Beginner's guide to buying a letterpress: parts, repair, value

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With the renewed interest in letterpress printing there are many people buying and selling presses on auctions, classifieds and elsewhere. For a beginner, it is not always easy to know if a press is complete and useable. It is even more difficult to know what a press is worth. Many sellers purchase small presses for resale at tag sales. Acknowledging that they don’t know much about the presses they are selling, they push the lever down and if the parts move, they assume the press is working properly.

If you are new to letterpress printing and are not familiar with the parts of a press or what kind of press is suitable for your printing needs, it is best to do some research before deciding to buy or bid on a press. Also, be sure to ask the seller plenty of questions. If you have some photos of a press that you are considering, you can post them in the Discussion and you will receive a lot of help from knowledgeable printers.

There is plenty of detailed information on the Internet, but for the beginner, here are some points to consider:

Press parts

1. This illustration of a Kelsey press identifies the basic parts of a press that are discussed below. For a more detailed parts list, see this page from a Kelsey catalog.

2. For parts on larger presses and other popular presses, see Press manuals: parts, care, and instruction

Finding parts

1. Most of the letterpresses that are currently available are not being made any more so replacement parts are not easy to find. It may be possible to find parts for the more common presses such as the late model Kelsey presses and the Chandler and Price Job presses, as there are collectors and dealers who save incomplete presses and sell them for parts. The older the press, the more difficult it is to find parts, but for a price almost anything can be made. A good place to start looking for press parts is in the Printer's Yellow Pages.

2. One of the parts that is fairly easy to replace are the rollers. They are frequently missing or unusable. If you have the roller stock or cores, (the center rod around which the roller material is cast), you will still find suppliers who can cover this core with the rubber-like material necessary for printing. You will need to have the dimensions of the roller covering; length and diameter. Some companies specialize in recovering letterpress rollers. These companies may also be able to supply the cores and may have information on dimensions for both rollers and cores. These dimensions differ from press to press.

3. Rollers for a small press can cost a minimum of $25 each to over $60 or $70 each for the average size press, plus a fee for making a reusable shipping box. If you are buying a press for display purposes you may not wish to purchase rollers, but if you wish to print with your press, keep this cost in mind when purchasing one. If the press you buy does not have roller trucks (one on each end of each roller) or a chase (for holding the type), you may wish to search for these items before investing in the rollers. There are a few different kinds of replacement trucks, but if they don’t work on your press, these may be difficult or impossible to find and costly to fabricate.

Many small table or card presses have parts that are easily removed. One or more of these parts are frequently missing from presses offered for sale. These parts include ink plate, rollers, roller trucks, grippers, and chase. If they are missing on the card presses they are almost impossible to find. For display purposes, having a complete press is not always necessary or possible and is a matter of personal preference.

On hand-inking presses the parts that are most easily removed and are sometimes missing, are the chase and the rectangular ink table that sits above and perpendicular to the chase, as seen on this Excelsior Model 2 1/2, hand-inking press. On this press, the grippers and the gripper bar are also missing.

Fixing and restoring a press

1. Some presses may have been broken and repaired. Ask sellers about welds or breaks that may not be visible in the photos. If you are not concerned about the aesthetics of your press these repairs may not bother you. Some parts can be brazed or welded without affecting the use of the press and you may be able to buy such a press for a lower price. However, some press parts are under great pressure when the press is in use, and a repair in these places may not withstand the pressure needed to use the press.

2. Presses may develop rust if they have been kept in damp conditions. A badly rusted press may take a great deal of work to make it useable and some parts may need to be replaced. Light rust can be removed with care as long as the moving parts are not damaged.

Painting a press is entirely a matter of taste. Some older presses had beautiful hand-painted detailing and some collectors feel that repainting a press destroys the value of the press. They would prefer to see as much of the original paint and detail as possible, even if the press is not shiny and new. Other people prefer a newly painted press for display or use.

Moving or shipping a press

1. One of the most frequent disappointments in purchasing these presses is having them arrive in pieces. Although the presses look heavy and durable, cast iron is very brittle and can break easily. If you are going to have your press shipped to you, ask the seller how the press will be packed and shipped. Even if you request insurance, it may be very hard to recover the cost of a broken press from any postal carrier as there are no real comparables for establishing value.

2. Many sellers state that the buyer must pick up the press or arrange shipping. If you wish to arrange for shipping a press, it is recommended that you use a machinery rigger or mover who has experience in moving these presses. You may wish to buy a press that you can pick up personally, but if you are a beginner it would be wise to seek expert advice before attempting to move a large press.

Value of a press

This is a subject that has been the topic of many discussions. There is no easy way to determine the value of a press. Watching prices on the Letterpress Classifieds and reviewing completed eBay auctions can give you some idea of prices and how often certain presses are listed. However, the picture is much more complicated than it appears.

1. Collectors know much about the history of presses. In an auction they may bid very high on an early press while a later model may sell for a much lower price. Some of the early presses can be distinguished only by their serial numbers. Some have more noticeable differences to the educated eye.

2. Moving any press except the very smallest can cost a great deal of money, even if the move is just across town. A press may sell for a very low price if it is located in an area where there is little printing activity and if the buyer needs to pay a high shipping cost. However, it may sell for a seemingly high price if the buyer has the proper equipment and knowledge to move the press without incurring much additional expense.

3. If a press is rare, the price may depend on how eager a buyer is to have it in his or her collection.

4. If a buyer is purchasing a press for personal or commercial use, the value may depend on how quickly the press is needed.

In short, ask ten people the question of value and you will receive ten different answers. Location, use, condition, rarity, and desire are all factors that affect the price of these fine machines. See also Determining the value of a press.

Do your homework before you buy a press.