Restoring an antique printing press

At the beginning of Covid-19 quarantine, I was faced with some pretty difficult decisions regarding workflow and production here at Barrio Letterpress.

With the printing studio I worked out of closed indefinitely due to the rising infection rates in NYC, I was forced to try and find an alternative to printing the 4 sets of invitations that I had in my queue.

One day, like everyone else who is homebound thanks to the ‘rona, I was casually browsing Facebook marketplace and happened upon a Craftsmen Superior printing press that needed restoration and was insanely affordable with the money I’d set aside from not having to pay for childcare due to the closures. It was 5 hours away in New Hampshire so I headed out to pick that baby up. I made a new friend in a fellow printer who is many decades into the craft and was, as you may find most letterpress printers to be, happy to sit and chat for a few hours about the ins and outs of our favorite technical artform.

Rusted antique Craftsman Superior printing press before restoration
Here she is in all of her “before” glory…many, many years of rust and corrision but I was determined.

I scrubbed the hell out of this press. Like really. My fingers were jacked up, every single nail broke and I experienced days’ worth of lightheadedness from the cleaners I was using seeping into my pores. It didn’t matter though because I felt like I was truly earning my authority as a letterpress printer by rebuilding my own press.

I’ve always loved to tinker with machines and this antique printing press was no different. It was brimming with tools and hardware I had seen before but never known the names of so I’m fortunate to have many handy, experienced folks in my life (I recall one particularly deep Google rabbit hole on the invention of the cotter pin…genius).

Close up of rusted antique Craftsman Superior printing press
I used a rust remover solution that’s painted on with a brush. You let it sit for hours and then it’s time for the real work…

The best way to get the rust off of an antique printing press is to clear your schedule, work outside and prepare to not be able to lift your arms for several days thereafter. I worked several steel wire brushes “to the bone” to get all of this rust broken up and scrubbed off. All in all, I’d say it took about 8 hours over the course of several days.

I should add that I attempted to document this process on TikTok….it did not go well, LOL. Here’s some footage anyway:

Scrubbing rust off of the ink disk–this is arguably the part of the press that needs to be MOST rust-free as you wouldn’t want rust ruining your rollers or inks.

Finally, I’d broken my baby free of her rusty prison and I was ready to overthink the heck out of what color to paint her. I wanted something awesome and yet a-typical for this type of machinery. In fact, my dad pointed out that it technically wouldn’t need to be painted in order to serve its purpose but I’m extra so…

After a few visits to the hardware store spray paint aisle and one miscommunication with the aforementioned parent, the press was finally painted her final color and she was dubbed Doña Dolores. Her name comes from my maternal grandma, Sarah Dolores, who is one of many treasures in my life.

There was another debacle along the way but I won’t unpack that here. If you’re interested in the tea, you can visit my Instagram and catch up on the unfortunate mishap with the press. Here she is in her final, fabulous form.

Restored antique printing press craftsman superior it is painted light tan and sits on a table

Thanks for reading! Restoring a press? Feel free to get in touch with any questions!

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