A Look Inside A Printmaking Saga

June 26, 2015

Last summer, on a whim, I was browsing Craigslist for antique book presses. I wasn’t (necessarily!) intending to make a purchase. It was more for fun, to see what was out there. Hey, everyone should have a few odd Craigslist browsing habits. A press popped up and it happened to be nearby, a few towns over. $150. For an antique solid cast-iron book press, likely circa very early 1900s, this is a great deal. So despite protests from my wallet, I immediately snatched it up. It’s not as beautiful or elaborate as some of the other book presses out there — looking to be more of an industrial workhorse in its day — but I love it all the same.

The reason for seeking out a cast-iron book press wasn’t just because they’re super cool — I actually wanted to use it. Modern book presses aren’t built like this anymore (solid. iron.) and can cost nearly the same amount. I was seeking a real tool to use for printmaking. My discipline of choice is relief printing, which includes woodcuts and linocuts. One of the things I enjoy about linocutting is how accessible it is, but still has incredible potential for growth. The techniques alone have kept me busy for years. From trying achieve ideal ink transfer to the paper, paper choices, to playing with colors and layers, it’s been a highly satisfying creative outlet. (And, because the blocks hold up indefinitely, they can create endless copies of art. Hello, easy gifting!)

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On the ‘restoration’: So it took me a year to finally sit down with my lovely press and clean it up. Google told me how to clean rust off cast iron with 240 grit sandpaper and a brass brush, buff on a mix of linseed oil and turpentine to refresh the paint and metal, then seal with some combination of beeswax and turpentine to finish.

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I did most of that last weekend, and it helped. Really it did. But I drastically underestimated the amount of rust. In the above photos you can see a before and after, everything was covered in paint splatters and small dots of rust. Once the worse was cleaned up, the larger problems areas became more obvious. I skipped the final wax finishing step because it just wasn’t done. It could take many more cleaning sessions to remove the deep rust pockets. My original plan was to find a place that could sandblast it completely down to the bare metal, then I’d spray with a fresh coat of black rustoleum. It would be like new! Um, that plan may be back on. Is the neon orange color really weird, or really amazing? I can’t decide.

On vintage restorations, what camp do you fall into? Paint over that old wood trim in your 1920s house? Or painstakingly preserve those years of patina?

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And finally, the payoff! Prints for days. I carved a tiny junebug to celebrate the season and commemorate the inaugural press run. Then I found this lovely turquoise ink to play with and did some layering with the black ink to create an interesting dimensional effect. The last photo here is for comparison – I did not use the book press, but instead the traditional printing method of using a baren by hand. As you can see, the book press is clearly a huge success!

This post was meant to be called Book Press Restoration. Considering the press wasn’t truly restored, it would be an untruth. So this becomes another chapter in my unhurried printmaking saga.