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.