Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."

This is about my first broadside and my first-time participation in a letterpress swap. In the spirit of Commodore Dewey, the printing of this innocuous sheet was something of an epic battle. Before the swap was a glimmer in any one's eye, about a year ago I decided I would try and print one of my favorite poems as a broadside. That was back when I had my C&P 8x12 with the poor rollers and worse Morgan Expansion truck tires. It was the first form of any length I had set.

My concept was to create a broadside in the style of the 17th century following examples I had seen. Thus the black letter Old English text and the Caslon title. The border was not exactly in a style of that age but was the closest I had. I picked a Strathmore all-cotton laid paper I got with the press along with most of the original equipment for my shop.

A number of problems cropped up right away, things that had not been so evident on the small forms I had printed to that point such as a business card. First was the roller and truck issue as it affected inking the form. The perf cuts in the rollers were bad at one place and created a white line that moved around slightly. The truck tires being out of round caused their own difficulties. And to add insult to injury I realized that the platen I had so carefully adjusted needed tweaking. I could deal with the platen but had to live with the rollers and trucks for the time being, not being able to afford replacements. The texture of the laid paper did not help. But for all of those things, it ironically still printed as good as some of the cheap and quickly printed originals I've seen. It was certainly readable, if no acme of the printer's art.

Fast forward to the present day and the advent of my great 10x15 press with good rollers and steel trucks. Now you would think hey, now we're cooking with gas, right? Well, sort of. Everything certainly went much better and the print was far superior. But the fly in the ointment was that I had taped the rails to get the rollers adjusted and had been pretty happy with the business cards I had done but I should really have taken more time to experiment. I had signed up for a great letterpress swap (letterpressswap.blogspot.com) and was pressed for time (no pun intended) so even though they did not come out as well as I would have liked and as the press is capable, they're OK.

What I needed to do and have subsequently done is to remove a couple layers of tape from each rail so the rollers would press a bit more into the form. Once I did that I got great inking and nice prints without makeready using the same form. Not that it couldn't have used a touch of makeready here and there to really get it just right. The type was a bit worn and though I replaced a number of sorts it could have used a little onionskin here and there. So the moral of this story is to take your time and go the extra mile.

As my first real project I was reasonably satisfied and I learned a good deal more about what constitutes basic adjustments. You can see the results for yourself below. Wild exclamations of approbation and constructive criticisms are welcome.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hooked On Wingnuts

In my last post I neglected to explain that the screw hooks are fixed to the bottom board with nuts and washers, the nuts on the bottom being countersunk into the board so the bottom board sits flat on the base. The screw hooks in the top board are loose in their holes and each has a washer and wingnut. Once the top board is laid on the stack of pads each length of chain is attached to the hooks in the top and bottom boards with as little slack as possible. The stack is then compressed by tightening the wingnuts evenly on both sides.

Now go and do thou likewise!

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Pressing Issue

I make up my notepads using a padding press and padding cement. These presses come in various shapes, sizes, and types of construction but they all do basically the same thing: compress the stacked pads so the flexible padding cement can be applied and so that the pads will maintain a compact form and the sheets hold together well once released and cut apart for use.

I made my own press modeling it on a style once commonly available from most printing supply houses and still available in one form or another, even on Ebay. The biggest difference is that I made mine from scrap lumber and plywood and it cost me nothing but time and a couple bucks for the two pieces of chain and the screw hooks.

The press consists of a base, a removable vertical backboard, a bottom board and a top board. You can see most of these parts in the photo. The photo is from last year and shows my original pads. To use it you stand the backboard on the base and lay the bottom board on the base. After first folding the edge of a sheet of index and laying it on the bottom board, you take a stack or stacks of pads (whatever will fit depending on the size of the press or pads) and place them on the bottom board with the top of the pads against the backboard. The pads of course have already been made up by interspersing a piece of chipboard alternately between the number of sheets each pad will have. You jog the stack so it is nice and square and the sheets are even all around. Then another sheet of index is folded and laid on top of the pads after which the top board is put on, the chains connected to the screw hooks, and the wing nuts tightened to squeeze the stack of pads. How much they should be squeezed depends on how tall the stack is but there's a lot of "that seems about right" involved.

The top and bottom boards with the pads in between can then be lifted up as one unit and turned around on the base so that the tops of the stacked pads are facing you. The sheets of index can be folded up and down out of the way. They are there to prevent padding cement from getting all over the boards.

As might be expected from the name, padding cement is a special adhesive used for pads. It is sort of rubber-like when it dries and I'm sure everyone has used a pad at one time or another and so is at least familiar with it in a user's sense. It can be purchased from printer's supply houses, art suppliers, etc. It's available in a few colors though white seems to be the most common. The cement I have is water-based and I just take a cheap brush and paint on the cement making sure to work it in well so I don't miss any spots. I let it dry and then put on a second coat. Most people probably use just one coat but I like two for strength. Another way to strengthen the top is to press cheesecloth over the first coat while it is wet and then paint on a second coat.

In a pinch, the pads can be stacked on the edge of a table and a brick or two laid on top to prepare for the cement. This is the method given in an older graphic arts textbook I have. But I like the surety and stability of the press.

Once the cement is completely dry (I leave it overnight) I cut the pads apart with a wide-bladed knife. There's a bit of a technique to this which is easily learned by doing it a few times and after which you can slice them up like butta.

Pads are easy, cheap, and a great project and always seem to be a big hit with everyone I give them to. Obviously they can also be used in business-like ways for advertising, etc. I would only add that you need a lot of sheets to make them. I printed almost 600 sheets on my last pad project which yielded 17 pads of about 35 sheets each. So you Vandercook users may want to pay a visit to your friend's motorized platen press. Heidelburg owners are in luck.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I finished the run for the new pad sheets today, about 600 in all. That's the longest print run I've done to date and it went very well. Among other things, doing some of these mundane print projects gives a lot of practise feeding the press. If I haven't mentioned it before, I run the press at 14 impressions per minute which is very comfortable for me. The experiment of leaving the Van Son rubber base ink on the press overnight was successful also. I know this is "common knowledge" but it's nice to have it verified by my own experience. The top photo shows my first pads which I printed on my old 8x12 about a year ago. The bottom photo shows the revised heading. I not only like that heading better but they printed somewhat better as well, though I'm not sure how much of the difference can be seen in the scans. I'll be gluing them up in the next day or two. It's a simple and fun project and besides the potential advertising value they make great gifts and are useful to have around. I made them using offset paper cut offs so they basically cost me only my time. The faces are Old English, Caslon, and Stymie.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Saturday Night’s Alright For Printing

While working on several larger projects still in the design stage I’ve been printing some more mundane items. I ran off some more business cards and this evening I reset the form for the heading on my notepads and started printing them. I’ll finish the run tomorrow and then start gluing them up.

I thought I would record how I did these, which will show my usual procedure for setting the gauge pins and grippers, among other things. I have been forced to return to the use of my vintage digital camera so please excuse the poor quality of the photos.

The first photo shows the locked up form in the press. I invariably use the chaser method as shown. Because these pads are basically the same as printing a letterhead, the head of the form is at the bottom of the chase and slightly below center. This will allow better inking of the form and more even pressure. The pads are 5” x 8” and about 1” of the sheet stuck out the top of the platen.

The second photo shows the topsheet after the gauge pins have been set. Note that I like to use the McGill double-grip pins, as they are not only easy to set but easy to adjust. I’ve used the spring type before and have a few other kinds including the quad type for certain circumstances. I’m also fortunate in having a set of McGill extension gauge pins which hang off the lower bail, extending below the platen and thereby allowing especially large sheets to be held and printed.

Once my basic packing is set I usually pull an impression on the topsheet using a piece of old-style carbon paper. Normally ink would be used but I’ve found that I’m usually not printing on the same day I’m dressing the platen and getting things ready for a print run. So the carbon paper let’s me print on the topsheet without inking up the press. For those times when I am printing the same day, I pull an impression with ink and then wipe the ink off with a rag and mineral spirits, drying it with baby powder.

The print looks a little light in the photo but the entire form is actually visible. Using a line gauge I drew a line across top of the form. Using a drafting triangle along that line I drew the other line along the left side of the print. I had determined on a layout sheet what margins I wanted and so measured out that distance at two points along each of those two initial lines. Then I drew lines connecting those marks as shown. Then I attached the gauge pins to the top sheet. The double-grip pins require a single slit in the paper to insert the tongue that I cut with a make ready knife. To avoid damaging the pressboard, which I reuse as many times as possible, I inserted under the topsheet an old pressboard saved for just this purpose. Once the cuts are made I remove that board and set the pins as you can see in the photo. Using a sheet of the same stock I’m going to use for the run I take a trial impression, check the margins, and adjust the gauge pins accordingly.

The third photo shows the setup for the grippers. I set the right gripper so it would cover the right side of the sheet and the left gripper far enough over to put some stretch into the rubber bands and generally keep out of the way. I used two rubber bands stretched between the grippers, one at about the center of the sheet and one towards the bottom, i.e. the top of the platen. In combination with the gripper tongues, this proved to work fine.

The fourth photo shows the delivery board towards the end of the run with some of the printed sheets. It also shows a magnifying glass and four rubber fingertips. I kept an eye on the prints and noted when they seemed to print lightly. I then threw off the impression and looked at the print with the glass. Usually my eyesight was proven correct and I had to add some ink to the press. I got the fingertips from Staples and use them in place of the traditional glycerin and/or sandpaper rubber-banded to the fingertips. I put one on the index and middle finger of each hand. They really work great. You can move sheets around with a very light touch and help keep the sheets clean.

The last photo is simply an overall view of the press after I finished the run. I still have about 300 more to do but will wait until tomorrow. This is also an experiment since I’ve left the Van Son rubber-base ink on the press. I’ve never done this before and tried to print the next day though it’s supposed to be OK. We’ll see.

Once the sheets dry I’ll scan a good copy and show you the results. By the way, note the long ink fountain on the press. I finally got this cleaned up and mounted. I’ll take better photos and post them another time.