Only those who’ve committed to a monumentally huge, ill-advised project will know what it’s like to be hamstrung partway through. You see, it takes a stratospheric level of selective deafness to stop your ears to doubts, all good sense, and do something just because there’s a tether tied to your heart, drawing you. For the two years that I’d been printing my books by hand I’d gotten pretty good at following that tug with no idea of what was at the end of the line.
There were moments in the wee hours while, groping my way down the hall on the way to the bathroom, I’d realise that my defences were down. The doubts would overwhelm me with a suffocating dread, and a slithery inner voice would say, What the hell do you think you’re doing, you incredible fool? Some people have helpful insights at 3am. I have crises of confidence…
But there was the lovely counter-experience to this too. It usually happened as I was dropping off to sleep; I’d get a visit from what I can only nebulously describe as the potential book’s ‘soul’. I’d have a vision of holding it, feeling its weight in my hand, seeing its textured ivory pages and shining red leather. I imagined that these visitations meant that the book wanted to be born, and this encouraged me to forge on. In spite of these moments, up until September of 2018, in the midst of the maelstrom of type, ink and machinery, I wasn’t really aware that there was an inner battle was going on.
But at the end of 2018 this battle got real—and I knew that I was losing. The book’s dreamy visitations stopped. The slithery voice was always with me. I’d made the difficult decision to finish printing at HipCat studio in Trentham because the demanding travel and work routine had hollowed me out. I wasn’t left with many options; either I found a studio closer to home or I bought my own press. But flatbed proofing presses (like the one pictured here) don’t grow on trees. And fully-equipped letterpress studios belong to the outermost fringes of the most periphery-dwelling of all artist species: the elusive relief print maker.
I’d resolved, in my search for a press at this time, that the thing I absolutely wouldn’t do was use one that didn’t have an automated inking system. I’d gotten used to the kind of press that has a series of oscillating rollers which distribute and work the ink automatically; when you use the crank on the carriage, they roll an even coverage of ink over the print matter. It’s fast, clean, and the results are consistent. Employing a press without this system would mean I’d have to ink the type with a hand roller. It would take printing from a strenuous ordeal to an activity worthy of the torture chamber. Medieval, that is: the worst kind.
When I wasn’t on my day job, my life was divided between long, despondent walks and obsessively scrolling through online listings. The kind of machine I needed might be advertised in my state once a year, and a buyer would be lucky to come out of the purchase, after relocation costs, for under 10k. I knew that buying a press wasn’t likely. The few leads I’d had on studios fell through. I was well and truly stuck.
I decided to pull myself out of this despondency by starting another big endeavour for the project: marbling the 300 sheets I’d need for my endpapers. You know those pretty, coloured leaves on the inside covers of some of the older volumes? Those had been in my book’s ‘visitations’ too. For four months this task turned out to be a welcome distraction as I tackled the problems associated with marbling my water-resistant paper. The other issue I faced with the cotton sheets I’d set aside was that they were so thick that they didn’t roll down smoothly onto the marbling bath. 30% of my endpapers had ugly white patches where air bubbles had formed between the paper surface and the paint. These had to be marbled a second and sometimes a third time. Then, they all had to be washed to remove the marbling solution and paint from the back of each sheet. This task alone took me 45 hours!
In April of 2019, two months after finishing my endpapers, I came across a listing on Facebook Marketplace that made me groan. This was the first affordable press that I’d come across in my obsessive search over the past six months—but it didn’t have an automatic inking system. Still, I wasn’t going to risk further offending the printing gods, so I booked a time to check it out. Below is the account of mine and my partner, Kain’s adventure to the back blocks of Bentleigh East:
…our trip to Melbourne was a success. We met a nice man named Aram at his printing business, which he's retiring from. The press had been sitting by the door, unused for decades, and when I first looked it over, I thought it wouldn't suit, because it didn't appear to have a paper alignment system. But on closer inspection there was a lay gauge and paper grippers; they were just positioned differently to the other presses I've used. It would seem that the press is just large enough for my purposes—but I'm still yet to test it. And, it's a beautiful machine…the brand is Saroglia Torino 'Italia', and from the information I can find online about it…it was made in the 60s…
It was very dicey getting the press inside. What should have been a four-man job was carried out by Kain and I by balancing the carriage on an old office chair (the sort with a metal frame) in place of a trolley, with a prayer, and lots of curses. Today I spent all day cleaning the press up and it's come up wonderfully. I just need to order some supplies that will make inking as easy and of as high quality as possible…
I’d now like to make a dubious comparison that will nevertheless illustrate what I went through from the time I started printing on this press—which I christened ‘Rinaldo’.
You might remember that in an earlier retrospective I made reference to this image, from John Ryder’s Printing for Pleasure. Ryder uses it to illustrate how the work can turn into drudgery if the printer isn’t discerning enough to know when doing something by hand, instead of using the available technology, becomes unmanageable….or even masochistic.
And here is an image of a medieval torture device known as ‘the Wheel’.
Granted, Rinaldo didn’t have a flywheel. And, there was no fire, blighted flesh or bondage involved in printing my book. But I knew, after Kain and I had spent three days crawling around on the floor with spanners, calipers and sockets, as we struggled to make the adjustments needed to get the paper to touch the type when the cylinder passed over it, that I was in for the worst time. Ever.
My next problem was coming up with a way to ink the type, since I didn’t have my coveted roller system. It took me another three months to find someone who could make the large spindle roller that I needed. When I finally got this essential piece of kit home (which cost more than the press itself), I found that it weighed in at just under four kilos. Four kilos is delightful when it’s your pet poodle; but you feel every ounce of it when it’s the set weight for 400 bicep curls over eight hours. In the months to come I was to grow enviable guns.
I was also to learn about the universe of agonising variables that need to come together in a cataclysmic miracle to produce a quality print on a press like this. Bed and cylinder calibration, the way the paper is lifted from print matter, even the face you pull as you charge the roller with ink—these are just the beginning. Early on I learnt that I’d have to change to a higher viscosity ink to finish the book because working my chosen ink manually didn’t loosen it enough. After a month of weekends testing and troubleshooting unsuccessfully, I wrote this in a despairing email to my editor:
…I honestly feel like someone who's trying to make her way to land over a vast ocean in a series of boats. This last vessel is a skiff I've managed to salvage from some junkyard marina. It's taking on water as fast as I can bail it. Will I make it to land? I don't know.
Then, in August of 2019:
I've good news: today I finally finished my first run on Rinaldo. I tell you, there are blood, sweat and tears in this run. It has been nothing short of a purgatorial nightmare. Yesterday, after another full day of troubleshooting, crying, praying to God (I might even have yelled a little)…I seriously didn't know whether I could continue. Today, after a couple of minor adjustments, everything fell into place.
My ‘success’ with printing on Rinaldo was liable to fail at any moment. If Rinaldo were a person, he’d have been a capricious 60-year-old hypochondriac who used every indisposition as an excuse to thwart me. Any advantage I might’ve gained in setting up my studio at home was undermined by his interminable ‘ailments’. When we were having a good day, our print run would take about double the time it had on an automatically-inking press. I’d be elated, and proud of the results. But there were days—and sometimes whole weeks—when I’d encounter so many problems that I’d just have to give up. Rinaldo was the first press to ‘break’ me. That’s where you find yourself collapsed on the floor weeping, covered in the vegetable oil used for cleanup. It’s not very dignified. Fortunately, I had a partner willing to peel me off the floor. Someone who understands what it’s like to have the heart’s tether drag you through the fire, who knows what it means to ‘love your way through the challenges’.
In February of 2020 I pulled page 136—the book’s final page—off Rinaldo. I hated him to my heart’s core, but nevertheless he’d sailed me to port.
If you'd like to see me at work printing on Rinaldo, check out the link below:
Ryder, J. Printing for Pleasure. Phoenix House, Ltd: London, 1955, p. 17
Granger.com,Torture: Burning at Wheel. Wood engraving, late 19th century, after an old engraved print