Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Passion for Letterpress: Refurbishing a Century-old Machine

While in England for the 2013 ITU Age Group World Championship last year, Jim and I did our usual jaunt around London-town, especially to familiar spots to purchase gifts for family and friends. One of our favorite places is Fortnum & Mason, the 300-year-old department store on Piccadilly.

During our stroll around the store, we took in the London Design Festival where SORT (Society of Revisionist Printmakers) Design was demoing their Letterpress printing process. I took some pictures and was helped in typesetting my name to print a souvenir notebook with one of their presses. Here are some photos I took of the event - ink, paper, samples, type, and most importantly, the press - I can still smell the ink (one of my favorite smells in the whole world):

A few months ago, I hooked up with another printmaker on Tumblr, Antiquated Press. One of their posts was about restoring an old letterpress machine, and it lit a fire under me to finally do something fun and productive with the tiny letterpress printer - a Baltimore No. 9 - that my father-in-law gave me for Christmas a couple years ago. He found it at an auction, and knowing my passion for old-school printing/printmaking, thought it would be a nice antique for me to have (the seller included the press, the lead type, and the old roller, from circa the 1890s).

The first thing I had to do was find out if it was in good enough shape to ever print again. Close inspection revealed that indeed it was. Although it had been repainted, all the parts were in some semblance of working order except the ink roller - which had pretty much reached a state of petrification. (Seriously, when I started cleaning up parts, it broke off its metal shaft like chunks of volcanic rock.)

I enlisted my husband Jim to help -- because guys always know exactly how to play with machine parts and solvents (think WD-40). He helped me take the press completely apart, get rid of the rust, and clean up all the pieces. Steel wool was involved. Here are some photos of this process:

The deconstructed press:

The springs, screws, and roller hooks soaking in one of those solvents, something called "PB Blaster":

The chase - which was in very good shape and the inking plate which had dried ink from God-knows-what-century on it:

The body of the press after cleaning it up:

The super-clean inking plate after scraping ink off and and steel-wooling, and the other parts nicely de-rusted and cleaned:

The sorted type (don't even ask how long it took me to sort type with my old blurry eyes and a tweezer after it was delivered in a plastic baggie):

The final task would be to find or make a new roller. Thank heavens for e-bay. Would you believe that someone actually builds these things? I purchased a brand new roller for a Baltimore No. 9 press on e-bay. It had new trucks and rubber that didn't look shriveled up like an old tree.

New roller next to shaft of old roller (after carving off what was left of the old rubber):

And then came the final assembly. The only thing I was afraid of was if everything would actually fit together with the new roller. Much to my surprise, it fit like a dream. Here are two shots of the roller in different positions - on the inking plate and along the chase - perfectly flush:

Stay tuned to see what I manage to print with this thing. The only thing I can guarantee is that any prints will be rather tiny since the platen (the plate that holds the paper) is not much larger than a business card. But I just got my first delivery of letterpress ink, and a friend at the museum is digging up additional artifacts (printing blocks and tools for positioning the printing plate and type in the chase) from his old letterpress printing days.

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