Letterpress has been a consuming passion of mine ever since my school days in the mid 1970’s. As a fifteen year old I was captivated by John Ryder’s, Printing for Pleasure. My local library was a favourite stop on the way home from school, and by chance had a copy of what was to become an almost daily read. How I longed to have my own printing press!
At first I constructed my own press, a simple wooden box measuring 6” x 3” with a tympan of cloth and my mother’s rolling pin for the impression. This simple cylinder press was my first experience of letterpress printing, with each letter of my first fount of 10pt Times New Roman poorly inked and deeply impressed into oddments of paper found around the house. To this day I have disliked Times New Roman, was this due to my abuse of that delicate type.
My father encouraged my interest and on my sixteenth birthday took me to see an Adana 5x3 advertised in the Exchange & Mart. I wanted that press as soon as I saw it. I cradled it on the way home and slept content that night. My dream had become a reality. I had my first proper printing press and a small range of jobbing type. I soon became known at school for having a printing press and all manner of requests came to me. I regularly printed letterheads, business cards, dance tickets, dinner menus, etc.
Although I started with an Adana 5x3 I always hankered for a bigger chase size. Within a year I had bought an Adana 8x5 and made regular weekend visits to the Adana shop in Church Street, Twickenham, spending my pocket money on small card founts, paper and tubes of ink. How I loved the place. Always busy with its display of new presses on show and little brown paper packets of type on shelves behind the counter. The Adana catalogue became more familiar than any of my school text books!
Around this time I joined the BPS and began contributing to both the main monthly bundles and those of the Publishing Group. This was a time when letterpress was still dominant within the BPS and the enthusiasm and knowledge of its members infectious. I remember fondly the encouragement given to me.
I replaced the Model 4 with a Titan Treadle Press, made by E. A. Braddick of Gough Square, London. This press has an internal chase size of 11” x 7¾”, and is a lovely looking little press. Unfortunately I never got to grips with this press, the Adanas were always so much easier to use.
Time came when I wanted to print my first private press book. I knew that the Adanas would not be suited. The search for a bigger press commenced and in 1988 I bought a FAG Swissproof SP40 cylinder precision proofing press. This press proved to be wonderful, capable of producing high quality book work. However whilst the press has motorised inking the delivery is by hand and the cylinder has to be cranked by hand for each impression stroke and its return. Although the trusty Adanas continue to step in when needed I doubt if I would ever part with this wonderful press.
A few year later I came across a Vicobold for sale in the Exchange & Mart. Seduced by the thought of having a motorised platen I acquired it. Unfortunately it proved to be a poor buy. I discovered that the press had been welded in many places, and just could not produce good results. It did however make light work of creasing cards ----- produced on the trusty Adanas!!!
The increasing frustration with the Vicobold saw it eventually replaced by an Original Heidleberg ‘windmill’ platen. This has proven to be a Rolls Royce of a platen. Beautiful to use and a delight to watch. Feeding is a dream and the impression very accurate. At last I had a motorised platen capable of producing work as good, if not better, than on my Adanas. Not only is the press excellent for small items it has also proven to be able to handle bookwork.
With the closures of Adana, Riscatype, Startype and Mouldtype and with the demise of the last great British type foundry, Stephenson Blake, I have become increasingly worried about the continued supply of new type in the UK. Although I have some irreplaceable old founders’ type, my general type is Monotype cast and in general need of replacement. Whilst reading the small adds in Small Printer I came across the sale of a Monotype composition caster with display attachment, together with a keyboard and an assortment of mats, moulds, tools etc. Having just seen the Monotype set up run by David Bolton at The Alembic Press I thought what the hell, this could be fun and a ready source of type, spaces etc.
In due course the caster was delivered and I collected the keyboard, moulds, mats etc and squeezed everything in. Whilst I have yet to get casting I am slowly restoring the caster and with help and encouragement from David I am confident about being able to produce my own type some time in the near future. The Monotype caster is proving to a labour of love and truly a consuming passion. It is however very technical and the learning process never stops. Anyone who has seen a Monotype caster in action will appreciate the complexity of the Monotype system and the inherent difficulty of operating and maintaining such a complex piece of machinery, especially one that injects molten metal at high pressure! All Monotype owners can proudly display the splash of type metal on the ceiling above their caster and the scars on their bodies. This machine requires both care and respect.
My passion for letterpress and in particular letterpress equipment has not ended there. Once again I have been called upon to save more letterpress equipment from the scrap man. Whilst the pristine Intertype caster I was offered was beyond the space available to me I did rescue a Ludlow caster and a couple of cabinets of mats. The Ludlow did not need much restoration, just a thorough clean and a service from one of the two remaining Ludlow engineers left working in the UK. The caster has been a dream to use, supplying endless beautiful new typesetting. Granted a type slug does not have the intrinsic quality of a finely crafted piece of type. However there is a certain pleasure in continuing the tradition of hot metal typesetting. I am now slowly adding to my collection of Ludlow mats and would like to hear of any that are being disposed of.
Letterpress for me is indeed a consuming passion.