we should have broken the bottle on the press’s cheek
This story begins with a 130 year-old orphan (at right, in back). What does one do with a 2,000-pound printing press when one no longer has space for it? This particular press (a Washington hand press) stands 6 feet tall and spans 6 feet in length. It’s a lovely piece, and completely functional–so part of me hated to see it sit in a museum. But our campus no longer had space for it.

Luckily, some friends at Cornell College were looking to start a print shop. They weren’t picky about the kind of press they got, and so they arranged to come move this dinosaur into its new home on their campus. This press had been gifted once already, and had been used at Iowa’s Wheatland Gazette for years–so it was good to see it going to a place where it could be used again.

The hard part was moving this monster. I did a little research and was lucky to find a site that documented a move like this one. I envisioned something similar happening with ours, but here’s what happened instead: three guys showed up in two pick-up trucks with a pallet that might have held me and a German shepherd without breaking. In typical Midwestern fashion, they refused to let me lift anything heavier than a bolt, so I held the doors for them and said a little prayer to the patron saint of letterpress that these guys wouldn’t throw their backs out or drop the damned thing. Somehow, they managed to fit all of the press pieces into the truck (after lots of heaves and grunts and a shattered pallet), and though the truck seemed to melt under the weight, it somehow made it down the road to Mount Vernon intact.

So fast forward a few months to the point where the press needs to be put back together. Thankfully, the friendly facilities guys at Cornell did the heavy lifting again and reassembled 90% of the press. The only parts left to reattach were the toggle assembly and the straps that allow the press bed to move–and yes, these are the most critical parts. Day One at Cornell was spent oiling the parts that hadn’t moved in years, and trying to reassemble those straps. After a couple of hours, and lots of trial and error, we tried to crank the handle–and broke one of our new 1/8″ leather straps. My friend, who was patiently helping through all of this, said, “Well, hey, my husband says it’s not a real project until you’ve been to the hardware store at least five times.” After three trips, and plenty of head scratching, we had lunch and called it a day. My photos of the press in its original state seemed to contradict the illustration in our hand press bible that showed the correct placement of the straps on the drum roller. No matter how much muscle we put into it, we couldn’t make the bed move like it should. Physics had beaten me yet again.

the offending part, shown here on the mini-Washington

Frustrated, I went home and read the Rummonds book again. I went to the UI Library, which has a gorgeous Columbia hand press and a miniature Washington press, to check out the placement of their straps. I took a couple dozen photos and had convinced myself I had assembled the straps backwards. (Typical–lately I feel like if I’m given the chance to do something backwards, I will.)

Day Two: My friend and I are back in the Cornell shop (which has no heat, mind you, and we are still in winter), pulling the nails out of the drum roller and reattaching the straps in their correct positions. We call the facilities guys to come back and give the press bed a nudge as we crank the handle, and with enough muscle, we overcome the grime that has seized the bed in place. The guys are shocked that I’m getting this thing moving again, and asking me a million questions about how it works, and how old it is, and where did I learn to do this. (Here’s where I can officially thank the folks in the UA Book Arts program, and Linda Samson-Talleur, who did a demo on Alabama’s hand press for us back when I was in the program. Roll Tide.) They say they’d love to come back and see us print something, and I hope that they do. They leave, and my friend Michelle and I roll the bed back and forth, back and forth, oiling the dry parts and reminding this beast of how it is supposed to move. I celebrate with a glass of wine, a hot bath, and some tiger balm.

Day Three: The real fun begins! The ladies have invited me to come to a crash-course demo on how to print on the hand press. We change out the tympan paper, cut a new window in the frisket, and lock in a block that Michelle has bought at the last Iowa Printers’ Fair. The ladies take turns locking in the form, inking the block, placing the proof paper, and pulling the platen down. We practice with wood type, and before we know it, we’re to the end of the session. We haven’t tried hardly any of the experiments I thought we would, but we’ve done enough make-ready that the press is ready to go. We’ve resurrected this beast and acquainted it with its three new proud owners, who are already planning their first collaborative print project and breaking out the champagne. 

For anyone moving a gigantic iron hand press, let me pass along a few things I have learned: 

1. Men will try to lift anything. Anything. Especially if you say, “Do you really think you can lift that ok?”

2. Oil everything. Before you try to move any parts that haven’t moved in a decade. You can never have enough 3-in-One.

3. When deciding where to place your press, remember that the tympan and frisket take up three times the space you think they will when they are open…you know, measure twice, move once. The fellas with the pick-up will thank you.