Building up a letterpress studio with minimal funds is a slow process that often depends upon luck and opportunity. It’s a lot easier when people are aware that you exist; I get offered type and machines regularly now, but when I first started it was a very different scenario.
My first ever purchase was a small Adana tabletop platen press that came with a cabinet of type, advertised on the internet. My father and I drove up to the Southern Highlands to collect it, and I was really excited to see all the trays, even though they were faces that make me groan now: lots of 6pt script faces and decorative fonts, obviously for printing business cards and invitations. I also got lots of rusty dye-cutting blades and mystery objects, the sort of stuff that lies in boxes around the studio and rarely gets used, if ever. I still have a few of those boxes, still waiting for me to take the time to really go through them. Being inexperienced, I didn’t know what to look for in a press. I still have that Adana, but it doesn’t have platen clips for the tympan padding, and I haven’t stirred myself to get some, so I haven’t got it working. It just graces a corner of the studio.
I didn’t need it because at the time I was working at the art school (I still work there) and I had presses to use when I could be there outside of work. So my collecting was quite casual because I had nowhere except my rickety old weatherboard garage to store things, and certainly no studio space.
A year or so later contacts I’d made from former jobs and studies contacted me about taking some type that was being deaccessioned from one of the local universities. That was two cabinets of usefulness, mostly Bodoni and Times.
Walking through a junk shop in the Blue Mountains yielded a gorgeous Adana tabletop 10 x 8 platen press in good working order for $600. I was nervous about the money but figured that if I’d found it on the internet, the shipping would have pushed it out of my league, so I took it home, pulled it apart carefully (a big line of newsprint with the pieces laid out and notated in the order they came apart), cleaned it up & touched up the paintwork, and then put it back together. I’m not a person who understands machines, and the fact that there was one washer left over made me very nervous. Apparently that leftover washer is a common occurrence, and it’s made no difference to the smooth operation of the press. You can see it working in this post.
I now have two proofing presses, although one (an Asbern) is stuck in a friend’s shed down in the far south coast of NSW where Dad and his ute managed to haul it in preference to getting it back up the very steep Brown Mountain after I bought it very cheap from a disguntled ex-partner of a printmaker who had left him and skipped the country. That purchase was sheer luck, and I was looking forward to using the Asbern whenever I got the space to house it, but when my art school ex-boss moved her studio from Braidwood to Canberra and decided that she didn’t really need a letterpress press that she’d never used, she asked would I like to buy it from her? Luckily I’d just sold off a polymer platemaker that I’d stashed in my garage and I had some funds, so that’s when the Vandercook SP-20 joined my stash. It was in pristine condition, and came to Canberra comparatively easily, so it’s been my working press ever since.
Here’s a view of my home garage, once I’d cleaned all the junk out that had surrounded the printing gear. This is the day it all got moved out into my new ANCA studio. The blue tarp is keeping the Vandercook nice and dry.
This is the ANCA studio when I first moved the press & type into it, c. 2009. The red table is a printer’s stone, which is a printing cabinet topped by a slab of steel which is hardy and flat and built for composing and planing formes before moving them onto the press. It was also in my ex-boss’s collection, and it came to me as well. Her husband had been using it in his carpentry studio, and the drawers were full of gorgeous whirly wood shavings! Cleaned out and repainted (with a coating of Penetrol for the top), it’s one of my most prized pieces.
I spent three years at ANCA, and halfway through that time I sold a few books and had some cash to spend, so decided to settle on a house font and buy some fresh type from M & H Typefoundry in the US. Choosing was really tough, but I eventually chose to supplement my few drawers of Garamond and Gill. The day it arrived was very exciting. The letters were so clean that I could handle them without getting the usual grotty fingers!
This is old type.
My first studio at ANCA was only temporary (you can use their wonderful facilities for a maximum of 6 years) and while I was there I had the opportunity to purchase a beautiful collection of type from the Finlay Press when they disbanded.
Much of the type had belonged to Alec Bolton of the Brindabella Press (that’s his handwriting on the labels). I was working with him when he died, and the typecases had originally been offered to me, but I was a new (and single) mother with few funds, and couldn’t take advantage of the offer. I will always be grateful to Ingeborg and Phil of the Finlay Press for deciding to offer it to me for the same price it was sold to them, all these years later.
So by the time my partner and I found a house with room for a home studio, I had a wonderful but unorganised collection of type. Moving it was, as usual, gruelling, and I’m also grateful to a wonderful local bunch of piano movers who, although outwardly cheerful whilst doing the job, gave a huge sigh as the last drawer slipped back into the last cabinet and they could go home and rest.
So now I’m firmly established in my home studio, and feeling that I have enough. I have seven cabinets of type, including a cabinet of wood type that, in the same way as the metal type, was collected in odds & sods over the internet and via people who know that I’m interested. I’ve started saying no to any offers except wood type (and an iron handpress, if I can find one with a frisket), because it’s really not how much you have, but what you do with it, and now that there’s no more moving on the horizon, it’s time to start really working again on long-term projects rather than the short choppy things I’ve managed to do over the last three years.
So this summer I set myself the project of getting all the type rearranged into a working order, establishing what I did and didn’t want (I’ve been passing on odd trays of type over the years too… the bulk of my Times went to Andrew Schuller’s Wyrdwynker (sp?) Press and various 6pt fonts have been given to ceramicists etc who can play with them in a non-printing craft context), and cataloguing them.
With the help of Mr Padge the Studio Cat, of course.
I have put together a type sampler, inspired by many others that I’ve seen over the years.
Old typesetters used to feature samples of large font sizes by setting words or phrases that would fit the space. I decided to do the same, which was surprisingly difficult since many of my wood faces haven’t got complete alphabets. It was a lot of fun, though, and I discovered lots of things about my collection, like the fact that one font (Tudor 12pt, I think) doesn’t have any cap Es, which is very frustrating, and I hope that they fell into one of the boxes of crap in the move, to be discovered later. Another typecase had some fantastic ornaments in the back row, which I moved into my already fantastic ornament case, inherited from the Brindabella/Finlay presses.
So now I feel a bit more organised, and my type sampler is going to make life a lot easier. Onwards and upwards!