The Story of my Press: The Purchase

(Another re-post from my old blog.)

I started letterpress printing in May 2009, and as you’ve read in previous posts, I was absolutely hooked.  It didn’t take long before I started dreaming of purchasing a press of my own.  I realize now just how premature that was, especially considering that this was before I even knew about resources like BriarPress or Boxcar, so I went to, you guessed it, Craigslist.  Oddly enough, within a few weeks of casual searches, I found an estate sale in nearby Arlington where they were selling a tabletop press, type and lots of other old letterpress goodies.  On the day of the sale, Jason and I snuck away from work for the afternoon to take a peek, and so, I was introduced to the jarring reality of what it means to have a letterpress studio of your very own. 

We walked into the old house and I scanned the room for the press.  I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I asked a woman who seemed to know what she was doing, and lo and behold, the press and all the rest of it were in the basement!  We walked down the creaky wood stairs and there it was.  I had never seen a tabletop press in person.  Internet searches had made me vaguely familiar with names like Chandler & Price, Kelsey and Adana, but had never seen this kind before.  It was a 3×5 Caxton C&M, a brand I had heard nothing of at the time, and to this day!  It was $900, and naive me was completely ready to buy it.  It was a press, it was right in front of me, and it was less than $1000…how could I let this opportunity pass me by?  Thank God Jason was there and talked me out of it.  I know now that if I had purchased it, I would have pretty much been limited to printing business cards which are nice and all, but I enjoy a little bit of variety.  He dragged me out of there, not before I purchased a dusty old type specimen book that I have to keep in a box outside because it’s mere presence makes me sneeze.  And the search continued.

I wised up just a bit, and started checking the classified section of BriarPress for a tabletop press in the DC area.  Turns out they don’t exist…or didn’t for the 8 months that I searched.  Then I got an iPhone, and checking for presses became an obsession.  I looked constantly, and emailed anyone selling a press from here (Virginia) to the Mississippi.  Months went by and I became more desperate and more determined.  One night in April 2010, Jason and I were watching something on TV (probably Bones because I wasn’t paying attention and instead tweedling away on my phone) and I saw an announcement on BriarPress that their servers had gone done due to massive storms in the Northeast.  Fate made me check again a mere 30 minutes later (it must have been the heavens opening and angels singing that prompted me) and I clicked on a just-listed 6.5 x 10 Chandler and Price Pilot for sale outside of Boston.  I responded as quickly as I could, and then the owner responded.   I was the first, so she would sell the press to me! 

As Jason and I made the long drive from DC to Boston, I truly felt it was meant to be.  I had emailed so many people, responded to so many listings and was always met with the same answer – it’s sold, you’re too late, sorry.  That was becoming  my expectation, I was almost in denial that I was so close to finally having my own press.

When we arrived, it was more than I could have ever expected.  The wife (the letterpresser) told me how when she bought her first press, the generous printer had given her enough equipment to start a fully functional shop, and she wanted to repay the favor.  Believe me, I will do the same when it comes time for me to sell my press.  So they gave me type, furniture, tympan paper, and entire California job case.  It was unreal.  Although it felt like I had reached the finish line, this was only the start of my journey with my new press.

About to buy a Press?  Here’s a few tidbits:

1.  Contain your excitement.  Don’t let your excitement or wallet get the better of you.  There will be broken presses for sale out there, and their price tags will be very enticing.  Unless you are ridiculously good with machinery and/or tinkering, don’t do it, just don’t.  Believe me when I say that there are few things in this world more frustrating than manhandling a 60-year-old machine into working order. 

Of course it’s your call, but I’d advise against purchasing a press on eBay or any other source where you don’t get to see the press in person or meet the previous owner.  There are just too many variables in this scenario that could go wrong.  Once you find the press that you want at the right price from a reputable seller who knows that it’s in working or close-to-working condition, go for it. 

2.  Presses are old.  Letterpress printing as a profession is quite old, thus, so are the presses.  Most of them are made of cast iron, and believe it or not, cast iron is very fragile.  Fragile and unbelievably heavy.  If you’re purchasing a press, come prepared with muscles and a dolly.  My press easily weighs 250 pounds, and thanks to the mechanisms that make it work, it’s very awkward (and stress inducing) to pick up and move. 

3.  Have a stand.

Be prepared with a stand unless the press you’re purchasing is already mounted to a cabinet or table.  I originally bought a huge workbench from Costco because supporting the 250lbs of the press was my biggest concern.  I highly recommend against this.  Workbenches are generally too high and too big for the purpose of printing.  Now, older and wiser, I just bought and assembled a kitchen cart, the IKEA Beckvam, on the recommendation of many BriarPress users, and I’m very happy with it.  It’s sturdy, supports the press, and is the perfect height for printing.

4.  Be realistic.  Know that you won’t be able to print right away.  Oh what I wouldn’t have given to know this.  I got home, got the press all set up, threw on my new Boxcar apron, inked the press up and tried to print.  It was with much sadness and frustration that I realized that moving the press knocked the platen out of alignment, and I was going to have to fix it. 

Come back soon, I’ll get into planarizing the press!