddling round with the gauge pins to get the registration spot on, we were away.

Last step: print the press name and web site on the back (being careful, again, to keep the weight of the impression from showing through on the other side).

And ta-da! A whole stack of shiny letterpress happiness!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Halfway there

Letterpress printing is always slow, but sometimes it's really slow. Especially when you create the design yourself, from scratch. I've been working on this project since early October, and I still only have one of the two colours printed.

These berries were pretty enough to be inspiring, so I made several sketches of them one sunny afternoon.

Berry helped by bringing out her crayons and working alongside me. "You drawing a plant, mum-mum? That pretty."

Several weeks passed while I refined the sketches, scanned them, created the final design in Illustrator, and sent the separations away to have plates made.

I needed the berries again to mix the right shade of ink. I got it, even though it looks orange on the press!

Each colour has to be printed separately on the press, with a complete cleaning in between runs. I've only printed the red berries so far, and I'm still looking for enough time to print the leaves – so I can't show you anything!

I promise when they're finished, I'll share.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I don't think my mother-in-law follows this blog, so hopefully it's safe to show you these... they're part of her Hanukkah present.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

New life in the old press

The press is complete.

For the first time in... well, who knows how long... there are no pieces missing.

Thanks to Briar Press (where I found the parts) and Nathan's Dad (who fitted said parts), my 1902 Chandler & Price Old Style now runs like a dream.

The dramatically and dangerously worn lower roller saddles are gone, replaced with intact – and original – saddles and springs (below).

The lower bail, missing since long before I owned the press, has been replaced with an original bail from a parts press.

The 14-inch pulley, which previously had the press running at an alarming 18 impressions per minute, has been replaced with a 7-inch pulley plus a new A-belt. The press now gives a perfect 10 impressions per minute – much safer for my fingers and my jumpy nerves.

I actually sat down and did maths to figure out what size pulley we'd need to reduce the press speed enough to produce the desired number of impressions per minute. I mention this to illustrate my abiding devotion to this letterpress – mathematics and I are deeply suspicious of each other, and prefer not to mingle.

A final and wonderful touch: a really pretty hardwood platform for me to stand on while I'm working. My press is mounted on a platform seven inches high, which makes it very (well, comparatively) easy to move around using a pallet jack, but too high for me to operate. For a six-foot-two man it would be perfect. For five-foot-six me, the hardwood platform makes it perfect. Believe it or not, Dad didn't custom-build it for me. He built it as an absurdly attractive base for a dryer, but it didn't work out. When he brought it down from Dallas and put it next to the press, it was an exact fit. I can't believe my luck.

Of course, now that everything's peachy with the press, I've had no time to print. My very first photopolymer plate arrived today to great fanfare (from me), and even that is going to have to wait.

But when I find myself with three baby-free hours, believe me – I'm ready.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

At last...

A vintage cut of a 1960 Cadillac, some blue and orange stock, a tiny bit of flame-red ink – and we're away! I was so happy to finally print my first "proper" notes on the Chandler and Price, I wanted to jump around.

Unlike last time, I made sure I actually had a good amount of baby-free time up my sleeve to do everything the right way. I even locked up the chase and oiled the press in advance. A note: you can't oil the press too far in advance or the oil will drip out before you get printing – and then you will have climb around the press to painstakingly drip oil into every one of the 30-something obscurely placed oil holes, all over again. You will call yourself bad names.

Here's what the press looks like in action, inking up the plate before the chase is inserted. Why is it a blur? Well, at this stage it was running 18 impressions per minute – too fast! Too fast! I've since fixed the speed issue ... but more on that later.

A first impression on the tympan (above), to help with alignment and placing the gauge pins. You rub that image back with solvent after this impression, otherwise it'll give you a (not-so-) nice reverse image on the back of your lovely cards. And you will cry.

I was completely precise and methodical in my placement of the gauge pins – again, unlike last time – and it made the world of difference. Imagine!

These first cards have gone to Nathan's Dad in Dallas and my Dad in Australia, in gratitude for the untold hours they've both spent working on the Chandler & Price (I owe them so much more, but this is symbolic!) and to Pauline, who's been cheering me on all the way from South Carolina.

Now we're rolling...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Roller crisis averted!

When I bought my C&P, the lower saddles (which hold the third roller) were stuffed with cotton. The inside surfaces of the saddles were dramatically worn, and I guessed the cotton was a makeshift way of keeping the rollers in place and preventing further wear.

The left saddle (pictured above) was bad, but this one was even worse...

When I posted the photos on Briar Press as a kind of "uh oh... what do I do now?" I got some pretty alarming responses from the experts, including:

"The saddle on the one side seems so thin the end looks like it’s about ready to break off. If that happens when the press is running and the roller get smashed between the platen and the bed it could destroy the press."


"That one looks mighty shaky to me and I’d be worried about it breaking and the roller coming loose. The roller springs are pretty strong and exert a lot of force pulling the rollers down. If one end breaks while the press is running I can imagine the roller flying toward the operator or dropping into a closing press. Neither is very desirable. I’d look into finding replacement roller saddles or having a machinist repair the existing ones by welding or brazing in some new metal."

Since I definitely didn't want a roller-flinging, head-injury-inducing, press-destroying disaster on my hands, I decided to deal with the saddles straight away.

Suggestions for having a machinist repair the roller saddles or simply removing the lower roller and printing on just two rollers for a time (which is possible on a Chandler & Price) were fine, but I really wanted to be done with the problem sooner rather than later. I'm ready to have this press in perfect shape. So I posted a Want Ad on Briar Press (bless Briar Press!) and after just one week I'm the proud almost-owner of these good-as-new single roller saddles and springs.

And – bonus! Paul, who's selling me the saddles, is also selling me a bail! You can see the edge of it at the top left of the photo. My press came without a lower bail... whoever used it last had been improvising by fixing the tympan to the underside of the platen with lots of tape. We removed oh-so-many layers of tape. The replacement we had fabricated at a machine shop doesn't fit tight enough in the right places, causing the tympan and packing to bulge and shift – not good!

So it looks like we're solving the very last of the problems. Exciting times...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Even older

Thanks to Arie on Briar Press, I've discovered my Chandler & Price is even older than we thought.

According to this list my Old Style press, with a serial # of 38489, was built in 1902. I had previously (and incorrectly) dated it at 1904 by looking at a different, less accurate list.

It's 106 years old! What a life.  I know it's seen Ohio (where it was built), Minnesota (to undergo a factory rebuild by Brandtjen & Kluge), Washington state (where I bought it) and has travelled through a whoooole lot of states on the way to Mississippi, where it lives with us now.

I can't help wondering about all the fascinating places I don't know it's been...


Monday, February 11, 2008

Letterpress: Evolution

Above: my 1902 Chandler & Price Old Style 8x12 letterpress "in the wild" in a little town outside Yakima, Washington, when I bought it on April 28 last year. Even before it got outside (it was only in the elements for about a week) it had accumulated a substantial coat of dirt, oil and grime, and was showing its age.

Ten months and 4000-odd miles later, the letterpress emerges from climate-controlled storage and undergoes the "Dad treatment". My dad used 'down time' during his visit from Australia to whip the press into shape: new motor, new pulley, new belt, gear rebuild, comprehensive oiling, and more cleaning than it had probably seen in decades. The photo above shows it without its upper feed table (which tends to obscure some of the work). The photo below shows what it looked like before Dad came along.

See? It was a bit scary. And deeply dirty.

The picture below shows the press after Nathan's Dad got going on it last week. Among other things, he cleaned and shined the ink disk, fitted a kill switch (which my Dad lamented not having time to do before he left) and attached the upper feed table after a minor repair.

You'll notice two of the three rollers are missing in the photo above. The previous owner had apparently been getting by on two rollers, but I've ordered three new vinylith rollers from NA Graphics in Colorado, along with trucks, California wash, tympan and packing.

Above: another "before" photo, showing years of accumulated grime.

Now that's better... lots of olive oil, fine-grade steel wool, 3-in-1, marine grease, compressed air, fine-grade sandpaper, kerosene, WD-40, and two Dads later – I have a letterpress to be proud of.

I still need to order grippers (just last week I realised they were missing, not just packed elsewhere) and a new bail to replace one that looks like it broke off years ago... but I'm getting scarily close to having no excuses not to use this monster! It's exciting and daunting.

But mostly exciting.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cleaning a letterpress

I was told that to clean an old letterpress, you need fine-grade steel wool, drill bits of various sizes, a bristle brush, 3-in-1, WD-40, kerosene, 30-weight oil and old rags.

I've discovered the other things you need: a whole lot of time, and a Dad.

I took a good stab at the first stages, although getting around the machine can be a bit tricky now I'm most of the way through my second trimester.

First I brushed at least a decade's worth of dirt and grit off the machine with a pan brush. Then I did it again. It was particularly stubborn dirt because it was "glued" in place with all the oil that's required to run the press and keep it from rusting.

Next: the air compressor. When Nathan and his dad bought that noisy monster I thought there was no way I'd ever need it. I was wrong. It's fabulous for blasting dirt and grime out of places that can't be reached with a brush. I went over the press a couple of times with that and was pretty pleased.

Then I started hunting out the oil holes. Letterpresses have more oil holes than you can poke a stick at, and before you can run one that's been idle for a while, you have to find all the holes (many of which are in mysterious and inaccessible places), clean them out with a drill bit and a Q-tip, and then put in a couple of drops of 3-in-1. It's a long process.

I was partway through the oil-hole mission when Mum and Dad arrived from Australia. If I'd known what a letterpress-restoring powerhouse my Dad could be, I might've been tempted to let him handle the whole job.

Actually, he did. We made a couple of runs to Home Depot and Lowes to get extra supplies Dad knew we'd need, and then he went to work.

I wouldn't let just anyone take a stab at fixing the letterpress. It's more than a century old, huge, heavy and dangerous – and despite its bulk it can be ruined. But Dad's spent the best part of his life restoring vintage cars to their former glory. He really knows his way around expensive and complicated old machines.

Well, Dad took over the letterpress corner and was basically unstoppable. One day when I have more time and memory-power, I'll try to make a list of the countless things he did. For now, I'll just go with the old picture's-worth- a-thousand-words... when Dad arrived, the letterpress looked like that (see picture above). Even before he was finished with it, it looked like this (below).

And it worked.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Love and Letterpress

Usually when I tell someone I've bought a letterpress they'll say, "Awesome!" and then, "...what is a letterpress, exactly?"

If you click here, you'll see the mini-documentary on letterpress that still gives me chills. The first 10 seconds tipped me from "I'd like to have a letterpress" to "I must have a letterpress or I'll surely die".

The documentary is type-focused and doesn't show the actual machine that I own (a Chandler & Price Old Style), but it's wonderful, and fascinating, and well worth watching. I promise there are no diagrams.

Right. I'm off to clean more "historical grime" off my press.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Letterpress Saga: Part Four

It wasn't as hair-raising this time.

On New Year's Day, Nathan suddenly decided it was time to get my century-old Chandler & Price Old Style platen press out of storage, where it's been snoozing in climate-controlled comfort since our move from Seattle, and into our garage.

He called a few tow-truck/wrecker companies before he found a guy willing to tackle the job. We learned from bitter (and terrifying) experience that you need a forklift or a tow truck to get this monster from one level to another. We've also learned not to tackle it alone.

This time Nathan and John-the-tow-truck-guy used a pallet jack to get it on the back of the truck and used ratchet straps to tie it ten ways to the bed. Then we held our breath all the way from D'Iberville to our house, with Nathan saying helpful things like "It's gonna come off this corner for sure" and "There it goes".

At home, they strapped the press base to the pallet jack, raised the bed and used the winch to inch the press down to the garage. I was holding my breath, but not having conniptions like last time.

It's now safe and sound in my soon-to-be letterpress workshop in the back half of our garage, ready for its grand makeover. There's a lot of work ahead involving drill bits, oil holes, 3-in-1, fine-grade steel wool and WD-40, and no doubt some silent swearing.

It'll be worth it though. I've dreamed of this forever.