I don't know if you can tell, but I am grinning all over my face in this picture. I have just pulled my first successful print off the 'Arab', the platen jobber press, the real letter press machine that I have been itching to play with since I first laid eyes on it. The time was right today: I finally felt I'd learned enough about printing and presses to be pretty confident I wouldn't break anything if I had a go without supervision, and thanks to Al the whole machine was shiny clean inside and out.
First I extracted the chase from its bed, and laid in some simple text. Then I re-inserted the chase and inevitably, it wasn't as easy to put back in as it had been to take out. But I got there with some judicious wriggling and a little light banging.
Then I smeared some oily black ink onto the ink disc and started pumping the treadle to run the triple rollers through the ink. Tui, who was doing accounts in the office came out at this point to investigate the dulcet tones of the industrial age, and quickly made an adjustment that got the disc turning so that the ink would spread evenly across the rollers.
Then I fiddled about with the tympan paper which was pretty dusty and yuck, so I covered it with some clean paper and then started trying to figure out how to get the paper to meet the form. Tui and I tried slipping a range of unsatisfactory packing materials between the tympan and the platen but it wasn't until Neil arrived that the simple, elegant throw off mechanism became obvious (doh!).
Suddenly it worked, and worked perfectly. No messy proofs, no laborious hand rolling, just crisp, clear, black type instantly.
I am quite infatuated with the Arab and its simple, honest, strength, speed and accuracy. I'm sure I will love it even more when I have found a frisket and gauge pins, a bodkin and tweezers, some more quoins and a quoin key... and who knows, maybe even the brake!
But for now I am simply seduced, the way I have been before by certain other machines I have known intimately (a card folder in Boulder; a trench digger in upstate New York; the long honeymoon with my first food processor [hummus! peanut butter!]). Strangely I have never felt even remotely attracted to a car or a bicycle or a computer. I admit to being very fond of my cell phone and to yearning for an MP3 player, but no shiny electronic gadget has ever appealed to me as much as this old mechanical piece of cast iron.
PS If you want to see a wonderful photographic demonstration of letterpress in action (and lots of gorgeous and interesting art works) check out Aimee Lee, a performance and book artist based in the United States