The Great Kelsey Debate! Chime in.

I lost count of the hours I have put into reading the archives of this site. Scouring over comments, details, debates, wondering which tabletop press is right for me.

My question is a simple one, but will probably open a can of worms (hopefully)…

Why is everyone hatin’ on the Kelsey? Is it really that inferior of a tabletop press over a Sigwalt or Golding? They are available, while everything else seems scarce and hard to find.

I plan on doing small runs of small things. Just curious.

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i’ve owned about every kelsey they made except for the floor model. i still have my 3x5 i started with, they aren’t as strong as some of the presses out there, if you were to apply too much pressure i’m sure it would break, but i’ve printed a full chase on the 3x5, 5x8 with no problems, if you are going for a deep impression i think you could hurt the smaller presses unless you kept the forms smaller in size. i like the 5x8 a lot, mine has a foil stamping unit on it and does very well, the 6x10 will give you a larger area and will most likely be better for smaller forms if you try for deep impression. You should check out the Excelsior Press web site, Alan has a world of information posted, it will give you days (maybe months) of reading about letterpress, he has things that were printed on kelseys on his site. You need to visit a printing museum and see these things in person, also a lot of old printers hang around museums that can answer your questions. Good Luck Dick G.

For me the questionable characteristics are the weakness of some of the impression parts of the Kelsey (all models I have seen — I had a 3x5 and a broken 6x10 which broke where the pivot pin passes through the handle, a serious weak point) and the fact that the impression mechanism is what I would call a locking toggle — it goes over center on impression. This means that with any serious size forme it’s a bit of a struggle to achieve impression and a real struggle to release it afterwards, especially with the larger sizes. I like the Official/Sigwalt family because the impression mechanism, while also a toggle, doesn’t go over-center on impression and thus releases smoothly, and the longer handle requires less moxie. Plus the frames and other parts are stronger, though you can break the handle if you really lean on it. My 6x9 Sigwalt Nonpareil was purchased used about 1967 and has hundreds of thousands of impressions on it without a whimper.


I have a couple of Kelsey 3x5’s, and while they won’t do everything and give you as much detail as a larger press will they definitely have their place in the letterpress world. I use mine primarily for printing Birch bark labels for our line of cold-process soaps but have also printed labels and the odd business card on it. It’s a simply-built machine, as most letterpresses are, and should give years of faithful service if you treat it well. Happy printing!

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It’s a good way to learn makeready.

In car terms Sigwalt = BMW, Golding = Merecedes Benz, Kelsey = Ford Fairlane

Enough said?


Very interesting, guys!

@Rick - I seriously laughed out loud at your comment. :)

@ paperstoneprinting I forgot to say that I LOVE your dog. Quite the little helper. ;)

thats not his dog its his lead pressmut.

Rick & dickg

Love the humor.

T & T Press

Beyond tabletop, what about the other Kelsey’s? Still at the bottom of the list or better?

I’ve owned a number of Kelsey presses and much prefer my 8x12 C&P and Golding Official #2 (4x6).

That said, the operator determines the quality of the printing more than the press used. Many of the Kelsey presses just make it more difficult to get a good print. Generally the larger Kelsey presses seem better behaved than the small ones.

Then someone like Jim Gard comes along and pulls this impression from hand set type and an old halftone cut on a humble 5x8 Excelsior. Didn’t even take double-inking.

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@ oprion - Those last two videos made me cringe! I thought something was going to snap and both of them were going to go flying backwards! Ha ha.

Yeah, I realize the pressman has a lot to do with the print. That’s similar to photography. (A photographer takes a good photo, not the camera.) Presses are an investment though, at least the prices I am seeing, so I want to make a wise choice. My money only spends once!

But really, Stymie with Garamond?

Vettelove, there is no wise choice when you buy a press, no matter what you buy you will find something better after you but the first one, you will need the better one, then you start thinking maybe a little bigger, there is always something bigger and better you will need, then more furniture, don’t forget more quoins, maybe wickershams, no wait the hemple, no high speed, must have more, if i had a bunch of chases it would be easier, more furniture, more quoins, how about a bigger stone, no two stones, extra rollers for your presses, more ink, oil base, no maybe rubber, wait just get both, with all the presses you need more type, extra leading, galleys to store your type, too much to distribute, more type, more galleys, out of room, need bigger space. My money only spends once, ha, this letterpress is like an addiction, you never seem to have enough, there is always something else to want, you will spend lots of money. Hey Paul, whats wrong with Stymie with Garamond, two of my favorite types, at least its not Old English caps!!!

@ Dick - That sounds like me. Ha ha. I’m already hunting antique stores for little odds and ends—type, graphics—and I don’t even have a press yet!

Well, hoarding has claimed more printers then lead poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver.

Gosh, if only I had more space…

Okay, I’mweighing in!

When I was kid and an altar boy (“Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.”) I used to pray every day that God would get me a “Kelsy Press”. One day, He did. A 3x5 press with some type and a couple of “square” cases, ink and some reglets and other small things along with some 14 pt “Beacon Hill” and some 10 pt “Centenary” and 14 pt Bodoni bold. It all set me on the road to a life of letterpress printing. Not professionally, not as a career (I have a day job) but .. I got an appreciation for how to print on a letterpress, how to deal with ink problems, how to do make-ready, how to recognize fonts, how to compose a nice-looking page, etc. etc., etc. The bottom line is: if you star with a Kelsey press it can be the greatest thing on the world. But this is not the early 1960s and the options are so much greater (Kelsey really did dominate the economical hobby world in the those days!) So if you have the means and moxie and stamina and desire, get something that is designed to teach you more than just the basics and will stay with you well into your retirement years. I have printed on many presses - from small Craftsmen to larger C&Ps and Heidelbergs - and will say that the basics I learned as kid on the Kelsey always come in handy. As with all things, the small stuff counts as much as the fancy big stuff. You can learn a lot from a Kelsey press…but it’s not the end goal. It’s like learning a foreign language: you can learn to order a simple meal from the menu (you have to start somewhere) but you can also learn to read Dostoevsky and discuss Dostoevksy with Russians in Russian!

P.S. Rick, love your analogies!

Boy did you just trigger a memory having also been an alter boy as a kid. For the unitiated, we alter boys weren’t so smart to know Latin at such a young age, so the response card that we read off of also had the phonetic pronunciation of what we were to say. In the referenced case it read “Ahd Day’oom quee lay-tee’fee-cott yoo-ven-too’tem may’ahm”.

Vettelove… I never tire of reading these interactions about tabletop presses. I now speak to you as a “senior” member of the collecting world which is where my left brain resided all it’s life.

“Did it ever dawn on you that by prodding such an already well rehearsed debate you are stirring the very pot that makes the prices and demand rise on precisely the kind of press that you haven’t bought yet?”

Might want to add that to your learning curve… at least till you’re satisfied with press you own.

@Butch - If this little ole’ post raises the price on table top presses, I am in the wrong business. Polish off your presses boys. Thank me later.

Wow! Speaking of alter boys, I have two confessions to make:

1. I too was an alter boy, and remember having to learn to memorize all the latin responses (not having a clue as to what was actually being said! - Mea culpa) and also having the laminated “cheat card” up my sleave in case I forgot a passage. But that was a lifetime ago….

2. My first press was a 5x8 Kelsey, which I still have but hasn’t tasted ink in 30+ years. I traded a gumball machine to get the Kelsey and five cases of type.


Vettelove - thanks, he’s the only dog we have that is smaller than a Kelsey 3x5!
Dick - He sure is my Pressmutt, hangs around me all the time when I’m printing, and I’ve come to realize that the only thing that keeps me from buying more equipment is space constraints. After my last 7-case purchase of wood type I ran out of space :( looks like we’ll be moving this Spring, and the property we’re considering has a large barn - just right for a print shop! It’ll take some work but I’ll have a lot more space. Now, maybe I can call that guy in Greenfield who had the two Linotypes for sale!

Steve, have you ever run a linotype??? If the man who invented it went crazy, what happens to someone who operates one? i have an intertype i’ve been cleaning for a year now, i’m thinking it might never run again.

No Dick, I’ve never run one. It seems that I’m constantly searching for type so I figured making my own would be the next natural step! If/when I decide to do that I’ll definitely search out some help - that’s not something I’ll want to try and learn by myself!

Dick G, I was just reading through this forum and saw that you have a foil stamping unit on your kelsey… would you mind telling me a little more about it?

Per your comment of February 22, 2013, you are always a fun read, valuable, incisive, with both feet on the ground.

With your permission, I’d like to frame and post your above comments on the wall in one of my pressrooms. Sobering!

All the Best, and good wishes for a long, long life.

Bill Murray

vandy1905, go ahead post my comments on your wall. One of your pressrooms, if you have more than one pressroom you are in bigger trouble than me.

My self-prescription: find a corner and a table, drag my SP15 over, set up the coffee pot nearby, get the ink warmed up and PRINT, PRINT, PRINT. That should get me back into the heart of the matter.
And the devil with these marvelous on line marketplaces that offer pieces that I once saw only in old catalogs.
I am afraid, though, that for me printing history and printing stories fascinate incorrigibly.
Thanks for permission to post your sage, saving thoughts.
Bill Murray

I would like to offer an opinion, except I might appear a bit biased, since I worked at Kelsey for 7 years. Plus my great uncle Glover Snow took over the company from W.A. Kelsey himself. In addition my father’s cousin, the late Gene Mosher, took it over from Snow and ran it until the company passed on in the 1980’s.

Suffice to say the machines and the company lasted a long time. While a lot of people in the letterpress community might have moved on to other machines, I would not be surprised if a majority did not either cut their teeth or at least were exposed to letterpress because of a Kelsey machine.

Is it true what they say about Kelsey’s attempts to make “genuine Swiss watches” at the press factory, going so far as to dig a large hole at the side of the shop, that was later filled with unsold bottles of Grape Cure?

Never heard about Swiss watches but he did market Dr. Baker’s Grape Cure. See the link.