Vintage Presses

Cut a real printer in half and you get ink—or so the saying goes. Harry Mottram speaks to the print industry artisans who know their ems from their ens

Keeping the Craft Alive

Printing has gone through a number of revolutions since the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg first used move-able type as part of his printing press in the mid-15th century. Lithography, offset, digital, and nanotechnology to name but a few.

The German inventor of the printing press may not comprehend the 21st century digital presses, but he would recognise those presses and equipment used by a small, but growing, army of printers still using printing presses that were bought decades, if not centuries ago.

Terry Wright 7

Only printer in town

Terry Paget, 76, in Midsomer Norton, Somerset, is still running Paget Press; it has changed little since the 1960s. His business is located in an old set of buildings near the church in the Somerset town and is complete with an early hot metal typesetter, an Original Heidelberg press, ancient guillotine, and various contraptions for letterpress including a hole drill and a stitcher for putting in wires.

He says: “Father bought the type-setting machine in Slough in 1966 for £6,000 which in those days was a lot of money. You could have bought two houses for the same money then. It’s now only worth scrap and is a devil to maintain, which I do it myself and I’ve not called an engineer for 30 years. But I use it every day and it works.”

His Heidelberg was made in 1955 and it has worked ever since the day it arrived. He says: “I make a poor living these days out of the printing, but I used to make good money in the 1970s when there were six of us here. Now I work three days a week and it keeps me active and it’s fun and it passes the time. Technology has moved on but this equipment all works and so I keep going.”

His main work is in reorders from local firms and community groups for posters, flyers, forms, and tickets created through decades of business. His father took over the firm in 1955 and he inherited it from him after having worked at Paget Press for many years. After school and college he came back and trained up as a printer.

It is more of a hobby for me now but I am the last printer in the town and I have got a lot of skill that I have built up over the years”

“It is more of a hobby for me now but I am the last printer in the town and I have got a lot of skill that I have built up over the years. I used to do a lot of finishing and sub-contracting for other printers but not now. I can’t be bothered as I’m getting old!” Paget quips.

Fine art: Dekkle's studio uses presses from the 19th century
Fine art: Dekkle’s studio uses presses from the 19th century

Victorian technology rocks

A very different type of printing takes place at Dekkle Studios in Baldock, Hertfordshire. However, the presses are even more ancient than those in Terry Paget’s shop. We are talking 19th century machines that still look like they are brand new.

David Borrington runs this fine art printmaking studio where groups of artists and print-makers create art works in a variety for styles. From aspects of nature to political satire, the members of the studio create artworks and then sell some of their work to the general public and to specialist buyers. His love for print stems from the way it can reproduce original artworks using traditional skills.

Borrington explains: “It is a really good way to translate the artist’s ideas onto paper. It’s physical so that when you are making an etching plate, it is actually a three dimensional piece you are working on. You take the impressions from that plate, and it’s not digitally made or created from another realm.”

The fine artist said the hands-on nature of manual printing presses creates a direct connection between the artist and their work. He freely admits that the smell of ink and paper, the sounds of the presses, and the physical nature of the work is an attraction for him and his colleagues.

He continues: “Some of the presses are cast iron and are some of the best examples you can get. Many of the presses go to private studios and artists’ studios or are in museums. We have one press that was made in 1830.”

“From a printing point of view attractions of these presses are quite historic, but for us if you want to make fine art prints from etchings these are the best presses to use, so it is not a romantic attraction. Yes the engineering is good but it’s about the quality of the print.”

From a printing point of view attractions of these presses are quite historic, but for us if you want to make fine art prints from etchings these are the best presses to use, so it is not a romantic attraction ”
Borrington says that using traditional methods of fine art printing never went away with the Royal College of Art using donated presses which have helped maintain the use of old presses. He adds: “Like painting, the methods have not really changed.”

I’ve started so I’ll finish

Meet Martin Clark, the inky fingered proprietor and master printer at Tilley Printing in Ledbury. He began work at the print business in 1963 as an apprentice at the age of 14 and has worked there ever since, apart from a spell at Oxford University Press. From apprentice to owner, he has seen the industry transform although for Tilley Printing that has also meant the introduction of electricity and telephones.
In 1983 he took over the business and has since concentrated on the craft of letterpress. He says: “I have been running it on my own ever since and I have had various apprentices helping me over the years, but I don’t have anyone at the moment. I really do need someone now though as I am not as young as I used to be. It does take a long time to learn though because it is still the old craft.”
Billed as the only jobbing letterpress printer in the county, Tilley Printing has had to find a niche in which to survive. Clark has concentrated on printing for the arts with beautifully crafted posters for poetry evenings, theatre productions, and art exhibitions where quality and finish are paramount. With decades of contacts to rely on, he also has his fair share of stationery, brochures, leaflets, and all manner of run of the mill work which keeps his presses ticking over.

The one man firm features an 1850 London Albion press manufactured by A Wilson and Sons, a Victorian Chandler and Price guillotine bought across from Ohio USA, a Wharfedale Press from historic Yorkshire-based Payne and Son, a Thompson London 1950 platen press, and two Heidelberg 10 x 15 inch platens from 1935 and 1980.

He takes the job from start to finish doing all the folding, collating, and finishing by hand himself—which is the same for another printer in Somerset who has teamed up with partner Jim Moss to form Rosemills Printers in Ilminster.

O Factoid: The oldest working press at Dekkle Studios was made in 1830. O

Iron man: Terry Paget at work in his studio using hot metal - no computers in sight
Iron man: Terry Paget at work in his studio using hot metal – no computers in sight

Loving his work

Terry Wright of Rosemills has been in the print business all his life, at one time with his own company of Matthews Wright Press. The company went through a number of changes including a take-over under a new name which eventually led to redundancies. It was at that moment, as Wright recalls, that he had a light bulb moment.
He comments: “I’ve been in print all my life joining a printing club at the age of 14, I loved it at school and the teacher helped me do a print apprenticeship in Bristol and I’ve been in it ever since. I’ve had my own company for 27 years with 15 staff, but when changes came in technology I was in a bit of a bind. I couldn’t afford the new machinery.”

The solution was a merger and then a take-over which left Wright working as a production manager, which was not as satisfying as printing.

He continues: “When the company went into receivership the two of us came out with redundancy payments and we had a light bulb moment and decided to go back to basics and do it ourselves. That was in 2008 and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. It has all the usual things like delivery dates, and keeping to schedules, but I find a small company like this with a mix of customers can find a niche doing the work that nobody else does.

“We do small runs, foil blocking, stringing, form cutting, numbering and all the bits and pieces which all add up to a huge amount of work. For a print company to be profitable these days and have no overdraft and no borrowings is really something.”

Part of that success is down to using tried and trusted kit which may be out of date, but as Wright says, ‘is built like a tank’, and of course was bought and paid for years ago. His hobby is to buy old letterpress treadle printing machines such as Arabs, and rebuild them.

“There are now young designers,” he adds, “that are keen to have a Letterpress machine and they do their designs, make plates and print them on treadle machines. I now have a waiting list. I’ve done five now. Everyone wants an Arab machine because they are well built but there are a huge number of makes. The last one went to a young book artist in Devon. We commissioned it last weekend and she absolutely loves, she thinks it’s beautiful, and it is a beautiful machine.”

Therefore, it is these well engineered machines, built hundreds of a years ago, that seem to have just as much relevance today. Despite the multi-functionality of modern equipment, it is hard to beat the reliable machinery that these artisans of the print industry know will see them through for years to come.