Online since 1995, the Briar Press Museum (a member of our Hall of Fame) is dedicated to the history of the printing press. Here, founder Elizabeth Nevin explains to collectors the basic facts to consider when buying/selling/restoring an antique press.
If you are thinking of getting into letterpress printing or collecting antique printing equipment, congratulations. It is a very satisfying hobby and craft. However, like any other field of interest, there is a lot to understand before starting to invest your time and money. Buying a letterpress involves some knowledge of the equipment and process, so I hope this basic guide will be of help.
What press should I buy? A few questions to consider:
1. How much space do you have for your print shop? Do you have room for a floor press or is a tabletop press more appropriate?
2. What type of projects do you wish to print? Cards, posters, stationery?
3. How large an area will be printed? The size of a press is measured by the inside measurements of the chase. Although the desired printed area can be larger than the size of the chase, the paper will need to be run through twice, which may present problems for a beginner. The desired size of the printed area should be smaller than the chase size as it is difficult to achieve an even impression if the printed area is too close to the edge of the chase.
4. Will you be doing many short runs or mostly longer runs? Short runs of 50 – 100 prints can be easily printed with a lever or proof press which are both manually operated. Longer runs on a lever press will require more time and arm strength. A better choice for long runs may be a treadle press or one adapted to use with a motor.
What should I look for when buying a press?
With the renewed interest in letterpress printing there are many people buying and selling these presses. For a beginner, it is not always easy to know if a press is complete and usable. It is even more difficult to know what a press is worth. Many sellers purchase presses at tag sales for resale, while acknowledging that they don’t know much about the presses they are selling. They push the lever down on the press or turn the flywheel, and if the parts move, they assume the press is working properly.
If you are new to letterpress printing and are not familiar with the parts of a press or what kind of press is suitable for your printing needs, it is best to do some research before your purchase. Make sure to ask the seller plenty of questions. You can find a lot of detailed information on the Internet, but for the beginner, here are some points to consider. The following photo of the popular Kelsey tabletop press identifies the basic parts of a press that are discussed below:
1. The majority of letterpresses that are sold are not being made any more, so replacement parts are not readily available. It may be possible to find parts for the more common presses such as the late model Kelsey presses and the Chandler and Price Job presses, as there are collectors and dealers who save incomplete presses and sell them for parts. The older the press, the more difficult it is to find parts, but for a price almost anything can be made.
2. One of the parts that are fairly easy to replace are the rollers. They are frequently missing or unusable. If you have the roller stock or cores, (the center rod around which the roller material is cast), you will still find suppliers who can cover this core with the rubber-like material necessary for printing. You will need to have the dimensions of the roller covering; length and diameter. Some companies specialize in recovering letterpress rollers. These companies may also be able to supply the cores and may have information on dimensions for both rollers and cores. These dimensions differ from press to press.
3. Rollers for a small press can cost a minimum of $25 each to over $60 or $70 each for the average size press, plus a fee for making a reusable shipping box. If you are buying a press for display purposes you may not wish to purchase rollers, but if you wish to print with your press, keep this cost in mind when purchasing a press. If the press you buy does not have roller trucks or a chase (for holding the type), you may wish to search for these items before investing in the rollers, as these parts may be difficult or impossible to find.
Many small table or card presses have parts that are easily removed. One or more of these parts are frequently missing from presses offered for sale. These parts include ink plate, rollers, roller trucks, grippers, and chase. If they are missing on the card presses they are almost impossible to find. For display purposes, having a complete press is not always necessary nor possible and is a matter of personal preference.
On hand-inking presses the parts that are most easily removed and are sometimes missing, are the chase and the rectangular ink plate that sits above and perpendicular to the chase.
Fixing and restoring a press
1. Some presses may have been broken and repaired. It is always preferable to personally inspect a press before buying it, but frequently you may only be able to see photographs. Ask sellers about welds or breaks that may not be visible in the photos. If you are not concerned about the use or aesthetics of your press, these repairs may not bother you. Some parts can be brazed or welded without affecting the use of the press and you may be able to buy such a press for a lower price. However, some press parts are under great pressure when the press is in use, and a repair in these places may not withstand the pressure needed to use the press.
2. Presses may develop rust if they have been kept in damp conditions. A badly rusted press may take a great deal of work to make it usable and some parts may need to be replaced. Light rust can be removed with care as long as the moving parts are not damaged. Painting a press is entirely a matter of taste. Some older presses had beautiful hand-painted detailing and some collectors feel that repainting a press destroys the value of the press. They would prefer to see as much of the original paint and detail as possible, even if the press is not shiny and new. Other people prefer a newly painted press for display or use.
Moving or shipping a press
1. When you buy a press, if it is possible, pick it up in person. One of the most frequent disappointments in purchasing these presses and having them shipped, is having them arrive in pieces. Although the presses look heavy and durable, cast iron is very brittle and can break easily. If you are going to have your press shipped to you, ask the seller how the press will be packed and shipped. Even if you request insurance, it may be very hard to recover the cost of a broken press from any postal carrier as there are no real comparables for establishing value.
2. Many sellers state that the buyer must pick up the press or arrange shipping. If you wish to arrange for shipping a press, especially a large one, it is recommended that you use a machinery rigger or mover who has experience in moving these presses. You may wish to buy a press that you can pick up personally, but if you are a beginner it would be wise to seek expert advice before attempting to move a large press.
This is a subject that has been the topic of many discussions. There is no easy way to determine the value of a press. Reviewing completed auction listings can give you some idea of prices and how often certain presses are listed. However, the picture is much more complicated than it appears.
1. Collectors know much about the history of presses and may bid very high on an early press while a later model may sell for a much lower price. Some of the early presses can be distinguished only by their serial numbers. Some have more noticeable differences to the educated eye.
2. Moving any press except the very smallest can cost a great deal of money, even if the move is just across town. A press may sell for a very low price if it is located in an area where there is little printing activity and if the buyer needs to pay a high shipping cost. However, it may sell for a seemingly high price if the buyer has the proper equipment and knowledge to move the press without incurring much additional expense.
3. If a press is rare, the price may depend on how eager a buyer is to have it in his or her collection.
4. If a buyer is purchasing a press for personal or commercial use, the value may depend on how quickly the press is needed.
In short, ask ten people the question of value and you will receive ten different answers. Location, use, condition, rarity, and desire are all factors that affect the price of these fine machines.
Do your homework before you invest. Briar Press has a Printer’s Yellow Pages where you can find all things letterpress. You can search by location and find classes, museums, individuals and suppliers who may be very helpful in providing you with the information you will need to make an informed purchase.
If you take some time to review these suggestions, you are off to a good start!
Here are the captions for the images in this article, from top to bottom:
1. Chandler & Price Old Style
2. Illustration of Kelsey press parts
3. Golding Pearl Oldstyle No.1
4. Baltimore No. 6, hand-inking lever
5. Adana Five-Three
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