Printing attire?

What’s the proper clothing for working around a letterpress shop? In my publishing work, I work close to high-speed offset presses. We forbid ties under penalty of deep impression. My foray into letterpress leads me to respect these machines and inquire whether there are similar best practices. I’d like to get good habits established from the start.

* What’s the best brand or design of shoe to wear in a print shop to avoid slippage?
* Do you remove wrist watches (to avoid metal parts snagging them)?
* Any opinions on long sleeve rolled up versus short sleeve?
* Any opinions on standing on a rubber mat versus a wood or concrete floor?
* What brand or style of apron do you like best?
Thanks in advance for any replies.

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The same safety considerations you found in offset litho shops would be true in letterpress operations:

I generally roll up my sleeves above the elbow if wearing a long sleeve shirt. I wear a wrap-around lab coat rather than an apron, but only if I feel I need to protect my clothing from ink, hot metal or adhesives. I backed into too many inky or greasy things with decent clothes which suddenly became printshop attire.

I try to wear comfortable shoes,although that is a comfort issue, and not safety, although tired feet can be a distraction. There are few operations which would require steel toes in most letterpress shops. I have rubber matting in places where I stand to work, but do not use in front of my treadle press as I find a firm foundation under my planted foot helps me maintain balance when running the press. I do have a comfortable rubber mat in front of my cylinder press and in front of my stone.

You are wise in starting out with respect for the potentially destructive power of the press, and should never sacrifice your safety for the sake of a piece of paper.

John Henry

Definitely take off watches, rings, bracelets, etc when operating machinery. Long hair should be pulled back too.
I always wear short sleeves, and a long, almost knee-length apron around the platen and Vandercook, but bib overalls at the cylinder press and while casting, where there is some kneeling. Shorter aprons I found much more comfortable, but got tired of oil stains mid-thigh on my jeans (my presses have oiled bearing surfaces right at that height). I did wear a work smock for a while, but found that anything with sleeves will get ink on it (and may get caught somewhere), and forearms are easier to wash.
The rubber mats I have are heavy and don’t curl or slide at all, so I have them around all the presses. Lighter mats I would not feel safe using where there was a chance of tripping. But with a concrete floor, I would not go without mats of some kind. Back and knees demand it.

My girlfriend is a jeweler and made me a braided leather thong bracelet that has magnetic clasps. I wore it religiously for a number of months but kept getting stuck to the machines because of these irrationally strong magnets on the clasps!

Sliding a lift of paper over the guillotine’s air-table… hand stuck. Arm in windmill fiddling with lays… hand stuck. Moving across my desk… pens and paper-clips following me ghostlike!

Maybe my advice to you should be to avoid magnetic jewellery in the press room!

Ah, I’ve been waiting for a post like this and have even considered asking the query myself.
I’ll start with my toes and work to the crown of my head.
- When in front of my machinery I stand on a 3/4” mat. I just received these the other day and have made a world of difference.
- As for shoes or boots. It varies on what I’m feeling that day. I like the way boots gives me support around my ankle and provide a slight lift to the heel for all day comfort. I do like a sole which provides grip on wet or oiled surfaces when I do have an occasional spill. Cat’s Paw used to make an excellent sole but I’ve heard Doc Martin makes an oil resilient one as well.
I do like to switch to a flat sole and a canvas upper when summer grows near and it become a bit too warm for all leathers.
- Trousers, I prefer canvas, duck, denim or twill but I assume you could wear anything you want as long as your apron covers part of your leg. I have one rule for my bottom half which is no shorts.
-My blouse or shirt is preferably button down, twill or canvas sometimes wool when winter rears its ugly head. I do roll my sleeves to avoid being caught in my press and ink splatter.
- I keep two watches on. A pocket watch and a stopwatch. One to check the time and one to measure. No other jewelry adorns me.
-My apron is a special thing. Designed specifically for myself, the height and dimensions fit me perfectly. The fabric is of a dark blue waffle-knit, cotton for easy cleaning and capture of whatever escapes my palette, press, or knife. The enclosure wraps around the waist and buttons, instead of tying, on the back so that no loose strings get caught up in a fly wheel. The length is just below the knee and the height comes a full 42 pica below the neck line. Two pockets adorn the front. One on the right side of the chest holding a pen, mechanical pencil and a small sliding rule. The other long and skinny on the left side, arms length while lying by the side. This holds a pica stick to be handy at all times.
- My hair parted to the right side with a comb and held in place with pomade.
- Upon my head I wear many hats, but I do prefer a paper “Pressman’s” cap.
And there you have it, my pressroom attire.

I’ve been a long time advocate of simplicity….. and can think of nothing simpler than wearing nothing at all whilst printing.

That would however pose some safety issues….. and provides nowhere to wipe one’s hands, or hold a pencil…. so I think it would probably be best to wear an apron, and maybe some flip-flops…. and nothing else. That would fit in very nicely with the back-to-nature thoughts that some folks have.

So there you have it: printing au naturale’

Hello j archibald,

I want to reiterate what parallel_imp said about long hair. I learned the hard way, and I’m posting a shocking photo so that no one else has the same experience.

I leaned down to fuss with a form while the Vandercook was running. The missing hairs ended up entangled in the inking system. Luckily it was just a few, or I might have been scalped! Now I keep a brightly-colored hair clip attached to the press so that I cannot possibly use the press without seeing the clip.


image: Printing injuries, resized.jpg

Printing injuries, resized.jpg

Wow, thanks for sharing Barbara.

Best to be a little paranoid in the shop. I used to wear an apron, which is a screenprinting habit, but now I just wear jeans, closed toe shoes, and a rolled up white shirt that’s stained to hell and back.

But I have seen some printers wear a smart set of cover-alls…

James Beard
Vrooooom Press

Along the lines of what John Henry mentioned, you might be cautious about using a soft rubber mat in front of a treadle press. I was doing a LOT of printing all last fall and early winter on my C&P 10x15. My husband felt sorry for me standing on the concrete, so he bought me a nice cushy rubber mat. I had a treadle on the press at the time, and although I tried to alternate the leg I stood on, I predominately stood on my left foot and used the right on the treadle. Long story short, I ended up with a massive heel spur on my left foot, and my doctor’s thought was that to stay balanced on one foot on the soft surface, my body compensated by shifting my weight further back onto my heel which aggravated the area and led to the bone spur and one very inflamed plantar ligament. I had to stop printing for several months and could barely walk. About $1,000 in medical bills and custom orthotics later, I am only now getting back to printing for small periods of time now that I have a motor on the press.

I think my feet were particularly prone to having a problem (they are very small with fallen arches), but you can bet money that I removed the rubber mat from in front of that press!

All good advice here. I just wanted to chime in with an anecdote/lesson taught to me at a young age. Many years ago George Nauman (r.i.p.), who worked for a large printing concern in Penna., told us how, every now and again, some aspiring rooky pressman would show up for work wearing a long-sleeved shirt. He would call them over and tell them that if they got a sleeve caught in one of the presses the company would gladly pay to replace the shirt. But there wasn’t much they could do about the arm… . Then he sent them home to put on short sleeves.

I spent 22+ years running a large offset web press (see pic) and learned early on the hard way to make sure that all guards are used. I was training as 2nd pressman at that point and we had shut down the press at the end of a run. Without thinking I opened the guards so the 1st pressman could plate up, forgetting we had a color change. He reminded me about the color change so I sat down on a bench between the units and started to pull the ink. He started the press to wash the rollers and when I leaned back to let him spray the rollers with press wash my shirt got caught in the black rollers and was ripped off of me in the blink of an eye. I lost my favorite Grateful Dead t-shirt but was very lucky. The same thing happened to a rookie 2nd pressman several years later but he was wearing a Champion sweat shirt and was pulled against the rollers, slammed around a bit and thrown from the unit, breaking his back and a few ribs. I realize that Platen and Cylinder presses are much smaller but still dangerous and always use caution when operating them. I wear tight-fitting clothes, my hair is always put up and I don’t wear jewelry.
I agree with winking cat, back to nature is the way to go, although I’ve found it gets a bit chilly in the winter! Use caution and have a healthy respect for the machinery.

sorry, here’s the picture

image: harris1.jpg


My entire printing career I have worn a T-shirt, a pair of jeans or sometimes overalls, and nothing baggy that hangs down around my ass, as one sees today. For footwear: a pair of comfortable shoes or ankle high work boots, Redwing with a crepe sole were favorites. I marvel at the photos of printers of my grandparents generation, wearing white shirts,sleeves rolled up way past the elbow and buttoned at the neck, and neckties tucked into their shirts. It is always a mistake to not be as alert as possible when around machinery. You could be seriously hurt, so take your job seriously.


Blundstone boots are laceless and the leather is easy to clean so long as you get to ink before it dries. Also very much designed with standing in mind—they immediately left me feeling less sore at the end of the day as my day job was in a kitchen and I was printing at night. Laces offer little danger but still could trip you or get caught up in lower machinery, and sandles seem a bad idea to me.

Also, I wear a plain knee-length printer’s apron and my footwear varies from work boots in the winter to LL Bean slipper-mocs in the summer. As I said I prefer back-to-nature but usually wear a t-shirt and jeans. Oh, and Barb? OUCH!!


Was it the crescent gear that caught your hair?

May I suggest that you remove the oscillating roller from it’s frame and mount it with the crescent gear at the far side of the press?

I believe this is much safer. Just don’t forget to keep it greased- it won’t be staring you in the face anymore, but it will be less prone to grabbing your hair.

Daniel Morris
The Arm Letterpress
Brooklyn, NY

I always like to look at old photos of print shops. And yes, almost all of them have the people in them almost dressed in their Sunday best. I suspect that this was because the photos were staged. I can’t imagine folks actually working like that, especially in hot and dusty shops back then. Keep in mind all of those photos were probably pre-airconditioning!!!!

I have a whole series of photos from J.M. Bundscho, Advertising Typographers and Design taken on December 19, 1928. This was a very large typography firm in Chicago. There are 38 8” x 10” black and white photos that appear to have been taken for publicity purposes, but pretty much cover the whole operation (even the coatroom and bathroom) Just about everyone is in their Sunday best - white shirts with rolled-up sleeves, vests, etc. There is one shot of a guy waiting in the lobby and he is so over-the-top that he even has spats on!!!!!!!! Even the aprons are clean and pressed in a lot of the photos. Perhaps the only “reality” photos are two that show the guys in the Monotype composing and casting areas and they have on overalls, coveralls, and a smock.

Speaking of old photos, there is a marvelous book titled “Newspapering in the Old West” that has hundreds of pictures. I am amazed in looking at them that in almost all cases the composing stones look all beat-up. Pretty much as you find them today. I had always assumed that this was caused by decades of neglect, but apparently not.


Paperstone….. you are right about it getting a bit cold in the winter. That’s why I actually wear Carhart pants and a tee shirt while printing…. and don’t actually print in the buff.

I did however, get one e-mail giving me a suggestion about where to stick my pencil while printing au Naturale’. Thanks, J! ;)

Hmmm, I can only imagine where the pencil would go! I was just having fun, I usually am fully dressed in my shop - although with how warm it’s been shorts have been the wardrobe for the last couple of weeks! I can’t wait for the cool fall air to get here!

How do you use a pocket protector without a … oh, my?!

Winking, your friend J seems to lack a sense of humor or maybe not a pencil stuck up your nose would look pretty funny.

au contrare! My buddy J is a true master of the dry humor thing! He was just musing about the practical problems of printing in the buff.

Shoes - the important thing is to not have anything on the floor that regular shoes can snag on - oil is the big issue in this workshop, and keeping that off the floor (I use cat litter to soak up spillage under the presses).
I had an overall made with sleeves that stop above the elbow, and shirts or sweater sleeves are rolled up so they come no further.
Wristwatch seems a silly mistake - there are several clocks on the walls. No pocket phone either so I have to be away from any machine or work station to answer the phone and so can’t be distracted.

Never had an accident!

Printing in the buff reminds me of the old Ann Landers column about the woman who was doing laundry in the basement. She decided to throw the clothes she was wearing into the washer with everything else. A pipe overhead was dripping, so she put her kid’s football helmet on. Just then, the meter reader came down the steps, looked at her, standing there with only a football helmet on, and said, “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but can I be on your team?”

Just thought i would reiterate how dangerous the press can be if you are or careful… respect the press.

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OUCH! Vanessa….. I hate seeing injuries like that. Hopefully you are not hurt so badly that you’ll be put off of printing for too long.

I love my presses, and use them often…. but they can indeed be dangerous…… even a hand-operated machine. It’s for just this reason that I shy away from recommending the larger motorized presses to newbies….. some of them may not understand the dangers.

Thank you for posting this. Please heal up swiftly.

Oh Vanessa, I am so sorry that happened! Those photos are exactly what I’ve seen in my mind’s eye when I watch people work with platen presses. Thank you so much for posting. A picture is worth a thousand words, even letterpress-printed ones. I hope you heal quickly and completely.


Hi Vanessa,
Ouch! What type of press is this from? Is it from the Heidelberg gripper bar?

I hope you recover quickly and can get back to printing…

Daniel Morris
The Arm Letterpress
Brooklyn, NY

Hey all!! thanks for your kind wishes.

I am on the mend but still only able to use my left hand… hence the errors. hopefully I will be fully back to business in a week or so.

Daniel, you know your injuries well. This is from the gripper bar. I had to be extracted from it… so to speak. My “fixer” friend repaired the gripper yesterday as it was bent.

New rules are now in place now for the shop… live and learn right? And thank god i still have my hand.

Thanks again!

Dempsey Press

I always just wear coveralls. Currently, I rotate between two pairs of Dickies’ deluxe cotton coveralls. I think at the current rate of wear, they will likely outlive me.