Friday, May 18, 2007

Questions about buying a press...

I recently received an email via from a fellow beginner with some questions about buying her first press. Though I am certainly not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to different presses, I will try to answer her questions as best I can. If anyone has anything else to share with Tanya, feel free to comment below.

Hi Erin, I found you on Briar Press, I love your blog. It's encouraging to see others start out and be successful at letterpress. I might be able to get my hands on a small iron cast letterpress and was wondering if you could tell me what are the basic parts that should come with the press? Or point me towards a resource that lists the crucial parts. The person I might be purchasing it from didn't seem to know much about it unfortunately. He says the printable area
is 5x8 which I was glad to hear. I am a novice and just want to make sure that before I buy it from him that all of the parts are coming with it. What needs to accompany the press and what would be good to have to make it function? Apologies for all the questions, but I'd like to make an informed purchase. Thank you Tanya

(Tanya also attached this photo)...

First off, thank you for your email Tanya. I know how hard it can be to want to get started in the world of letterpress printing when you're not 100% sure on how to go about doing it! I hope this helps!

In general, I think it is best to take a course on letterpress printing before buying a even a small press (I'm not sure if you have or not, so I'll assume not just to be safe). This is not to say that it is impossible to learn on your own, but I can imagine it would be very hard to get started, let alone purchase a press, without having used one before. I don't say this to discourage you, but letterpress printing is very time consuming and involves a lot of trial and error, and can be somewhat expensive to get started in if you don't have all of the supplies available to you. Living in Canada, which I think you also do, is even worse in that it is harder to find many of the supplies you will need, and shipping items across the border isn't cheap.

Making sure the press works...

I think on many occasions people selling presses (on Craigslist, Ebay, etc.) are not printers. Some sellers find the old presses in church basements, in their grandparents' attics, and so on, and sell them because they know there is a market. This is not to say that the presses are not good, or working, but I think it is something to be aware of.

If at all possible, I would try to buy a press from someone who has used it before and who knows it is in working order - especially if you are a beginner. If you end up with a press with broken or worn parts, and you're just starting out, it would be very frustrating to have to figure out how to fix these things on your own. So, bottom-line, if you can buy a press from someone who has used it and can say it is in working order, that is your best bet.

My press of course came from Jim Rimmer's workshop - so though he hadn't used it in many years (and there was a nice spider web underneath that came with it :), I knew when he told me it worked that it in fact did, and so there was no worry there. Another press I had contemplated buying in the past also came from a well-known letterpress printer in my area, thus also guaranteeing that the press was in working order.

Parts that should come with the press...

Most table-top presses are made up of 5 major parts. 1 - The body, or main structure holding together all the working parts. 2 - The chase, or frame that holds your type, furniture, and base if you are using photopolymer or other plates. 3 - The ink table or ink disc, where the ink is spread by rollers. 4 - The platen - the area that holds your paper and is pushed up against your type when printing by function of 5 - the lever (or handle) that you push down upon.

Arguably the most important part of the press is your rollers, which apply the ink to your type/plate. They are removable for cleaning, etc. If the press has been sitting a while, or if the last user didn't look after the rollers, the rollers may need to be recovered. Mine needed to be covered and it cost about $180 CDN to recover them. The rollers also come with trucks that allow the rollers to...well, roll...over your type/plate and apply the ink.

Please see Don Black's fab website on press parts for more info: The descriptions are specifically for Kelseys, but apply for most table top presses as well.

About your press...

Now, though your photo is small, and I'm not quite sure what type of press it is, I notice that there is no ink disc. So, either it is missing (which is a problem), or this is a hand-inking press (meaning you'd have to apply ink to your type/plate by hand using a brayer rather than rollers - which would make printing a much more time consuming task). I also see no rollers, or place where rollers would attach (roller hooks), so this is looking more and more to me like a hand-inking press (someone please correct me if they know otherwise).

I'm not sure if that is what you set out for when looking for a press, but if you want my honest opinion, if I were in your shoes, I might wait and find a Kelsey or a C&P Pilot press to start out with instead. It might be fun to play with a hand-inking press for a while, but you'll probably get tired of hand-inking pretty quickly.

I am also not sure from the photo that your press comes with a chase (to hold your type/base). This would mean you'd need to go find and buy one. I would also double-check the size of the press when you see it - if the person selling it (who doesn't know too much about the press) says it's a 5x8, I'd check it out. The 5x8 measurement refers to the size of the chase (not necessarily the printable area once you get your type/base in there with furniture/quoins, etc.).

Other things you will need...

Just a quick list - ink, type or base/plates, composing stick if using type, cleaner, furniture, quoins (to lock up the chase), tympan paper (to go under the paper you print on), oil/synthetic lube to keep the working parts of the press lubed, rags, gauge pins (to hold paper in place for printing) or tape/paper combo (see post below for alternative to gauge pins), and so on....

My recommendation...

Have you ever spoken to Don Black in Toronto ( He is THE letterpress supply guy in your area and can probably help you find the little press of your dreams. Give him a call!

Tanya, I hope it all works out for you and I hope I haven't scared you off of letterpress. Just a good idea to know exactly what you're getting yourself into. When I started, everyone told me - "be careful, soon your basement will be full of supplies and you'll be ready to get a bigger press". Yep, that was less than a year ago...and I'm already there!

If anyone else has feedback for Tanya, please post in the comments.

Happy letterpressing!


  1. Erin,
    Your response goes above and beyond what I was expecting. I haven't been frightened off from letterpress printing, just gently warned :) You've given valuable, helpful information to beginners like me and I'm now considered armed going into purchasing a press. I've already sent Don an email! Thank you again for your time.

  2. hi erin,

    first - you have a great blog.... second - do you know somebody in europe espacially in germany where i can get good resored letterpress machines? i wantto start with postcrds :-)

    thanks in advance



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