So my take on should you buy a press? How about a Kelsey 5x8? Or a bigger one? comes from me, someone who wasn’t sure where I wanted to take this whole printing thing, but I knew I just wanted to print, more, whenever I wanted, to have the time to learn on my own, make mistakes, and become a better printer. I’m also someone with a very small apartment and not much expendable income. So if you want to start churning out material for wholesale or if you’ve got a mansion with a loading dock, you might not want to take my advice. There. Caveat emptor and all that.
Let’s say you recently learned about this thing called letterpress printing and not only is the finished product beautiful, the process sounds like fun too! Okay, I’m just making that up. I have no idea how people get to letterpress printing through the finished product, since I didn’t get there that way, and to be honest, the process to me, sounds nothing like fun. It just is fun. I got to printing through a class on the history of the book and as part of that, did a four-hour workshop where we set type and printed a little poem. I could not get enough of it, and after that class I was bouncing off the walls with giddiness. I went out and signed up for two more longer, in-depth classes. Out of all the people in my book history class, only 2 other people really enjoyed it, and of us three, I’m the only one who actually followed up and did more printing. I believe that isn’t uncommon, and that leads me to my first pretend pearl of wisdom.
Take classes first! I know that it would be cool to make cards or prints at home, but printing is often frustrating, and it’s even more maddening without any prior knowledge. Sometimes I see posts on Briar Press asking what packing is (for example), and I can’t even imagine trying to print without knowing the basics – it would be so mind-boggling. So take classes first and see if you actually like printing before you spend hundreds or thousands on a hunk of metal you end up hating. Also, if you get instruction, you’ll have all these great troubleshooting tips that will really help you later. In the same vein, may I recommend that you purchase one or more reference books on printing? These books offer answers to many of the basic questions I see posted on Briar Press lately. And if you do get a press, the books are invaluable when you get stuck or if you forget how to do something. There’s a whole list of books on my sidebar, but if you’re just going to get one, it should be Cleeton’s General Printing. If you’re a complete and total neophyte, Letterpress Printing by Paul Maravelis gives a good rundown on basic presses and the whole general process.
Since we’re pretending that you are me, you’ll be looking for classes in the New York area. Here are some options, but if you have further questions about them, shoot me an email. If you aren’t in NYC, check Briar Press’ Yellow Pages for local classes or post on Briar Press or the LetPress Listserv asking about classes near you. Who knows, even if there aren’t classes, some nice printer will probably invite you over to see what goes on. There are a fair number of places you can take letterpress classes in the city, but fewer for platens. Most classes use Vandercooks, which is fine – they’re great presses, easier to use (in my opinion) than platens and the basics and terminology of printing are the same. Peter Kruty Editions offer multi-weekend Vandercook classes. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard only good things. A nice guy named Dan runs The Arm in Williamsburg, and he has a few Vandercooks and a few Pilots. Lately he has only been offering one-day Vandercook classes, but I know he gives private lessons, which could include the tabletops (for $45 per hour, whereas the Vandy class is $125 for the day). Dan also teaches longer classes through Cooper Union’s continuing education program. Studio on the Square/Intima Press offers a variety of classes. This is where I first printed in that afternoon workshop, but she’s greatly expanded her course offerings since then, and I believe she’s got more presses, but I haven’t been again so I don’t have more details. Finally there’s the Center for Book Arts. They usually offer a Platen Press class a couple times a year and they have a Pilot, a (maybe broken – or maybe they fixed it) 5x8 Kelsey, and 2 8x10 floor model C&Ps. Barbara Henry teaches the regular weekend platen workshop there and the focus is on handset type and maybe more on the Pilot (tabletop) than the floor models. Recently I noticed they were offering a new Platen class that focuses more on the floor models than the tabletop press and printing with polymer. They also offer lots of classes on the Vandercooks. This is where I took Letterpress I and Platen Press.
Once you’ve had a class or two, the next best step is to rent press time at either the Center for Book Arts or The Arm (or somewhere in your area). Both places are about $15 per hour, and you can rent on the Vandercooks or Pilots at both. This is a great way to get further experience printing on your own without having to take on the cost and responsibility of a press and all that entails. I rented time for over a year before I took the press-purchasing plunge. Renting is really nice because there are experienced printers supervising, so you can pick their brains if you run into trouble. Many aspects of printing, like makeready and figuring out why ink is slurring or something, are similar on Vandercooks and platens, and wow is it nice to have someone to consult with at first. Look, I know that if you aren’t in a metropolitan area it can be difficult to take classes or rent time, but I really do think it’s so important to get experience before making such a big purchase. In addition to looking for classes on Briar Press or the LetPress listserv, there’s also the College & University Letterpress Printer’s Association. If you can’t find a class in your area, it might be worth it to take a weekend class in a nearby city or contact a nearby printer and invite yourself over. The Ladies of Letterpress organization or the APA might be another good resource for finding an independent printer near you.
Now suppose you’ve either taken or ignored my advice and you’re ready to buy a press. So do I recommend the 5x8 Kelsey? Well, yeah, I bought one. But I’ve also now sold it and moved up to a Pearl, so obviously it’s more complicated than that. A lot of people think 5x8 Kelseys are crap presses, and while it’s true that they aren’t powerhouses, I think they get a bad rap since many people printing on them aren’t um, super-experienced. I have a soft spot for Kelseys. They are at times more finicky and difficult to use, but I believe I’m a much better printer because of that. I think I did some nice stuff on it, but yes, there are size and power restraints. So it depends on what you want to do with it and really on what’s available. To me, the process is the fun part and becoming a better printer is my main goal, so I thought it was a great way to learn and ease into printing. If you are mainly concerned with fast results, it’s not the press for you, but I don’t know that a larger tabletop would be either. I do hope that makes sense and that I don’t sound judgey or anything.
Of course, 5x8 Kelseys (and even 6x10s) are a hell of a lot cheaper than Pilots, so that might make the decision for you. I personally would never have been able to afford a Pilot, and I liked the fact since Kelseys are cheaper, I didn’t feel so nervous about investing so much in a hobby. That brings to mind another major caveat. Letterpress printing is surprisingly expensive to set up because you need a lot more equipment than just a press. As for press limits, I’m not sure what to say. I think that a 5x8 will keep you satisfied for at least a year or two, but after that, you may want to move up – I did. But many people remain satisfied with their 5x8s for years (have you seen what the woman on the blog "Stitch, Rip, Repeat" has been doing with hers?). I think it depends what you want to do with it and how much impression you want. Obviously a really deep impression is easier on a bigger press (if you’re still printing a small area). I always got a nice impression on my press – you could see it and feel it but it wasn’t crushingly deep like some of the work you see. Of course, I wasn’t trying for that, so whatever. The final thing to keep in mind is that all platen presses have size restrictions in the printable area. It’s going to be difficult to print much more than half of the area of the chase.
Now I’m not convinced that there’s a marked difference between 6x10 presses, but C&P Pilots are generally considered the best and consequently go for $1500-$3000. That seems a little insane to me, but I guess the market bears what it bears. Sigwalts are often considered to be just as good as Pilots and don’t have paper size limitations like Pilots, yet you never really hear about them. While they’re harder to find, I believe they’re also cheaper. There are a lot of brands like that. So I think research and an open mind are important and perhaps it’s best to get a feel for the market before buying the first thing that comes along. Conventional wisdom also states that it’s probably best to get a press with a side arm (if bigger than 5x8), but again, it’s relative. My 6x10 Kelsey has the lever in the middle, and I think it’s a good press.
Okay, purchasing: now much of this is covered on David Rose's Letterpress Intro and other places, but I’m trying to be comprehensive here. You can purchase on Ebay, but there are few deals there and you can’t be sure what you’re getting. I don’t care how experienced a printer; it’s hard to tell from little Ebay pictures whether or not something’s missing or broken. I suppose the same is true of the ads on Briar Press, but it seems more like a regulated community, and of course you could post an ad yourself on Briar Press. There are also a few printing equipment dealers who sell presses. John Barrett of Letterpress Things in Chicopee, MA is the closest to Brooklyn. It’s a three-hour drive but well worth it. He sells lots of presses to beginners and also has most of the other supplies needed to start; by actually going you know exactly what you’re getting. In the general NY area there’s also Alan Runfeldt of the Excelsior Press. Along with selling used presses, he partners with someone to sell restored presses, which are almost as-new and beautiful but not cheap. Dave Churchman in Indianapolis and Don Black in Toronto are other dealers, and I believe they’re willing to ship (John Barrett is not). Check the Briar Press Yellow Pages for other sources for equipment (such as printing museums).
Again, it’s extremely useful to watch the market for a while before you buy so you have some idea what presses are commonly going for and in what condition with what accessories. Prices for presses can vary wildly, so looking at past listings is important. Not only should you have some idea of your press budget, but you need to factor in how much restoration or repair work you’re willing to do along with how much more you might pay to be able to skip all that. Also, don’t forget to add in the cost of new rollers or trucks (if necessary) along with any other parts you might have to replace and the money you’ll need to spend on furniture, leading, ink, press wash, type or plate base, etc. Here’s a good list of basic equipment and here's another good intro.
Wow, that was long, but I think I just emptied the entire contents of my brain. Maybe it was helpful? Well either way, that's my take on things and now it’s on your head. Questions? Objections? Additions? Please post in the comments.