Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Story of My Press

The press from it's original owners manual.

I found this site the other day while searching for information on the year my press was born. I had learned that each Vandercook press bears a serial number which indicates the year it rolled out of the factory. While on this same site I also noticed a Census section. This intrigued me, so I clicked over and filled out the appropriate form and sent it. Later that day I received an email from the sites webmaster asking a few more questions about the press, whether it was a recent acquisition and directing me to another mark that would let me know who gave the final press inspection before it left Vanderson's so many years ago. Read more...

In replying to this email I got to thinking about the story of my press and thought I would share it here. Somewhere in the late 80's, lets say 1988 Leon Sheppard, the proprietor of Sheppard's Typography called me one day to say he had a lead on a Vandercook 4 Letterpress. So much history here.

I was first introduced to the model while going to the Otis College of Art and Design in 1985 or so. Upon graduation I used a friends press who lived in the MacArthur Park neighborhood where Otis was at the time. She kept the press in the garage of the very sweet house she rented up the hill from school. It was one of those dead end streets in LA that you could easily pass by, it seemed very untouched and wonderful, populated with Angelinos from another era. The houses were modern and well kept surrounded by exotic gardens, you could escape down streets like this and forget you were blocks away from the chaos of the most crime infested intersection in America at Wilshire Blvd and Alvarado Street. Printing there was fine but eventually I moved farther out into the valley and it wasn't convenient to go all the way downtown to print.

Leon Sheppard set our linotype. He didn't have a fax machine so to make your order you had to go to his shop on Hoover St. and sit at his desk while he asked you questions about kerning and point size. He smoked unfiltered Pall Mall's, ate cheetos and drank rum. All the equipment and type cases in the place were painted baby blue, the sort of blue that says cost was a factor over color preference. The place was tidy but grimy. The whole of downtown LA had a thick layer of filth covering it. Sheppard's was no exception, it had the dust of ages, and a fine layer of nicotine topped with a coating of lead. Leon would die of cancer 10 years later, I'm not sure if it was the nicotine that got him or the fine lead dust that must have coated his lungs.

Leon found the press for me in a shop in South Central LA where the owners made those candles you find in Mexican markets. This particular shop was making black candles and the press was covered in chunks of black wax. I paid 500 bucks for it which included delivery to my home in Sylmar. The guys brought the press in an undersized pick-up for the weight of it's cargo. After lunch and some minor truck repair they installed the press in our garage and there it lived for 5 yrs. In the Northridge earthquake in '94 the press shifted about a foot from the wall, an indication of the force of the quake, luckily it didn't tip onto it's front because we would have not been able to right it without the help of much manpower or a machine. It's a bear. Later that year we moved from LA to my current home in Washington state. For the first time in my life I hired movers and my main goal in the move was to find a company who had no qualms about moving the press. Luckily for me the company I ultimately chose was a little shoddy in their estimating process and didn't see the press as a big issue. The day the movers came they took everything but the press as they had no way to move it. As promised though a day or so later another group of movers arrived with a pallet jack and we were on our way. The move cost $2500 and I felt it was well worth it, I could have left all of my possessions behind but I wasn't leaving without my press.

We arrived in Everson in October 1994 with a chill in the air. Of course the gigantic van truck could not fit down our narrow driveway and again special arrangements had to be made to ferry our stuff by truck from the moving van to our double-wide mobile home and shop. It could not be just any truck, it had to have a special lift so that the press could be carefully lowered into it's now temporary home in the shop. That was nearly 16 yrs ago now and that shop is now my home. The mobile home is long gone and the press lives happily in my well heated studio. When I built the studio building we had to reinforce the floor where the press would sit and when it came time to put it in the building I hid. I had arranged for all of my male neighbors to come and help. One had a back-hoe and the plan was to carry the press suspended off the bucket by a chain across the lawn and in the back door of the studio. At the site of it bouncing across the property I recalled my stepmother in near hysterics every time the piano movers had to be called to move her grand piano from one house to another. Fortunately my group of friends were all quite mechanically inclined and were able to remove the presses roller carriage from it and carry that by hand and then put it back on with almost alarming precision. The original movers had done a shoddy job and the top of the timpin was never level with the feeder board.

That was 12 years ago, all these memories flooded back yesterday. I am hoping in the process of registering the press I can find out how it ended up in that shop in South Central 20 yrs ago. Stay tuned.
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