The first time is a messy one

Getting my first print job ready was definitely quite a bit of work. It should get easier after this one because this project was a BIG part of the getting-to-know-each-other process with my new printing press. And I discovered that there were quite a few things to be adjusted. Here's how we began:
  1. Setting the type: letter by letter, line by line on the composing stick. As the composing stick fills up, the set lines are removed from the stick on to a galley.
  2. Locking the form into the chase: when all the type has been set, the chase is laid on a flat surface (the floor, in my case) and the text and/or woodcuts/linocuts are arrange within its frame. Then the rest of the space is filled in with press furniture and the quoin locks it up tight.
  3. Securing the tympan sheet and adjusting packing: tympan paper, pressboard, and any other packing paper should be cut to the size of the platen (with the tympan sheet long enough to overlap at top and bottom, so it can be secured under the tympan bale).
  4. Measuring and setting line gauges: these are the guides on which the paper rests on the platen. They make sure the paper stays in the right position as you print.
  5. Adjusting grippers: these help to keep the paper in place post-impression, but they cannot touch the type in the form (in the chase) or the line gauges because the type and gauges will be damaged. They should only touch the margins of the paper.

When everything is set up, it's time to ink the press and start printing. This is where things start to get messy (inky, really) and the problems reveal themselves. So here were some of the problems I encountered:
  1. Form margins too narrow for grippers: the way I had designed things, there wasn't enough of a margin between the end of printed area and the edge of the paper that wasn't also obstructed by a line gauge. 
  2. Uneven impressions: I got a nice crisp impression of the bottom third of the form, but it appeared the top two-thirds hadn't even kissed the paper.
  3. Uneven ink distribution: after a few passes with the rollers, and an attempt to turn the ink disc by hand, I discovered that my ink disc had been welded into place by a previous owner. So it was unable to rotate to distribute the ink evenly over the ink disc and the ink rollers, and, therefore, the type as well.

At this point, ink all over your hands (and also everything else you've touched) and things just not working right, you quickly lose patience. You want to put your head in your hands for a minute to feel sorry for yourself, but then you remember that you'll get ink on your face and in your hair. Time now to take a deep breath, go to the sink to scrub your hands and: troubleshoot! Lucky me, I have this indispensable guide book to dive into when I run into problems: Letterpress Printing: A Manual for Modern Fine Press Printers, by Paul Maravelas
  1. For my problem with the grippers: Maravelas suggests stretching a rubber band or two across them. So I moved the grippers out as far as they would reach, then stretched a rubber band across them at the top, just where it would hit the top margin of the paper. So we catch the paper across the horizontal rather than the vertical; and it worked great! I did have to change the rubber band a few times though after it got inked accidentally. You don't want that touching the paper.
  2. To correct my uneven impression: first, I tried adjusting the packing under tympan. Adding more pressboard or paper; taking some away; even taping down more packing in certain areas that weren't getting printed. Nothing. And the latter trick really just made it worse. So when that didn't work, I looked to Maravelas who drew my attention to another possible culprit: the impression screw(s). Since the book did not go into detail here, I looked around and found this very helpful how-to blog post on how to balance a platen. So (after calling my stepfather, who had the right tools), I (he) tightened the top two impression screws. That did the trick.
  3. To correct my uneven ink distribution: I bought a brayer to roll the ink out over the disc in an even layer. It works perfectly! (Side note: You DO need a brayer which has a rubber roller, and NOT a cheap paint roller. The paint roller not only fails to move the thick ink out over the disc, but also deposits lint-like fuzz in the ink).
After all that, I think I've gotten it down. Captain and I have one broadside under our belts now. They're not perfect but they're mine and I love them.


  1. So jealous of your press. There's normally a seven year apprenticeship but I reckon you'll fast forward and be getting good results sooner than that. Damn, that's a nice press...

    1. Rob: Thanks so much! Although I've certainly not put in enough time for a proper apprenticeship, I was lucky enough to study and work with Master Printer Mike Kaylor a couple hours a week for two years while an undergrad at Washington College. I've loved letterpress printing ever since. Mike is a wonderful teacher and got me fairly comfortable with all the basics AND he sold me this press to boot! I never expected to have my own press so soon and I feel like I've had to re-learn all the little bits, but I really enjoy trying to figure it out myself. I'm so excited!

  2. So very neat! Congratulations on producing the first of many broadsides. :)


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