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Letterpress - Getting Started
Getting Started 2/2004
Here is what happened. Becky and I wanted to save some money on invitations, so Becky went to the Paper Source in Porter square to check out some do it yourself invitation kits. She saw some that looked good, so then she wanted me to come check them out too. As usual I procrastinated for a few months, but we finally got around to it after xmas vacation, and we picked out a set we liked. When we were there though, we also looked through a bin of sample stuff they had which listed the printing method and type faces used on the back. I began to notice that the "letterpress" printed ones looked really good; the printing had an unusual three dimensional look to it and the type itself was of excellent quality. This kicked up a memory in my brain that my friend Helen had been looking at an antique card printing press at a local store a few months before but had decided not to buy it. With prices for letterpress printing on some of those invitations topping $50 per, I thought to myself: Damn, I can BUY a printing press for that money, then after I did the invitations I would HAVE a printing press.

So I dragged a skeptical Becky down to the antique store by MIT on our bikes and checked out the press (which was still there) with a new appreciation. Some parts of it were broken (later I learned that these were grippers), and the rollers were present but in need of some help. It also came with a cabinet of type with maybe 10 two thirds sized cases full of type. They wanted a lot of money for it, but I thought I could maybe bargain them down a bit. Becky at this point was starting to realize I was indeed serious, and we had a big argument in the store wherein she brought up many a fair point like "cards? you've never sent anything to anyone in your life!", and "we were doing this in the first place to save money!". True, true, but all those thousands of pieces of tiny metal in little drawers had by this time started to softly call my name, and I could tell it was going to be hard to resist. But Becky did bring up some good points so I agreed that I would wait a month to think about it.

During the next month I did some research on line, cruised the LETPESS list archives and found my interest building instead of diminishing. The machine in the store was a Golding Official #4, although by this time I had come to the conclusion it was a bit overpriced and would require some work to back into shape. Looking back, the type in cases may have been worth more than I thought, but on the other hand most of the fonts weren't ones I was desperate to have either. I almost bought a Pearl #11 from a guy near New York city, but it fell through when he sold it to someone local. I eventually got in touch with John Barrett from Letterpress Things in Chicopee, MA, and he said to come on over to the store on an open day and he would give me an orientation on letterpress.

So on Valentines weekend Becky and I took the Zipcar and drove out to Chicopee, on the way to a weekend together spent checking out Hancock Shaker Village in western Mass. When we arrived at the store, I felt exhilarated just walking in. John's place is an unheated ~3000 ft^2 in an old mill style building. Full of presses and letterpress stuff.


At Letterpress Things - John Barrett on the right

When we arrived, John was finishing up giving the newbie's orientation to a girl who had been there all morning and eventually left with a Kelsey and all required accessories. She is in the green jacket on the left. The whole time we were there, plenty of people were stopping in, and all in all John sold 4 presses that day and a bunch of other stuff. I had no idea so many people would be coming in to a shop devoted entirely to antique printing equipment. Pretty cool actually. I'm sure John is pursuing this as a labor of love and not a money maker, but I am happy he gets enough business to convince him to keep doing it.

Well, first we looked at cuts and stuff to pass some time before John had a chance to help us out.


There is a lot of stuff in here

I was coveting a Pearl he had in his floor presses section, but a Kelsey Star also looked very nice and was 95% in shape and even included rollers. I was supposed to actually print our save the date cards within a relatively short time after getting the press, so I was mindful of taking on something that needed extensive restoration. Even though those ones appeal to me in a certain way, I have enough cast iron in the basement that needs restoration as is it.


John's pile of floor presses - I love those flywheels

This Craftsman below was basically in brand new shape with new rollers and everything. Probably would have gotten that one except someone had it on hold. They came in later and I was hoping they would change their mind, but they didn't. They also picked up a proof press as well.


Becky tries out a Craftsman

This day there was a giant, but nice dog in the shop with someone. I like how the Ludlow cabinets are slanted.


Ludlow mats, and a doggy

Well, John devoted several hours to educating us about letterpress, and he has a checklist of needed supplies specifically for helping beginners get started. I would highly recommend anyone newly interested in letterpress visit John's shop if at all possible. He was fantastic. A great guy all around. Anyway, I decided to go with a Pilot instead of a floor model both because it would take up a bit less space in the study and because that way I could also fit a type cabinet in the back of the zipcar during this trip.


John loads up my new (well, old) cabinet. Thanks John!!

After the weekend, we got everything home and into the house. I carried 200 lbs of cast iron Pilot up from the street, up the winding stairwell, and into the study by myself. This was hard, and my legs were like jelly when I finally set it down. I was sore for days afterwards. Thats what you get with a desk job lifestyle I guess.


My Pilot in the study

Here is my baby! It came out of a school somewhere, then passed to someone in Connecticut who was going to get into printing but never did, then to John, and now to me. The green and yellow paint job is poorly applied over what appears to be original gray. I can only assume that someone at the school felt it would be better off with some institutional style color scheme. My instinct to is to take the whole thing apart, strip and repaint it, derust the machined surfaces, and put it back together again. Maybe I'll do that after I print these invites. From info gathered on the list, my Chandler & Price Pilot is probably a later model, made after 1940. Its serial number is 1567 and I think it has the later style of castings.


Check out the backside!

John also set me up with some other accesories for printing. He is very mindful of not upselling you, almost to a fault. For example, he didn't push me to get a slug cutter, but I am very glad I did. This one needed a bit of work, but after taking the blades out, cleaning and oiling it, giving the blades a few strokes on a diamond stone and then reinstalling them with new shims, it works pretty well.


Furniture, slug cutter, other accessories

The cabinet is quite old, with solid wood drawer bottoms and cabinet back. Its needs to be refinished at some point, but for now I've got to use it as is. Its really sweet. The 2/3 width cases I expect will be big enough for my uses.


Cabinet in place in the cat's kitchen

For now stuff is set up in the cat's kitchen. I roll the press out to the study for use, but compose when standing at the cabinet.


Printing Corner

I had to order new rollers and ink from NA Graphics, but in the meantime I was hot to do something with the press. I invited my friend Helen over, who had her mind blown by how cool all this stuff is. This was a welcome reaction, since when I excitedly tell most people about my new setup they give me a puzzled look and say something like "can't you just print it out from the computer". Of course I could. And I'm sure 99.9% of people would never notice the difference in results from letterpress and laser printing, much less letterpress and offset. But thats not the point, is it?

Anyway, I had some chinese type I got off ebay from an old San Francisco newspaper, so Helen and I tried locking it up in a chase to make a proof of the characters I had scored.


First chase locked up

Next we did our first makeready using a sheet of tympan paper with a piece of pressboard underneath. We had to put in two pieces of laser paper to get the impression a bit harder. It seems hard to get the paper aligned right so the printing is exactly parallel and square to the paper.


Chomp Chomp

With no ink and rollers, we had to make do by trying to ink the form with a rubber stamp pad. It more or less worked. So here is the first thing printed on my press!


Chinese Sampler

Design partially original and partially ripped off from other websites
by Holly Gates