Birthdayscape 2009

Printing outside the press box

No matter how much real estate your press covers, and our Vandercook Universal III will print a nice 18" x 24", you always dream of an exotic and larger field a bit farther down the road.

This project was the third in a series of accordion-fold book keepsakes for a group of women taking an annual trip to some exotic place. Initially, the piece was just a wide accordion-fold book with the image one time drawn and another time printed. But after two of those, the idea of actually printing it via letterpress became a bit of an obsession.

Two experiences were stepping stones to printing 80" on a 24" press.

Experience 1 : We did a wedding invitation that we needed to be wider than normal, and longer than the press would print. You accomplish that with a work-and-turn—print it with the paper in one position and then keeping the paper flat, rotating it 180° and printing it again. This way we could get a 30" wedding invite on a press that will only print 24".

Experience 2 : Red Tettemer, a very creative advertising agency in Philadelphia, asked us to print their mission statement—BE UNFORGETTABLE—18" x 50". Another work-and-turn, but quite difficult to get the two ends exactly registered. In the end it took us 6 tries. We used a roll of printmaking paper for the stock.

That kept us wondering for a couple of years. Well, we have an old Vandercook proof press which has a cylinder that is much like a rolling pin but weighs something around 100 pounds. We decided to build an 8' press to test out our hypothesis. All in all, it worked just fine.

We bought a photography-background seamless (9' x 36') which we sawed into manageable widths.

This shows Tray hand-rolling the sand color. You can see the Vandercook cylinder in position to start. There is an opening under the cylinder where you can pull the paper through. One of us would hold the paper near the other end, keeping it as loose as we could, without letting it touch the printing surface in front of the cylinder, and keeping it very nearly straight at the same time. 

We had wrapped paper around the cylinder to build it up to the right pressure to print the type, but trying not to apply so much pressure that the paper wanted to push out of alignment. It took us a couple of attempts to get that to happen, and the secret was keeping the paper loose and not "pulling" it tight-and-straight which we tried doing at the start.

A close-up shows the beach sand tan, beach grass green and sky blue which were the three colors we used on the piece. Also by overinking, and not pressing through the "orange peel" texture you often get with ink on a roller, we could suggest the sand texture quite nicely.

Here Ray is hanging the printed text sheets to dry. Turned out to be helpful to have a studio with high ceilings and the hanging system we had built when we first got started.

The drawing shows the architecture of the press after we rebuilt it after we shot these photos. The key pieces are strips of steel angle iron we bought at Home Depot. That coupled with the thickness of a piece of 1" x 2" raised the cylinder just a touch too high. Then we wrapped the cylinder with several wrappings of paper to give us a bit of soft packing to help printing with the wood type. Overall, it worked unbelievably well.

This piece was for the January 2009 trip to the Island of Women off the coast of Cancún.

Unfolded size : 6.5" x 80"

Folded size: 4.25” x 6.5”

Edition: 20 copies

Production notes: We printed the cover using metal type. The hand inked 130-year-old wood type was used to print the interior sheet via letterpress in a single run.

Next book entry : Swarm of Bs