Posted by Cait Coker.
This post assumes that you’re going to be buying a press for pedagogical purposes, though most advice here will equally apply for personal presses too. The primary goal here is to emphasize easy options and cost-effective measures, where possible. One thing to be aware of is that contemporary interests in printing has skyrocketed, and that while a letterpress renaissance is in many ways awesome, it also means that the days of picking up equipment for next to nothing are long gone. Therefore procuring your own press and building a print shop of your own, while certainly possible, will be an investment with costs that have to be planned for. There are numerous types of presses, but I’m going to focus on three types: tabletop presses, platen presses, and proofing presses.
Easy (Tabletop) Options
Tabletop presses are small presses that can, you guessed it, be put on a table. These include:
- Nolan Proof Presses that can hold about a single 8½" x 11” page’s worth of type
- Pilot Presses that range from 2" x 3” for making business cards to 5" x 8” for greeting cards or a single small folio. This blog has some beautiful restored pilot presses.
- Parlour Presses, which are from the 19th century
- Josef Beery’s BookBeetle, which can be commissioned for about $1,200. It reproduces a Gutenberg-style screw for a lesson in period printing that the other options will lack.
Cost varies on all these options, and keeping tabs on eBay and joining letterpress communities on social media are great ways to keep an eye on tools that are for sale.
Platen presses can have either horizontal or vertical platens for printing. Horizontal platen presses can include wooden common presses and iron presses from the 19th century. Vertical platens include most of the heavy cast iron presses from the 19th and 20th century, and these will be the presses that you most often see on the market. For novice printers, especially with students, horizontal platen presses are preferable for both ease of use and safety concerns (inattentive printers can squash their fingers in the verticals).
I mentioned the Nolan above, but 20th century proofing presses like Vandercooks and Asberns are incredibly popular for their horizontal press beds and cylindrical rollers that automate the inking process. They are also commensurately expensive, often priced for $10k and higher.
Building Your Own?
A number of people have opted to build their own working presses for pedagogical use with a distinctly historical bent. Handily, many of these same people have written accounts with photo documentation available online so that you can get an idea about what this would entail:
- Building a Wooden Common Press as would have been used circa 1750 (Excelsior Press)
- “Object Lessons” by Jeffrey D. Groves
- There are also several plans available online for building parlour presses or simple desktop presses.
Building your own press, of any size, obviously requires a different set of questions about time and cost: Would you want to do the building yourself or find someone to do it for you? Do you already have a convenient background in woodworking or is this a skill set you’ll have to embark on from scratch? Would this be easier than any of the alternatives? These are questions you’ll have to solve for yourself.
Moving a Press
Now, suppose you’ve successfully acquired a press, how are you going to move it? For the smaller desktop presses this isn’t an issue; they can be mailed (for a price) or put in a car. The proofing presses are heavier, but not so much that you and a couple of friends can’t get together, rent a truck, and move it with a dolly or two. Ditto a wooden common press or an iron press: those are bulky but not especially heavy, and your main challenge would be successfully securing it inside a truck. This can be done, obviously, but the importance of proper tie down straps and so on cannot be overemphasized; I know someone whose press was not secured properly and ended up banged beyond recoverability.
(This would also be a good time to point out that if you’re going to have anything shipped, insure and document! Take photos before and after. Take photos of strap placement. Document document document. Read the fine print. Apparently some moving companies will claim that they aren’t responsible for damage to secondhand goods and will provide only a nominal sum in recompense, so, you know, be wary and be careful!)
The heavy cast iron platen presses are another kettle of difficult and maybe slightly evil fish. They are quite heavy (literally a ton or more of weight) and also rather fragile—if it actually tips in the truck you can crack the flywheel, and that’s game over, man, game over.
In my experience, most moving companies will categorically refuse to even try to help you out with this one, and piano moving companies (that have all the equipment and personnel you would need) will look at you funny. There are two options for what you are going to have to do here. The first is hire a moving crew of four or five big guys; provide skids, rollers, and security ropes; and move it bit by bit into a truck that either has a large ramp or is level with your moving surface (say you’ve backed a truck to the back of a house and the truck bed is level with the floor). This is how the pyramids and Stonehenge were built, and this will work too. Your other option is to rent a forklift (and find someone to drive it if the renters don’t supply one; this should cost a few hundred dollars) to move the press into the truck and then into its final location. Give yourself plenty of room with the new location—you’re not going to want to move it a second time if you put the back too close to the wall or something (and yes, you will have to be able to go behind it for maintenance work semi-regularly).
A sample exercise when planning what you want/need is to look at the physical space you’re going to use and outline it on graph paper. You’ll need to allocate space for: the press itself; the type cabinets and other equipment storage; at least one work table, and working space for yourself and students. In a future post, I will go into more detail about all these other aspects of a print shop.
All this probably makes setting up a press sound hard. Well it’s not easy, but it’s totally worth it.
About the Author
Cait Coker is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Texas A&M University. She is currently working on her dissertation, "Liminal Ladies: Reconstructing the Place of Women in Seventeenth-Century English Book Production." Contact her at: cait.coker (at) gmail (dot) com.