So I’ve been messing around with the Pearl the last couple weeks, cleaning parts of it, testing various things, setting the platen, but I hadn’t actually printed anything besides tests until Sunday. The press just felt a little weird and I was hesitant to get started until figuring out why. There seemed to be drag and pull in excess of what I’d expected, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was just me and my over-concern for the press or whether something might actually be wrong. Sometimes I feel like I might be too wary of breaking a press – they are, after all, way older than I am (the youngest of my three is the Pearl at 86 years). Obviously, printing presses are somewhat fragile and you don’t want to over-pack them or bang them around, but I suspect I was too wary at first in exploring the capabilities of the 5x8 Kelsey or that now I might not treadle the Pearl anywhere near as fast as I probably could, just because I’m afraid of an imaginary clonking or unlikely break.
Right, so I was having this press problem, and I couldn’t decide if it was real or not. I’ve been practicing treadling and feeding a lot. I know that sounds silly, but I wasn’t having the easiest time treadling AND feeding sheets into the press, taking them out, examining them, and feeding the next. I was never a video game player or a drummer and my body gets confused when I try to use my leg, both hands and my brain all at once. Of course, now I’m sort of wondering how I walk and drink coffee every day! One thing I’m going to need to change to improve the feeding is paper size – I can’t pre-cut business cards and then expect to perfectly feed those tiny pieces of paper into the gauge pins in a treadle and a half – oh no.
Anyway, I’ve been practicing. Because it’s been hard to get a good, consistent rhythm going. I did pretty well when the rollers weren’t on, but the press got harder to treadle with the rollers because it slowed down significantly when the rollers ran over the ink disk. When I added ink, treadling became almost impossible while the rollers were on the ink disk. I really wasn’t sure whether it was a roller-setting problem or whether I just wasn’t treadling hard enough since I am, well, cautious and not strong would be a kind way to put it, but we could also go with pathetic, scaredy weakling. So I embarked on a series of tests.
Just by the by, I have a new favorite book, and I've added it in the sidebar as well. It's Platen Press Operation by George J. Mills, and though I've owned it for a while, I never really looked at it until maybe March, when I got the 6x10 Kelsey. I bought it about a year and a half ago because there was one copy for sale at Letterpress Things and I'd recently noticed that NA Graphics had run out of copies, meaning it was once again out of print. Although NA Graphics plans to reprint it, the librarian in me knows how long that can take (and see, it’s already been over a year) so I snatched it off the table. John Barrett said that I really didn't need it since only had the 5x8 Kelsey, but I like to be prepared. So I took it home and added to my rapidly expanding printing book collection and there it sat. My main letterpress reference book has been Cleeton's General Printing, and it's a great book, but sometimes the instructions are a little unclear to me, and since it's a textbook, the author assumes that my teacher will check my work (I wish!). Anyway, before I got the Pearl or even the 6x10 Kelsey, I was ogling small floor model presses, and I thought I might do well to open up Platen Press Operation and do a little preparatory research into what bigger presses entail. The book certainly covers all that, but I was pleasantly surprised to realize that there's also lots of great information for any printer in there. Mills has a more conversational style than Cleeton and some of his methods and explanations resonate better with me.
I also learned a super-handy trick for checking your roller tension. Mills has you cut three strips of paper; two should be about 2 inches wide and one should be one inch wide. I don't think it matters much how long they are. Sandwich the thinner piece in between the two larger ones with its top sticking out a bit and put a chase with type locked up in the press. Hold the paper stack over the type and roll the rollers until a roller is sitting over the paper and type. Then pull out the middle piece of paper. If it slips out without any tension, the springs are too loose, but if you really have to yank it, they're too tight. Much like Goldilocks, you want it to be just right. After noticing the drag on the rollers from the ink disk, I ttried this when I set the Pearl’s platen and the rollers seemed to pass the Goldilocks test. If anything, they seemed maybe a teensy bit too loose, so I decided I must be mistaken about the roller tension. I also checked the roller height, which also seemed right on target, so I decided the problem must lay elsewhere (perhaps with my lack of muscle?).
The action of the rollers still didn't improve, but a couple days later I locked up one of my business card plates and noticed that when the rollers ran over the plate, they made this weird plinking noise – it was actually kind of musical sounding, but it didn't seem good. Although the plate was inking well enough, closer examination made me think that the rollers were too tight on the plate and pressing too hard. I’m pretty sure the only reason the plate was inking well was that as usual, I hadn’t put enough ink on the press.
At this point the conclusion that there was too much something with the roller somethings was kind of inescapable, and let me tell you that this put fear into my heart since I had so much trouble with the roller hooks and springs when I was setting up the 6x10 Kelsey. I actually never posted about that because I wanted to tell you the whole story, including how I fixed it finally. But every day I thought I was closer to finding a solution and something else would go wrong, and suddenly there was almost too much to blog about (and since I'm not normally concise, can you imagine?). Anyway, based on my prior roller adjustment experience, I was loathe to believe that I might have to do all that again, so I kept trying to come up with other conclusions, such as I just sucked at treadling. Of course, it’s treadling; it ain’t hard, so I got a second opinion and Glendon too agreed that something was wrong.
There’s a little pin that controls the tension of the rollers, and we decided to try to readjust that first. The pin fits in between the roller spring coils and clicks into the roller arm, so you can pull out the pin with pliers and reposition from say, in-between the last two coils of the roller spring, to in-between the second to last and third to last coils, thereby creating a shorter spring. Shorter springs equal less tension, and a longer spring equals more tension. So we repositioned it by one coil and it seemed to help a little bit, but not much. As we’re messing about with the roller contraption, all this dried ink and dirt was showering down onto the floor and it was kind of difficult to reposition the pin and hooks due to all the gunk. So we decided to just take apart the whole assembly and clean it. There was so much caked on crud that actually took a while to get it dissembled. We took it all apart, wiped the hooks down with oil, sprayed WD-40 on the springs and holes, scraped off the crap and rubbed it down well.
Lord what a difference! Everything now runs so smoothly, like butter! We didn’t have to fix anything else. It was neat. And easy. Now I’m a treadling queen (although I could still use some feeding tips if you’ve got ‘em). Mills' paper test didn't lie, the roller tension was correct, but the hooks and springs were so dirty that they couldn't move in the saddle as much as they needed. Now while I'm running the press, the springs and hooks are constantly moving - even if incrementaly. Part of the reason I'm relating this story is that I kept overlooking something really obvious while troubleshooting this problem, and it's something I want to keep in mind in the future. Basically, I was experiencing problems on the ink disk (mostly), but all of my tests (roller height gauge, paper strips) took place around the bed of the press. Obviously the rollers were working well around the bed, but running into trouble at the top of their cycle. Now I don't know of any tests I could have done up around the ink disk, but that disconnect seems like part of the reason I couldn't diagnose the problem more quickly.
It’s funny that cleaning was the solution since I was just recently blathering on about how you don’t need to take apart and clean every press and the old presses have a “patina” from age, and blah, blah, blah. Sometimes cleaning is good. I still wouldn’t ever do much more that oil and wipe down a press that didn’t have major rust, but that’s just me. I know some people enjoy the restoration work, and that’s great for them and their beautiful presses. Me, I’m lazy and I like the whole printing part WAY more than the restoration part.