Acquiring a Press

The variety of presses produced over the past 200+ years is astounding. It’s easy to forget how nearly everything printed before 1945 was produced on a letterpress of one style or another. Picking the appropriate press for your shop or studio is an important decision—trying to put a Vandercook in your basement or second floor studio may be unfeasible, and using a table-top platen press to print posters will be a losing battle.

Choosing the Right Press

The first thing to consider is what it is you will be printing.

Diagram for Letterpress Printers

Jessica C. White and Kristi Pfeffer

Diagram outlining which presses to use based on what is being printed. Courtesy of Letterpress Now, Lark Crafts, 2012

Table-top presses are capable of fine printing, but are not be ideal for long runs, or large forms. Styled after the larger floor model presses, they behave nearly identically, but are lever-powered and not as robust. Popular examples of these include Kelsey, Excelsior, Adana, Chandler & Price Pilot, and Craftsman models. Also included in the table-top press category are sign presses, a flat-bed press with a manually operated hard rubber impression roller. These are capable of larger printing sizes but are almost always hand-inked. Brands include Vandercook, Show Card and Line-o-Scribe. The advantages of these presses are ease of operation, and small size, making them ideal for a printer with limited space. The disadvantages include the limitation of printed sheet size, ink coverage, and manual operation. This is not necessarily a disadvantage if production is limited in the number of impressions, and small sheet size is preferred.

Floor-model platen presses are usually distinguished by a large fly-wheel on the side. They can produce excellent impression and are designed for longer print runs. These were the most popular style of presses produced, and they remain the most readily available today. Popular models include Chandler & Price 8×12 and 10×15, Golding, Challenge, Kluge, and Arab (mostly available in Great Britain, Canada and Australia). The advantage of this kind of press is its relative availability (and affordability), and speed of operation. The disadvantages include ease of transport, sheet size limitations, and some feeding safety questions.

Flatbed cylinder proofing presses, dominated by the Vandercook brand, are prized today for their ease of use, printing and paper size, and general safety record. These presses were originally designed for proofing type before the production run on a sheet-fed press, and have been adopted today by schools and private studios. The most popular brands include Vandercook, Challenge, Korrex, and FAG (Europe). The advantage of this kind of press is the ability to print a larger form and feed a larger sheet of paper. The disadvantages are cost, availability, and speed of operation.

Fully automated printing presses encompasses numerous different brands, models, and styles. The best known is the Heidelberg windmill. This press was first designed in the 1930s and is capable of high quality printing at a very high rate of speed. Automatic feeders were available on other presses at earlier dates. Chandler & Price, Kluge, Thompson and some other independent manufacturers developed auto-feed systems for platen presses. Automated sheet-fed flatbed cylinder presses were also manufactured and sold by American Type Founders (Little Giant, Kelly), Miehle, Chandler & Price and Heidelberg. Some of these presses are still used today by larger print shops for die-cutting and hot-foil stamping. Care should be taken when purchasing an automated press as many have been modified for die-cutting or hot foil, and may be missing some or all of their inking assembly. The advantages are speed, quality and availability. The disadvantages are cost and difficulty of transportation, and the footprint used by a larger press.

So which kind of press is good for you; how will it be used and where will it be located? Any press that has to be moved going up or down stairs, without the aid of an elevator, should not weigh more than a few hundred pounds, anything bigger should not be moved without a professional moving service. This would allow for most table-top platen or sign presses. Because of the manual operation of these presses, they are deemed much safer for institutional use and teaching situations.

Studios with ground-level, loading dock, or elevator access have a wider variety of options. Platen presses are a popular largely because of their availability and ease of operation. Hand-fed presses are capable of several hundred impressions an hour, and automated platen presses can produce thousands of impressions an hour. Platen presses were the workhorses of the older commercial print shops, and are ideal for small-sized printing including business cards, wedding invitations, stationery, &c. Since they are powered either by foot-treadle or by motor, these presses can pose a safety risk of having a finger or hand crushed in between the moving parts of the press. They should not be considered for institutional use, and are often prohibited because of insurance constraints.

Flatbed cylinder proofing presses boast a larger print size, and because of the physics involved in printing, are often capable of higher pressure (and deeper impression) when printing. Like table-top presses, they are also deemed safe for institutional use.

Anything larger than a table top press will likely require professional movers, but any press will require some special attention when moving because of weight, and cast-iron construction which in spite of the strength it gives toward impression also makes them rather fragile.

Where to Look

The market for presses has spiked in the past decade. Antiquated printing equipment has found value again. The bad news to this is what might have been given away 20 years ago might now be offered at unprecedented prices. The good news however is that in its heyday, the printing industry was so large, that a lot of printing equipment can still be acquired with relative ease. To the question of ‘where to look?’ the answer is everywhere.

Online auction sites are an easy place to start. While it might seem silly to search eBay for a 2000lb piece of equipment, perhaps something will turn up in your state, or better yet, in your city! And eBay is only the best known online auction site—hundreds exist, and many seem to specialize in industrial equipment. Be aware that most auction sites charge a buyer’s premium.

Search Craigslist in your area. Ask other printers. If you can befriend a printer they can be an ongoing source of useful information. They can help you locate resources for supplies, repair services, and may even help to find a press. Don’t forget, most old equipment is being sold by old printers. Search your local newspaper classifieds and your local Pennysaver Weekly.

Estimating Value

Vandercook press prices are at an all time high. Presses that were being almost given away 30 years ago are selling today for $10,000 and up, for presses in perfect operating condition. Smaller table-top presses have seen a similar price hike, with Kelsey and Chandler & Price Pilot presses regularly selling at a premium. Of course prices fluctuate, and it only takes two bidders with deep pockets to drive up a record price. Many deals can still be had, and even the most sought after equipment turns up affordably once in a while. Take some time to look at the market before spending too much for a press that can be had more cheaply.

The best deals will remain in the platen press market. A Chandler & Price 8″x12″ weighs in around 1200 lbs. While one seller may think they have a rare, valuable, and highly prized antique machine worth many thousands of dollars, another may look at it as $175 in scrap iron. Where Vandercooks and table top presses seem to be increasing in value, production sheet-fed presses have not increased too much, and if a printer has the floor space and the proper electrical connections good deals can still be had. A patient person can sometimes find a press for free… if you move it.

There are hidden costs that must also be considered. Rarely does a purchase price include delivery, and that price can run in the thousands depending on the size of the press and the distance it must be transported. Other hidden costs that should be addressed are replacing rollers and repairs or missing parts. Where new rollers can cost several hundred dollars, missing parts might be difficult or impossible to find, and having new parts manufactured as replacements can be very costly. Damaged presses should be avoided, unless the damage can be adequately fixed at a price that is reasonable, taking into consideration the initial cost of the press.

Sometimes purchasing a press at a high price is the only option. An individual, or a college or university desperately seeking a Vandercook may not have the luxury of waiting for another more affordable press. Whenever possible, be patient and knowledgable when searching for a press. Good deals turn up with time, and sometimes the high prices on equipment can come down as the seller’s incentive to move it increases. A seller might be willing to come down on their price once they are made aware of moving costs. If purchasing as a hobbyist, try to stay within your budget. If you have a business model, you will have to determine how long it will take to earn back the cost of the machine and the costs of operating it. Purchasing a complicated press before knowing how to operate it can be a costly burden if one is forced to hire a printer as a teacher. Sometimes what looks like a good deal can be a very costly investment – do your homework before buying.

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