Vandercook and Similar Cylinder Presses Instruction

More than 30,000 Vandercook presses (some ninety different models in all) were manufactured in Chicago between 1909 and 1976. Today, more than 1,800 presses representing forty models have been identified in an on-going, worldwide census compiled by Paul Moxon at This article provides basic information for the operation of Vandercook proof presses and similar brands such as Asbern, Challenge, FAG, Korrex, and Reprex. Review the operation manual. If a manual is not present, one can be purchased from NA Graphics. Other useful information is available at

Overview of Operation

After set-up is complete, a proof can be taken. Turn on the power ink distribution and lower trip roller lever. Pre-ink the form by shifting the trip/print lever to trip, moving the carriage over the printing form, and returning the carriage to the feed board. Now shift the trip/print lever to print. Depress the gripper pedal to lift the paper grippers and insert the paper. Turn the hand crank, walk with the press to end of bed and remove the sheet at the very end of the print stroke. Examine the proof after the carriage is returned to feed board. If the press has a power carriage, push the cycle start button and wait for carriage to return the sheet to feed board. Correct the form, sheet imposition, and ink level as needed. When ready to commence the print run, the form need not be double-inked between impressions; the exceptions are heavy forms with large solid areas such as linoleum blocks and wood type. Monitor the ink level during the run and add small amounts to the rider roller as needed, frequency will vary with each job.

Cleaning and Lubrication

Begin with a proper maintenance routine. Wipe the cylinder bearer, bed bearers, under rails and carriage bearings with a clean, slightly oiled rag daily. Use SAE 20 wt. oil, readily available in the 3-in-One brand blue and white bottle. Wipe the press bed with WD-40 before built printing form.

SP15 Cylinder Eccentric Oiling

Oil the cylinder eccentrics on SP series presses on both side plates weekly. Oil the cylinder eccentrics on other models at beveled oil holes (e.g. Universals, No. 4) or lidded oil cups (219 OS and NS) and form roller bottom frame. Add Vaseline to worm gear and to shaft on opposite end of the oscillator tube as needed.

Check oil level of ink motor quarterly for later models (SP and Universal series). Check oil level of speed reducer weekly on older models (No. 4, 219 NS).

Cylinder Packing

Packing is the material laid on the impression cylinder to cushion the force exerted during printing, and held in place by a covering drawsheet. The generally recommended material is tympan, a paraffin-treated paper that is .006″ thick. The amount of tympan used is determined by the thickness of the paper to be printed and by the undercut of the impression cylinder.

The cylinder undercut is the amount that the impression surface is lower than the cylinder bearers (the raised outer bands). The measurement, in thousandths-of-an-inch, is stamped into the channel separating the impression surface from the cylinder bearers. The standard undercut for most models is .040″, but others are .070″ or .105″. It is visible on the operator’s side when the carriage is at the feed board.


Paul Moxon

The cylinder undercut is stamped on the cylinder

Measure the thickness of paper to be printed with a micrometer calibrated in thousandths of an inch. Subtract the paper thickness from the cylinder undercut to determine the minimum packing material needed. The operation manuals state that all material (including drawsheet and paper stock) should total .003″ over cylinder bearers. This results in a kiss impression. For a deeper impression add a few thousands more. For example, on a .040″ undercut, if paper stock is .021″ (such as Crane’s Lettra), pack the cylinder to .026″ (including the drawsheet), for a total of .047″ or .007″ over cylinder. Thick papers deserve a deeper impression: add .004 to 010″.


To change the packing, move the carriage to the center of bed (on trip, if there is a form on the bed), so that the reel rod is in the up position. Unlatch the reel rod ratchet and loosen tail of drawsheet from the reel rod. With left hand, grasp packing and drawsheet and allow them to fall over the feed table as the carriage is returned to the feed board. To replace the drawsheet, loosen the screws in the gripper bar.

When moving the cylinder to center of bed to secure packing, hold packing firmly in position with left hand. Secure the tail of drawsheet to the reel rod. Be sure the packing is tight to cylinder at both sides of the gripper edge. Side play in the reel rod can correct unevenness in packing. Tighten slowly. Over-tightening will cause drawsheet to pull away from gripper assembly clamp bar or tear at reel rod. Tension is released by turning a wrench in same direction as when tightening.


Adding Ink

To add ink to the press, lift the ink roller trip lever to disengage the rubber form rollers from the steel oscillator and riders. Add small dollops of ink evenly along length of the rider. Turn on the ink power switch and lower the ink roller trip lever to engage the rollers. Wait for the ink to thoroughly distribute throughout the rollers, oscillator, riders and ink drum. Some models do not have ink motors; for these, ink is distributed by either a handwheel mounted on the front form roller (SP15), a feeder roller with a handwheel mounted above the oscillator (No. 3), or framed form rollers, mounted behind the carriage and roller over an ink slab under the feed board (320/325).

Adjusting the Rollers

There are two basic styles of form roller adjustment: the frameless “quick change” rollers used on the Vandercook SP and Universal series (and Challenge M series) and the old style framed form rollers found on all earlier models (e.g. No. 4, 219).

To adjust the “quick change” rollers, loosen lock screw on bearings mounted on roller core ends. Turn black adjusting knob right to raise and left to lower. Tighten the lock screw after adjustment.

To adjust old style framed form rollers, loosen the center lock screws on topside of frame. then turn the outer screws right to raise and left to lower. Adjust front and back roller on each side in tandem to keep the bearing bars, parallel to frame, otherwise adjustment is inhibited and may strip screw threads. Tighten the lock screw after adjustment.


Check the roller height with a roller setting gauge. Use a .918″ gauge on standard beds or a .968″ gauge on galley bed presses with its .050″ galley bed plate removed. Lower the roller trip lever, move the carriage to the center of bed and slide the gauge under front form roller, then pull out and examine the width of the ink strike on the gauge. It should be about the width of a nickel for metal types, magnesium or copper engravings. When printing photopolymer plates the ink strike should be slightly narrower because of the shallow plate relief and high base, and significantly wider for wood type linoleum blocks. To check the back form roller, turn the gauge on its side, slip past the front and back form rollers, turn it upright, pull the gauge under back form roller, turn the gauge on its side, and slide it out.

Examine proof quality with a loupe. Ink should not appear to extend beyond the edges of letterforms or illustration. Adjust the roller height as needed. Double inking of the form may eliminate a ghosting effect on the printed sheet from heavy forms (e.g. wood type or linocuts). However, in some instances, it is better to lower the height of rollers or add more ink.

Paper Feed

Gripper Bar

Position the paper so that it is clamped by at least two gripper heads and two end guides. Adjust the inner end guides away from the paper so that the outer guides are used. If more than two end guides touch the paper, the paper will rock between them and compromise registration. Some SP15s, and Challenge 15 M series, have only four grippers and two adjustable end guides; a trimmed slug or en space can be adhered to the top of gripper bar as an additional end guide. Align the gripper edge of paper to score line or cross-hatching on top of the gripper bar. Adjust the end guide knobs as necessary and move the side guide to align with left edge of the paper. After a proof is taken, measure the position on form on paper. If type or image is to be shifted laterally, move the side guide in the opposite direction than desired position of the print on the paper.

Lock Up

Build a form in the press bed so that the paper has room for lateral adjustment in the grippers. When possible, use iron, aluminum or Resalite (Formica) furniture, as wood furniture may be warped and no longer square. Use a chase for mixed material forms to make it easier to add underlays to low spots or for a quicker set up on shared presses during workshops. Place quoins about 4 picas from side and foot of form. Do not over-tighten quoins or the form may buckle and rise above type high.

A positive lock-up bar is a device used to quickly secure a printing form in the bed of a press. It better to use a dead bar, a steel bar that sits into notches in the bed bearers (No. 4) or abuts lock up pins inserted into the end of the bed (SP15). A positive lock-up bar is not recommended for editioning, but if needing to do so, place strip of toothy paper or leather between the bar and bed bearer to increase tension. Don’t use a foot quoin with a lock-up bar, it may push lock-up bar back toward the foot of the bed.

Positive Lock-up Bar


In addition to a side guide, mounted on the feed board, most models were originally equipped with sheet guides, which are wheels or flat springs mounted on carriage tie rod to keep paper snug against cylinder face during impression. Keep them clean and clear of the gripper heads and cylinder bearers. Lubricate tie bar brackets with graphite powder (e.g. No. 4, Universal series). Rub paste wax on spring if it marks paper. Some models were originally equipped with frisket and tape assembly towers (e.g. 219, Universals).

Clean Up

Use a clean, folded rag soaked in solvent to thoroughly clean the rubber form rollers. Once the folded surface is saturated with ink, refold to clean the segment. Continue until the rollers are clean. Continue with remaining clean surfaces of the rag on the oscillator, riders and ink drum. Ink residue from light colors may not be apparent until the solvent has evaporated.

Washup Unit

Vandercook SP and Universal series and the 15-21 are equipped with automatic wash up units. With the ink motor turned on the and rollers engaged solvent is poured onto the oscillator. The solvent removes the ink as it works its way through the form rollers and drum. A tray below the ink drum has an attached doctor blade which squeegees the ink and solvent ink from the drum and into the tray. The doctor blade must be cleaned or dried ink formations will scratch the ink drum. If ink gets into scratched crevices it will make subsequent cleaning more difficult, cause unintended color shifts and possibly rust.

For quick color changes from dark to light-colored inks, use a roller conditioner on solvent-dampened form rollers.

A hard shiny surface means that the rubber is oxidized or “glazed.” This is the result of ink buildup from repeated improper cleaning. A glazed surface will not accept ink properly. Periodically, deglaze using a roller conditioner (e.g. Putz Pomade).

Examine other surfaces that may need cleaning: hand crank, adjustment knobs, form roller frame, bed bearers, power switch and feed board.



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