Friday, 15 August 2008


When I got home from the gym today I did a little counting on my fingers and realised it's almost 16 months since I got my letterpress. Sixteen months, three moves, 4000 miles, endless research, oh-so-many new parts and enough father-hours to make me fairly guilty, and I still hadn't been able to print with the Chandler & Price.

So I had a bit of a rant in my head about I'll never get enough time to give it a first run. Ever ever ever.

And suddenly I realised: hey, Kickbaby is still asleep in his carseat and hey, I'm already not-particularly-clean in my gym gear. So – why not now?

I ran upstairs for the tin of black ink.

I already had the press oiled (thanks to Nathan's dad, who did a lot of work on it while he was here) and I'd locked the chase up more than a week ago – but I'd stalled, then, after packing the press. The replacement bail wasn't fitting right so I couldn't get the tympan to lie flat over the packing, and that seemed an insurmountable problem. I'd also decided it would take forever to ink the rollers evenly and figure out the whole positioning guides/setting gauge pins deal.

But in this morning's burst of optimism I thought: I'll just start. I'll start, and I'll iron out the problems as I go along. It has to be better than doing nothing.

First I went back and forth between Cleeton's General Printing and a very old copy of Graphic Arts to figure out how to ink up the press. I got ink evenly distributed on the ink disk, and the rollers, and my fingers too but not on my shirt – so I counted that as a success. Then I ruled some lines, placed the gauge pins (very haphazardly, I hardly need to point out), positioned the card and started the press.

This is what my very first impression looked like:

Right. Not enough packing. Messing around with extra sheets of the professional packing would've been a waste of precious baby-free-time, but I remembered a couple of the old hands on Briar Press mentioning that they'd used brochures, butcher's paper and even flattened cereal boxes to pack their presses, so.... Out of the newspaper stack I grabbed a Belk catalogue and pushed it under the rest of the packing to print this:

Better... but still patchy. Back to the newspaper stack. After adding a JC Penney catalogue to the mix, I got a slightly better impression. But it was the addition of the Sun-Herald sports pages that really did the trick. See:

Mr Underwear here is a vintage cut that my brother Aaron picked up for me at a swap meet back home in Australia, and I love it. This is clearly a man on a deeply noble mission – for underwear. You have to respect that.

I printed quite a few more of him, messing around with the gauge pins and realising (repeatedly) that positioning the paper for letterpress printing is a bit like backing up a boat trailer: figure out where you need to be, then do the opposite. When you haven't done the groundwork, it messes with your head.

I didn't spend any time positioning the guides properly so I never did get the image in quite the right place, and I absolutely butchered the tympan by chunking the gauge pins around so much.

It was quick-and-dirty and went against every meticulous fibre of my being. But who cares. I printed.

Now.... let's do it again.


  1. My C&P also drives me nuts - it doesn't do a good impression, so up the packing. Then I get ink all over the base, so up the tape. Then it doesn't ink at all, so take off the tape and then it prints, but then the impression is no good... You just can't win.

    So when it all does come together it feels like a momentous victory! So congratulations!! Yay for Mr Underwear!

  2. yay!!! mr underwear needs to be printed ONTO underwear! (ok a little ambitious and not really what a letter press is to be used for but hey). Well done Helen!!!!

  3. Ten points for thinking outside the box, Zoe. I'm just trying to imagine the chaos and destruction that would result from trying to print underwear in a letterpress! It'd be... impressive.

  4. wow, great job! I seems like a very laborious task.

  5. That is awesome, I love the pic of the underwear man he seems so serious!

  6. I have no idea what you were talking about with any of the steps you were taking. But the idea of a big and old machine like that - the sounds it would make - and turning out a nice print in the end is very cool.
    When you get it all going nicely - I hope you take a video for us. With sound. :)

  7. Yay, Helen! I'm so glad you've made a start on this. I know how much you've been dying to. Lovin' Mr Underwear!!

  8. Great work Helen & Mr Underwear, you're quite the team! - From Sue

  9. Hey - Great! That's just what I would have done. Except for the bit at the start where you read a book on it. Great job.