I'm into heavy metal.
I'm not talking music. When it comes to that, I'm much more of a Folk/Americana kind of girl. No, I'm referring to my affection for the collection of large cast-iron printing presses and paper cutters I've accumulated in my garage.
Back in 2010, I bought my first letterpress: a Vandercook 320G, coming in at a whopping 1750 lbs. I'd recently returned from a two-month concentration at the Penland School of Crafts where I'd formally learned how to operate a similar machine.
My instructor, an artist living in Brooklyn at the time, called me one Friday night to say he'd seen a press come up on ebay just down the road from where he knew I was living in Alabama. I'd been begging and borrowing from other printers for time on their machines, so when the opportunity presented itself to own one, I barely hesitated.
Within a few days, I had arranged with the owner to go and see it in person, and within a few weeks, I was making plans to move the behemoth to my garage with the help of about ten wonderfully generous and brawny men, an engine lift, and an F350 truck.
This type of press is called a cylinder press on account of the 400 lb barrel you see pictured above. With each crank of the handle, the weight of that cylinder rolls across the type I place in the bed of the press, putting pressure on the paper and creating the indention that characterizes modern letterpress printing. The grey piece you see locked into the bed is called a base. Because most of my printing involves using imagery and type that is designed digitally, I get plates made, which I then affix to this surface. If I were to print with moveable type, I could position each piece into the bed, and lock it into place before rolling the cylinder across.
This machine is now housed in my garage here in Chicago—the city where it was originally manufactured in June of 1914. I love the fact that I was able to reunite my cast iron baby with its birthplace.
The second piece of equipment I acquired was this Challenge paper cutter. Coming in at around 750 lbs, this guillotine is force to be reckoned with. With the pull of its lever, it can cut through a stack of about 150 sheets of decently thick paper. It has a safety guard in place to ensure that nothing but paper ever gets caught in its grip.
The latest addition to my studio was this Chandler and Price (or C & P) beauty, dating back to the late 1800s. When we returned from our time in Belfast, a friend of the family offered this to me—FOR FREE—if I'd just come and move it. So, one weekend trip to Minneapolis, a fork lift, and trailer/truck rental later, and this little lady was also mine.
As you might deduce from the above image, this is a different kind of press. It's called a clamshell or platen press, and it prints by opening and closing like—you guessed it—a clamshell. The impression of printing comes from the speed and pressure of that motion when the surface with the paper meets the surface with the base.
For years, I was terribly intimidated by these beasts. The motor you see on the ground beside this press propels its motion, and therefore, the operator has a bit less control over the speed. (Read: you can definitely pinch your finger/hand in its jaws if not careful).
I've only been working on the C&P since the summer, but I've really taken to it. Because it's motorized, I can really speed through a hefty stack of invites or envelopes, and I love the fact that I can trim each piece down to size before printing rather than after.
Producing fine work on 100+ year-old machines is an ongoing learning process, but the finished product is so worth the time and labor, resulting in paper pieces that are hand-fed through my little history makers.