I’ve been popping in and out of the London Print Studio lately to see what their letterpress situation is. They’ve got a Vandercook SP-20, a beautiful and enormous Boxcar base, but no type or press furniture of any kind. There is some potential for polymer platemaking, relief printing from linoleum blocks or wood cuts, and pressure printing. I am hoping to run a course of some kind there soon, and so I visited last Wednesday to try printing in the shop for the first time. I had big plans to make some plates and work on a first print for the Figures project that I’m producing with Dave Allen. But instead, I bumped into some technical problems.
This is not unusual.
When you spend all of your time using equipment that was manufactured more than 50 years ago, you are bound to bump into some technical issues. The likelihood of encountering problems increases exponentially if you are running around using a number of different presses in different shops. Every letterpress printer must, to a certain extent, also be a diagnostician. When things started to go wrong with the press on Wednesday, I had to run through a checklist of possible problems and do my best to eliminate them one by one in hopes of eventually identifying the issue and, if all went well and I had access to what I needed, fixing the stupid thing.
The problem: When I cranked the cylinder, the oscillating roller and the front rubber roller did not engage and turn.
What’s the big deal: If the rollers aren’t turning, they will not put ink on your printing surface in the right way. The rollers will drag across rather than turn over the type or lino block etc and the ink will be laid down unevenly. Additionally, because the oscillating roller isn’t engaging with the front roller, the ink will not be distributed and replenished after depositing ink on the surface. Basically, what you are printing will look awful, and you will be judged and cast out of polite printing circles.
So I tried a dozen different things, adjusting roller height, tightening screws, removing things to see what would happen, peering intently at different parts while crouched uncomfortably at strange angles, and (the old stand by) scowling at the press. Eventually I had eliminated all but one possibility. The rollers were obviously very old, this was clear due to their glossy texture and the fact that the press itself had stood in the studio for years but barely been used. My hunch was that the two rubber rollers, designed to be the same, had different circumferences. Specifically, the front roller must have a larger circumference than the back, gear driven roller. To test this theory, I measured each roller in several different places with a bit of scrap paper.
DAMN STRAIGHT. The back roller, the one attached to the gear that drives all of the rollers as they move down the bed of the press, was TOTALLY SMALLER than the roller at the front. It was not engaging with the oscillating roller because the larger, front roller was getting in the way. This was good news for me because I had further proof that I am a genius,* but bad news for my plans for printing that day because you can’t print if the rollers don’t roll. Sometimes, though, if you are lucky, there is a solution hiding right nearby.
LIKE A TOTALLY FRESH SET OF ROLLERS hidden in the cabinet under the press for god knows how many years. Based on the unbroken label, I could see that these rollers had been cast for a completely different shop before the London Print Studio had acquired this press. And there they had sat, untouched by time, dormant and unused, waiting for a frustrated printer to dig them out and return them to their rightful place. So that is what I did.
First I took the bits off of the old, black, glossy, front roller:
*to all of you who could have figured this all out immediately without an hour of scowling and tinkering (I’m looking at you, Paul Moxon) I am begging you not to tell me about it. For any of you who, like most of us, need a little help puzzling out what is going wrong, the troubleshooting section of Paul’s Vanderblog is a great place to start.