Two colors. Lots of gothic wood and metal. A nice array of manicules. Really great to get more and more of this type into rotation. Each time we print, we put it back cleaner than when I found it. Designed and printed by Rebecca Pempek, Carolina Thornton, Emilie Hoke, Emma Morrison, and Helen Sturm. Photo by Emilie Hoke.
To mark the upcoming Annual Student Art Exhibition at the Belk Visual Arts Center–and the reception!–interns from the Van Every/Smith Galleries visited the lab to plan and print a limited edition event poster. Posters always provide for interesting design discussions, since the goal is to communicate a maximum amount of information with a limited amount of text that will be consumed during a very brief moment–usually, the short span of time someone spends traveling past the poster. Posters are deceptively simple, but they give us the chance to consider typeface, type-size, and orientation in relation to the copy-text. Photographs (below) were taken by Chris Record, and are shared here with his permission.
At present (late March 2019) the Davidson College Letterpress Lab has been in active use for about seven months. This has involved entire classes, and smaller volunteer or extra-credit groups, members of the Fall ’18 Theatre production, staff from Special Collections, and the Humes Core. I may be forgetting some at the moment, but I’m already looking ahead to late spring collaborations with the Van Every/Smith Galleries and follow-up group projects with classes that will return to the lab. And then there are the summer commissions (three forthcoming projects, including book-projects with two poets whose work I love and am eager to treat, and an international collaboration put on by the Centre for the Study of the Book, University of Oxford). Oh, and there will be a July Experience course in the lab, too (students born with both feet firmly in the 21st century will take over the lab and spend some time in the 16th!).
We’ve been busy! Before the entire campus community turns the corner into the last sprint to the finish here in the spring semester, I wanted to take a moment and put together some images and notes about the development of the lab over the course of the past eight or nine months. This will be a longer post, and I hope it will both serve as a record of this development as well as (perhaps) helpful guidelines for colleagues at other institutions who may be planning or developing similar initiatives on their campuses. I’ve done this twice now, so someone reading between the lines might read a few “do’s and don’t’s” in this post (or, perhaps some “don’t’s and don’t’s,” as the case may be…).
What I’ve built at Davidson began with packing up part of my prior lab in central New York, and I unloaded what I think may have been the last large truckload about two weeks ago (in mid-March, over the college spring break). Anyone who has moved from one apartment to another knows a move is disruptive, but this has been an ongoing slow-burn–or better yet, a glacial drift, since by my count I’ve located, packed, moved, and installed about 21,000 lbs of type and equipment in the past 8 months. In addition to the heavy lifting, this has involved transporting my own equipment, coordinating space considerations at my new destination, locating (and retrieving) new equipment, and planning, building, and stocking the space I have. I don’t have pictures of every moment, but I’ll try to illustrate the major steps (and narrate when I don’t have images).
My former lab was in a basement. In many ways, it was a great space–a concrete floor and open floor-plan, high ceilings, lots of wall-space, and off the beaten track. The down-side: few windows, hard for students and faculty to find, and it was in the basement of a dorm, which raised issues of access as well as additional environmental concerns. When it came time to move the portion of the lab that was coming with me to North Carolina, it was a matter of rigging out the press, and manually removing the modular items (hand-tools, leading and furniture, and other sundries). Forty-five cases of type and two type cabinets also came with me (also removed by hand). In the images below, these items are prepped for removal–up a flight of stairs, and with not one but two sharp right angles on the way out.
In another post, I’ve written about how the afternoon before this rigging was happening, I was at another location retrieving additional type and tools. My goal was to arrive at Davidson College with a “demonstration-ready” lab: a small variety of type and a functional press. I was also retrieving what’s affectionately known as “a project press” for restoration, with the eventual goal of a multi-press lab where various projects could run concurrently, and full classes could be accommodated. In conversation with some absolutely incredible administrators and facilities and maintenance folk at Davidson, I’d already described from afar the type of space I’d need: ground-floor with street access (no more basements, please!), access to water and electricity, ventilation, access control. One day, while all these moving parts were in motion, I received a lovely cell-phone video of a space, approached from the street. To put it bluntly, it was perfect. I coordinated my own box truck arrival with my rigger and some personnel from the college, and we arrived on a rainy summer day to unload.
After the heaviest items were unloaded and inside the space, it was my job to unpack, organize, and arrange. Unbelievably, this lovely location had been used to store tables and chairs until I’d put in a request for space. Initially, the small parcel I’d brought with me seemed to swim a bit in the space, and I knew I wanted to build a little more. I unpacked what I’d brought, but with an eye toward what I hoped to add.
PLANNING AND NEW ACQUISITIONS
In central New York, I’d had great access to some truly remarkable press-resources, including the typefoundry of Mike and Winnie Bixler, Wells College, and Boxcar Press. Students loved visiting these, and I was interested in finding destinations here in North Carolina where I could develop similar experiential learning trips. Years ago, I’d learned about Crayton-Heritage, a local printing house in the South End of Charlotte. In relation to my research on the remarkable Jargon Society Press, I’d contacted the current owner: a “Heritage Press,” in Charlotte, was mentioned in the back matter of various Jargon publications, and might Crayton-Heritage be related?
As it turns out, Heritage had been purchased and consolidated with another printing house in the early aughts; the former owner had in fact worked with Jargon, but that was a long time ago, and nothing research-worthy came of that contact. When I contacted Crayton-Heritage again, and asked about a preliminary visit to tour and set up future class visits, however, something wonderful happened. The short version is, due to the remarkable timing of my arrival to North Carolina and an impending relocation for Crayton-Heritage, we were able to negotiate the transfer of a vast amount of type and equipment from Crayton-Heritage to Davidson College. A remarkable, happy coincidence. The material we planned to transfer was in fact the foundry type that had formerly been owned by Heritage Press. We did a quick survey of that material, and counted about a dozen cabinets.
By various estimates, a California case full of type is anywhere between twenty and eighty pounds; a case full of big type, or excessively full of a smaller size can be over one-hundred pounds. A not-at-all-scientific average might be about forty pounds per case. A cabinet has twenty-four cases. A sixteen-foot box truck is rated at approximately 3,500 pounds. This was the math in my head, over and over, for the past six months. I made four retrieval trips, breaking the type collection into four four-cabinet groups, and moving these groups into their new location during extended semester breaks: Fall Break, Winter Break, Spring Break (twice in one week). Each load was, by my estimate, right around the load-limit of the truck. (Each load was also loaded and unloaded entirely by hand.)
Over the course of the Fall Semester, Winter Break, and Spring Semester, I retrieved a truly unique selection of materials. For tax purposes, we had the entire allotment appraised by an outside party; an expert in commercial letterpress. Out of deference to both the college and Crayton-Heritage, I’ll keep those details private, but I will share that box-truck rental for about ten days (a few two-day rentals and a few three-day rentals) would be equivalent to the price of a few fonts of type on eBay or elsewhere; for the same price, and a little sweat equity, we acquired a type library several hundred times that value and size.
Some of it is dirty; some of it is damaged; some of it is incomplete; but the vast majority of what we did acquire is useful, in good condition, and is unique to our region and to the literary history I research. Now that it’s all here (I think…!), I look forward to working through the acquisition: cleaning what needs to be cleaned, organizing and cataloging what we have, and introducing students and the campus community to this work and this history.
While Heritage did the majority of its book-work by Linotype, there’s no small sentimentality–even awe, on my part–as I handle type that was used by compositors to set some of the books that shaped experimental American verse in the 1950s and 1960s. Jonathan Williams, proprietor of Jargon, produced his books at commercial shops; not all of them went through Heritage. At some point, I’d like to compile a review of the Jargon catalog, and identify those that were produced at Heritage, and see how our type library lines up with what was produced. Until that time, I’m grateful to have been able to build up the lab so quickly (this was a 4-year project in my former lab–accomplished here in about 6 months).
When I found the press, the cylinder was frozen in place, just before/after the home position. The cylinder wouldn’t travel down the racks, and wouldn’t return home. Today, I freed up the cylinder by focusing on the racks, the trip gear, the trip rack, and the trip rollers. Because the trip gear and trip rack were frozen, the trip rack couldn’t raise or lower, so the carriage could neither return home nor travel down the press.
Since I didn’t know if there were additional binding points, I saturated all ports on the carriage with penetrating oil. While this was soaking in, I took off the plate that protects the hardware, to access the trip rack, rollers, and gears, and learned (too late) that when the top trip roller is removed, the trip rack (the thing that looks like a saw pointing upward) can drop freely to the floor.
I cleaned the trip rack, rollers, and gear, backed off the pressure between the collar and the rollers, and removed decades of grime from the trip rack and gear. The roller and the roller pin on the gripper trip lever were also frozen (instead of rolling, the roller merely burnished its path down the press). Then, it took a few pushes and pulls to further lubricate the trip rollers and their cores.
When all was said and done, the gunk was on the drop cloth (and my shoes), all racks, rollers, and gears spun as they should, and the press was able to turn over a complete print-stroke, tripping on the return. All it took was a full can of penetrating oil.
There’s a lot out there detailing various approaches to rust. I knew this press had been neglected when I found it. However, the racks and rails weren’t pitted, and the gripper bar was surprisingly pristine despite its location. When I first found the press and shared pictures with a few experts and mentors, they mentioned that it looked like “dry rust” (though I didn’t know there were different species of the stuff). Believe it or not, there was a single 5×20 piece of wood furniture on the bed, along with the head-bar. I picked up both, and the bed was nearly spotless and rust-free beneath. So, as I’ve said throughout, the cost of the press–moving it–is worth the restoration effort.
After the first pass on the press, removing a bunch of gunk with some Simple Green and a Scotch Pad, I gently scraped as much scale as possible from the bed of the press, and chose to treat this condition in increments. The Simple Green and Scotch pad (plus a good bit of elbow grease) removed a bit of the rust. Next step: dousing the bed with penetrating oil to loosen the last remaining scale and lift any stubborn particulate. This had the added benefit of reducing dust.
More Scotch-Padding, following by some very fine steel wool application. I haven’t used a wire wheel, and don’t plan to. I imagine this would speed the process, but I’m not as comfortable with this as I am with the comparative “gentleness” enforced by my own human limitations. I followed with an application of a citrus shop soap. Some in the letterpress community are advocates of citrus/vinegar rust removal, and Gojo has a citrus base.
After several hours, I moved on to light application of dilute Naval Jelly (a few teaspoons diluted in about half a cup of water, applied with a sponge). I noticed immediately how powerful Naval Jelly is–and was glad for my caution–when a dollop (technical term) of the full-strength stuff landed on a patch of rust, and within a few minutes wiped clean to the silver. I’m not interested in removing stable metal, of course, so this is a slow and careful application with Scotch Pad, removed before the manufacturer-recommended time-limit, and cleaned between applications so I can gauge progress. But, progress it is–here’s a bit of clean silver peeking out:
I did two applications of Naval Jelly, and wiped clean completely with Simple Green between applications. The above is the second of those two applications. Leaving the press overnight, I reapplied a thin coat of penetrating oil so as not to rust behind myself. When the rust removal is complete, I plan to follow the suggestion of some and apply a thin coat of Johnson’s Paste Wax. Word is, this might be an annual application at most. Worth it, I think, if it keeps my elbows from tracing those circles again…