Last week I rescued a letterpress before it got melted for cast iron frying pans. It is a Chandler and Price press made between 1881-1900. I’m excited and nervous. It feels like I should send out baby announcements.
Like other lovers for all things letterpress, I look at briarpress.org regularly, but this was a lucky Craigslist search on a Sunday afternoon. I called the seller only half-heartedly expecting that the press would still be there four days after he posted the ad, but I was able to set a time to visit his shop.
Dennis’ shop was full from floor to ceiling with ink, presses, ephemera, posters, and paper. It was a treasure of probably 10 presses: colour printing, letterpress, die cuts, scoring, and foil stamping. He demonstrated all sorts of techniques about which I had only read- how the Ludlow worked and melted lead, the die cutting options, the best posture for hand feeding and other tricks. There was a juxtaposition of techniques, like a colour-offset CD insert was cut to shape on this ancient letterpress, too.
Dennis demonstrated the varied equipment and it illustrated how the history of letterpress is a venerable tradition of apprenticeship. It’s a lifetime of learning based on touch and instinct. It feels surreal to have said ‘yes’ to buying this press when I’m still just starting out as a letterpress printmaker, but I’m also happy that this press will continue its intended purpose instead of scrambling eggs. I do have experience in running small and proof presses including my own Kelsey 5×7 press and the Vandercook at Emily Carr, but this press is the next step.
I asked if he had many inquiries about the C+P. Surprisingly, the only person who called was a greeting card shop owner who had never before printed but wanted it for her shop. The real competition was that Dennis had a quote from the scrap metal guy, and was under a timeline because he needed to make room for his newest press purchase. It did make sense that there weren’t many calls; the demand for amateur letterpresses is mostly for small or table top presses because they can fit into a house or apartment. As you can see, a 1000 lb press is expensive to move and so inversely cheap(er) to buy than a tabletop press. Ebay drives up the small press prices; it also encourages the ignorant practice of dividing up type into a 26-letter alphabet, but that’s another story.
Logistically, this C+P has a working 3-phase motor; in fact, it’s the original motor from the turn of the century. The garage where it will live doesn’t have this type of power so I’ll be looking for help at setting it up, converting it, or adapting it and then asking for more help in making sure I’m running it safely.
Another exciting development is that W2 has a new letterpress group. I`ll be volunteering with their kids’ camp this summer, and then as part of an interim collective to establish community access to the press. We know that we want to hold more community intro workshops and establish open hours as part of our first tasks. I encourage people to stay in touch through the W2 group and I will also post updates after the kids’ camps wrap at the end of August.