Newbies and C&P’s…. a bad combination

Over the last few days there has been considerable discussion about presses for Newbies, and some recommendations about a C&P purchase by a person untrained in printing. This seems unwise to me.

There is no way I’d recommend a C&P or any other large platen press to a newbie. The long and short of it is that they BITE and BITE HARD if you get your fingers in the wrong place. I’ve seen far too many printers with missing fingers to think that a person with no training could operate one safely.

Legally, most of the old presses cannot even be used in a commercial shop since they don’t even come close to modern safety standards, no matter how slow you run them. WE use them, of course….. but every one of us who sells printed work produced on an old platen press does so against OSHA rules, and contrary to Federal Law. (CFR 1910 to be exact) MOST of us know this, and accept the risk of both personal injury and/or legal action if someone else gets hurt.

However….. most Newbies are probably NOT aware of the dangers of older presses. Thus I wonder if it is responsible or wise to advise them to purchase such a machine. A far better recommendation would be to advise them to purchase a Pilot or some other Lever-operated press like a Kelsey…. or possibly a proof press. (These machines will still smash your fingers, but they are far less dangerous than our old Beasts). Then after they’ve worked with it for a few years, they could move up to a powered press of some sort.

Us older printers have a responsibility to teach newbies. Part of that responsibility is to make sure we don’t send them down a path that will result in the loss of a finger or two.

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Winking Cat,

I have to disagree with you. The up-tick in interest for letterpress is both encouraging and a positive thing. It seems to me, the issue is that more education is needed for the newbies and caution in the use of all the presses. A Vandercook can injure one just as easily as a C&P.

The problem arises when new printers jump right in without doing any research, study or training. Since floor model platens are usually the least expensive entrypress, unless one is lucky enough to get a free press, to discourage potential printers is to force them to spend more money. I concur with your last paragraph, us older printers have the responsibility to teach them. I am old but my first press was an 8”x12” C&P floor model. I am careful and don’t try to print anything when I am tired. The caution comes with age.

I agree that the upsurge in interest is a positive thing….. and I spend a great deal of time encouraging younger printers.

However, recommending that they buy a potentially dangerous piece of equipment when they do not have someone close at hand to teach them how to use it is wreckless. I am sure that some newbies would do fine in such a learn-as-you-go situation….. but others would not.

Even with good instruction, the injury rate in letterpress shops of old was quite high. I myself have seen more than one severly mangled finger and one severed hand due to inattention…. and this was in otherwise well-managed shops. As a movement, we would be wise to avoid advising such a dangerous course.

Also… the cost arguement is a weak point. Used Kelseys, Craftsmen, and Pilot Presses are available in the marketplace, often for less than the cost of moving and setting up a C&P. Even if a C&P were free, it still would not be a good deal for someone who doesn’t understand it’s rather unforgiving nature. The possibility of serious injury for an untrained individual is just too high.

It is a truism that any technology that kicks down to a cottage style activity brings with it risks when employed by untrained persons attracted to the lure of fine printing. In an oblique way this is part of the appeal. Mastering a hobbyist’s tabletop press does not adequately prepare one for a nearly two ton electric clamshell platen machine. Common sense prevails here. My interpretation of the many queries posted on this site as to which entry level press is advisable originates with newly minted advocates who intend to use letterpress printing as an adjunct to their creative work. The specter of OSHA intervention at this juncture is unwarranted. And yes, a thorough course in the fundamentals of letterpress printing would provide good standing for any letterpress aspirant.

I am a third generation letterpress printer/professor who, like many, started with a rubber stamp and ink pad and graduated over time to more complex and sophisticated machinery. The often damning feature and ‘madness’ of letterpress is the addictive beauty it can produce.

Vance Studley
Art Center College of Design

Vance, I think the mention of OSHA is relevent to the discussion, not because I worry about any sort of intervention, but rather to point out that they consider such equipment to be hazardous to operate. While they are known for being overly zealous when it comes to identifying hazards, they are right in this case. A C&P and other platen jobbers have certain hazards that cannot be easily mitigated.

I am not advocating that we do away with these machines…. not at all. I love my equipment. What I AM advocating is that we as a group should not be quick to advise people with no training to jump right into running a motorized platen press.

The real key is education and training, and part of that education must include strong warnings that such a machine can be dangerous.

To Winking Cat’s initial remarks—
Certainly so! We’re obligated to share
the cautions along with the craft.

I’ve been considering the safety of the
members at our co-op letterpresses studio.
Our introductory classes should
emphasize common-sense vigilance
& specific hazards.

I’d rather not cover up the flywheel
and belts on my jobber but I’m thinking
I will. Plexiglass would allow visitors
to see the old castings & pinstriping.
You can get plenty accustomed to
working with uncovered pulleys and
belts. I just don’t want to expose the
rest the members to hazards when
they’ve not got the head-wiring
to deal with it.

Of course I can’t fool-proof everything
for the newbers.

Calvert Guthrie
Ragpicker Press
Kansas City

wow, cool thread. I get the full spectrum now…all angles…thx for all the valuable info! exercise with caution, take some supervised classes, maybe start with other processes before the motor, be aware of all the main hazards and usual injuries.. u guys are so awesome! my hands thank you. =)
lol, calvert…the word ‘newbers’…makes me think of goobers…
and I def. HAVE fallen to the ‘madness’ of letterpress!

I’ve read all the above responses and find it exhilarating, the cautions, the concerns, the sense of responsibility, the love of craft, etc and can understand all points of view.
Lever operated presses are a common sense way to introduce new comers to the craft. Flywheel presses with treadles are the next step, then motor powered when very proficient.
My one and only dangerous moment was when making ready late one night, the machine was stopped and the power was “off”. I had fortunately taken the machine off impression and while both hands were in the press, the flywheel rolled to a more resting position and the platens moved together. Thankfully my hands were in a place in the form where there was no furniture and type, and I worked one hand out to stop the flywheel completely closing the platens. I was very concerned that the right hand had been stretched and strained some tendons. For a moment I thought my piano playing days were over. There’s not much repertoir for a left handed pianist and a one handed opera singer.
I considered myself a very proficient operator, but never since!
William Amer, Australia
Compositor and Machine Minder

A small lever operated press on an unstable table will break your foot when it falls as quickly as a job press will crush your hand because you’re leaning over the press instead of standing straight. A hand saw will not slice though your thumb as cleanly as will a table saw but if you don’t know how to use either one, or you do and simply don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you’re going to be called Four-Fingers.

When you first learn to drive a car you don’t use an adult-sized pedal car to practise and then move up to get behind the wheel of the 3000 pound steel and rubber monster. To operate any machine however powered the principals of how the machine functions and the methods of its use must be properly understood. Then you are far less likely to set the small press on an inadequate table, lean over the motorized job press when you’re feeding it so your fingers can get caught, or smash into a telephone pole. You might still get hurt through inattention or some other fault, but your chances of it are considerably reduced.

Taking a shower is a risky business and potentially life-threatening. No tools or power machines are involved, just the laws of physics and gravity on a wet, slippery surface. Yet we even allow children to take showers and do so ourselves. A bath is even more dangerous since at least with a shower we usually have a rubber mat to step on. When getting into or out of a bath we take our life into our hands (or feet). Beware!

Money is not the best argument but it’s not completely irrelevant in the real world. I don’t know where some people find these Kelseys or Craftsman tabletop presses for $50 or even free, but I haven’t found that place. Kelseys seem to go for upwards of $500 and Pilots for $1000 or more. You can probably buy four or five platen jobbers for that much, or one press and most or all of the other items you’ll need to print. My press is an 8x12 Chandler and Price OS with motor. I’m a new printer and this is the press I’m learning on. Of course, my first purchases were books and more books and I did an awful lot of research on the internet and elsewhere. This was partly so I would know what to buy and what to avoid and what would meet my needs. But it was also to learn how the equipment worked and how to use it. Please note the distinction, both things are important.

Emphasizing proper and sufficient preparation is the way to encourage and guide new people interested in learning how to become letterpress printers. This preparation can and should take many forms. If after study and even some classes a tabletop press is what someone decides is right, great. If a motorized platen jobber, then fine.

Nothing should be rushed into without adequate understanding. But fear is not a good teacher, motivator, or guide and instead of leading in the right direction may, even unintentionally, lead the wrong way. If a motorized press is not right for someone this should be determined by a positive, knowledgable and honest evaluation. Of course, common sense doesn’t hurt either.


P.S. I am not missing any fingers…yet.

I have all my fingers too.. (even though my in-laws swear I will lose them in the press..)

I am also lucky in that the one time my hand was caught in my platen press, the chase wasn’t in. I have a scar on my hand to remind me of the incident!

When our letterpress instructor introduced us to the C&P, she stressed the dangers of it and told us that if we were uncomfortable, we had the option of waiting for the Vandercook. Of course, more than one person I know have gotten their hand smashed a bit by a Vandercook (including me), so I wouldn’t say that a Vandercook is really much safer than any other press out there.

So many people nowadays seem to buy a press, whether it be a motorized C&P or a tabletop Kelsey, before ever learning anything about the process because they like letterpress items. A good portion of these presses go unused and collect dust while the new owner tries to figure out how to use it. I have counted multiple blogs where the blogger buys a press and then just has it sitting there, doing absolutely nothing, while they lament about how they need to get their press “up and running.”

Really, we should all advocate that all interested parties go find a letterpress class or workshop or something and learn the process of letterpress printing. Many may find that while they like letterpress products, the nitty gritty printing process is not for them.

Rich- you and I are in agreement that there are hazards associated with any type of printing, and with life in general. That is simply a part of the human condition. However, some of your arguements concerning risk are not entirely correct.

Any woodworker and/or emergency room nurse will tell you that a table saw or bandsaw has a far greater potential to inflict serious bodily injury that their hand-powered counterparts. Chainsaws are more dangerous than bowsaws or crosscut saws. (Axes are terrible, though. I’ll admit that) The same holds true for printing presses. Yes, a Kelsey can do you harm… but the potential is far less, and the resulting injuries are not as likely to be debilitating.

As far as the Car analogy goes, you are simply incorrect. Almost ALL of us recieved our base understanding of automobiles through a series of small steps as children. We watched our parents and bus drivers dailly as they turned the steering wheels, and stayed on the right side of the road. We drove around in our pedal cars, or little pink Barbie Cars, and later rode our bicycles. We played video arcade games with steering wheels. Then later we received instruction from our Dads or older brothers…. or Driver’s Ed classes. Finally when we were 16 we had to prove to the State that we were capable of handling a 3000 pound machine before we were allowed to do so. Cars are so ingrained in our culture that virtually every day of our first 16 years we were “in training” to become drivers.

People are not similarly exposed to printing presses. Very few Newbies had the chance to watch folks working with hand presses or platen jobbers as children…. or work in printing shops. Most have no concept of the potential dangers. To make the problem worse, many do not even have a base understanding of machinery.

My point is NOT that one should not purchase and use a C&P. I own one myself and use it regularly. What I AM saying is that it is unwise for a person with no training to think that they can “learn on the job” safely. Some might be able to do so…. but others are setting themselves up for serious injury. A far better course of action would be to acquire training FIRST and then look into buying a press….. and if training is not available, then it’s better to buy a less dangerous machine.

Please don’t assume that any person new to the craft of letterpress is off printing with reckless abandon. I first learned to use a Vandercook and then a C&P with a treadle but within a year or so bought my first C&P with motor. I have always been very careful and within the last several years of operating my press, have never had an accident. If anything, I think I was extra cautious BECAUSE I was newer at this. I bet more accidents happen by those who become careless regardless of years of experience.

I do agree that proper safety measures should be taught regardless and rather than discouraging a “newbie” from jumping right in with a floor platen, I would be more hesitant of any person getting any press without ever taking so much as a class. If they take classes, workshops, apprenticeships etc they will learn proper safety issues regarding the press, chemicals, lead type etc….

A C&P is only dangerous if you consider it your friend.

I’ve been running letterpresses for over 20 years.
I learned to run the presses, set type and respect the pressroom by the guys who were setting newspapers and phone books in lead type. It wasn’t just a cool way to print cards, it was a trade where you needed to serve an apprenticeship and work your way up to pressman. Learning not only running presses, but also to repair and troubleshoot each job.
I was always instilled with a repsect for the machinery and the inherent dangers in running presses.
When letterpress really took off a few years ago,
I heard of a lot of people going out and buying jobber presses and laughed.
Not just because the presses can be dangerous, but because letterpress is more than just “hitting it as hard as you can.”
I wouldn’t like to think of anyone with no experience trying to figure out any old letterpress.
My shop currently has a 8x12 Oldstyle C&P, 2 Kluges from the 30’s, one with foil, and a 10x15 Heidelberg Windmill that I run all by myself.
I’ve been ‘bitten’ a few times in my career, but I thank my lucky stars that I was trained properly.

I’d like to thank everyone for their comments, epsecially those who have a different viewpoint than my own. This has been an excellent discussion.

Reading over the posts, it is obvious that we ALL agree that the key to safely operating a C&P or any press is training and caution. Printing can be a wonderful trade, avocation, hobby or adjunct to other creative ventures. We can do things with our old presses that more modern styles of printing cannot come close to duplicating….. which has finally started to become valued by our society. It is my hope that we can continue this increased awareness…. and do so safely.