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!

Mixing PANTONE Ink Formulas for Letterpress

This is a post I created for my previous blog, but since I’ve received good feedback, I’m posting it here as well.  Enjoy!

I’ve found that color matching is one of the more difficult aspects of letterpress printing, so I’ve compiled what I’ve learned about mixing PANTONE colors to help you out!

Prior to mixing ink, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Before you can even think about mixing a PANTONE color, you must have a squeaky clean press.  Even the slightest trace of color from a previous run will alter the color that you labored to create.
  2. Another consideration prior to mixing is the color of the paper on which you’ll be printing.  Letterpress ink is transparent by nature, so the color of the paper will affect how the ink appears to the human eye.
  3. You’ll need all of the colors necessary to create a PANTONE color.  These are:  Red 023; PANTONE Black; Blue 072; Green; Transparent White; Orange 021; Process Blue; Purple; Reflex Blue; Rhodamine Red; Rubine Red; Violet; Warm Red; Yellow; Printing Black; and Opaque White.  I bought my set from Boxcar Press, and they should last for decades.
  4. One last pre-mixing consideration is that PANTONE ink formulas are meant for offset printing, not letterpress.  In offset printing, a thin layer of ink is laid on the paper, whereas in letterpress, the ink is physically pressed into the paper.  Therefore, letterpress lays down a thicker layer of ink than offset, but the ink itself is generally more transparent.  What does all of this mean?  I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but you’re not a machine, so you’re never going to have the perfect Pantone color…but it’ll be close!

Now that you’re aware of the pre-mixing considerations, let’s get to mixing some ink!

  1. First you need a scale.  I bought an Ohaus scale off Amazon, it came highly recommended by a letterpress instructor from Railway Station Press, where I took a letterpress class a while back.  This is an ideal scale because it measures small portions down to the decimal, and can be zero-ed out.  I place a piece of aluminum foil on top of the scale so that I can measure the ink without ruining the scale, then zero it out.  This way you’ll get an accurate reading on just the ink proportions.
  2. Refer to your PANTONE Uncoated Formula Guide for the color you’d like to create.  Look for the “parts” that make up the color, that’s the text right below the swatch.  For the purpose of mixing ink,  substitute parts for grams.
  3. Start with any of the colors, skim the top of the ink and drop a dollop onto the foil.  Keep adding or subtracting ink until you reach the parts/grams that you need.  Scrape the ink off of the foil and onto a flat glass or granite surface, making sure to get every last bit!  Repeat this process with each of the ink colors required to make your Pantone color.
  4. Once you’ve measured out all of the colors, use the glass or marble slab to mix with an ink knife (you can also use a putty knife).  Scrape and mix thoroughly, and you’re done!
  5. I like to make my colors prior to printing, so I scoop them into airtight containers, using masking tape around the edges for extra protection.  Since I have the memory of a hamster, I write the PANTONE color on a mailing label and stick it to the container so that future me has the option of looking it up, and there you have it!  PANTONE letterpress ink.

In Pictures:

Pantone Formula Guide

1. Choose your PANTONE color. I chose PANTONE 207U because I’d like to print my “Hip Heart You” cards to be a perfect match with some deep red envelopes that I have on hand. 207U was about as close as it gets!

Measuring Ink

2. Measure your ink substituting grams for parts. I started with 14 grams of PANTONE Rubine Red


3. Measure all ink colors required to create the PANTONE color you’ve chosen.

Mixing Ink!
4. Mix that Ink!

Final Color

5. And here it is, PANTONE 207U…ready for printing!