A Printer's Tale

by Michael Torosian

The Printer, May 2002

Letterpress is a vocation replete with great parables of redemption. The recitation of now familiar sagas such as "The Discovery of the Long-Lost 19th Century Font" or "The Rescue of the Caster Destined for the Scrap Yard", are dramatic stories of the perils of loss, the hope of salvation and the comfort of belated appreciation.

After twenty-five years of toil I've finally got one of those stories.

The Vandercook Universal One cylinder proofing press is a splendid machine and the specimen that I latched onto almost twenty years ago must have been blessed in the milling. It was as true and precise an instrument as you'd ever hope to get your hands on. It was also a hand-cranked model which required the pressman's fortitude and exertion to propel the inking rollers and printing cylinder down the length of the press and back again. I printed fifteen books and innumerable pieces of ephemera on her and in return for my uxorious affections I got beautiful presswork and a pain in my right elbow that felt like a collision between barbed wire and soft tissue.

One book that I printed required more than 20,000 hand cranks of the press, which in turn required a succession of visits to Mt Sinai for ultrasound and laser therapy. The symbiotic relationship with my U-One was disintegrating in direct proportion to the dissolution of my cartilage.

I wasn't sure how I was going to go on. I have a layout in the shop that is comfortable and familiar and I couldn't imagine dropping a Heidelberg or Miehle into my ecosystem. But I had to stop hand cranking. At this tenuous moment fate intervened.

Fate found its personification in my cousin David who manages a modern printing company with over 50,000 square feet devoted to the whole deal from prepress to binding. Though he's a decade younger than me, when it comes to printing resourcefulness he's bailed me out time and again. As a consequence, he'd earned the paternalistic tone in his voice when he called and said, "We have a bunch of old stuff we're going to throw out. I don't know if any of it could be of use to you, but there are two old presses on the floor and I thought maybe you could turn them into one good one."

They were a twin pair of Universal Threes, a species of Vandercook with a motor-driven carriage. Endorphins cascaded into my system in contemplation of emancipation from the bondage of the cranking handle.

The machines had been idle for years, and were now covered in what looked to be an impermeable skin of grease, ink and dirt. But cosmetics aside, Kevin the veteran pressman assured me they had been capable of good work. An aged stack of multi-coloured proofs tucked into one of the U-Three's cabinets confirmed this assessment. Now the challenge was to restore one of them to its prime.

I picked what looked to be the better of the two machines and had it delivered to my shop. Then I set to work dismantling the remaining press. I stripped it right down to its cast iron carcass.

A survey of my shop at this point would have revealed a big dirty thing that someone would have had to identify as a press for you to know, surrounded by heaps of smaller dirty things, which were the salvaged parts from the cannibalized U-Three.

Some of the parts, like the wash up tray, were so encrusted that they looked more organic than industrial. As a matter of fact, the first half dozen attempts to clean the wash up tray were futile. But in one of those odd strokes of fortune, a big job I had been anticipating at that time fell through. A dirty wash up tray hasn't a chance against a guy with too much time on his hands.

Putty knife, tooth brush, wire wheel, wire brush, pipe cleaners, Q-tips, Dremel drill - every tool was employed in the cleaning. And every chemical, as long as it was noxious and intoxicating, drowned every part. And all the while the adjustable bed underwent incessant cleaning and oiling to restore its mobility.

It was a good thing there had been a spare press to scavenger from because the U-Three I'd selected, all by itself, would not have been usable. The feed table was splintered, the foot pedal mangled, the chain drive precarious. At least a quarter of the ultimate press was harvested from the remains of its euthanized mate.

It took four solid weeks of relentless labour to scour and polish all the parts. I got the brass knobs and grippers shiny, the steel and iron components cleaned and oiled, and the sheet metal skin rejuvenated with a Benjamin Moore industrial paint that exactly matched the original Vandercook factory grey.

Finally, I inked her up for her maiden run. The carriage hopped during its first quarter rotation and stumbled down the length of the press making a gut wrenching banging noise. From what I could tell the gears on the cylinder wouldn't mesh with the gear track on the bed. Deductive reasoning, along with a quick look at the construction of the old U-One, revealed a missing part - an inch and a quarter piece of gear track that was hinged and spring loaded. This was the key element required to guide the cylinder and engage the gear teeth. I didn't have anything like it among my junk pile.

I made my supplications to David over the telephone then raced to his shop to see if this part was, by some miracle, still on the old press.

Now of course this story wouldn't conform to the key elements of a classic letterpress story as I initially outlined them if the part wasn't there. And when I got it on the press the cylinder motored down the bed with the aplomb of Lazurus taking a stroll through the necropolis.

I've printed my first book on the U-Three and she performed gloriously. I was thrilled to have gotten a free printing press, entertained by the process of rehabilitating it, and delighted when one day a neighbour dropped by and seeing my gleaming Vandercook Universal Three remarked, "I didn't know you could buy those brand new anymore".

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