April 10, 2010

My Dream Press

No, I didn't win the lottery. However, I was in the right place at the right time. One of our activities is selling things at a local antique mall. One afternoon we dropped by and one of the owners showed me a flyer of someone wanting to sell a handpress. He thought it would look good as a display item. I tried to tell him that it weighed over 1,200 pounds and was all rusty and in a dozen pieces. He must have noticed my heavy breathing and asked if I'd be interested. The press was on the south side of Chicago about 15 miles from us. No phone number on the flier, just an email address. Rushed back to our studio and sent an email to this mysterious stranger. I didn't hear anything for about 3 days when I got a cryptic email with an address and a time to come and look at it. The press was in a shed outside the owner's home. Lying around in pieces, some quite rusty, others in not so bad condition was a Paul Sheidewend Printers Proof Press #2. I knew that I wanted it. Now came the hard part, no price was mentioned in the flyer. I searched my memory for sources of money, tempered with the idea of  convincing my wife that we needed this press. After looking at it for about 15 minutes (my mind was made up the moment I saw it) I asked "what do you want for it?" He looked at me, looked at the press, looked at me again and said "would two hundred be too much?"

It took several weeks to arrange the move. I called several riggers and was told it would cost about $2,000 to move and set it up. Finally in a moment of desperation I resorted to Craig's List and got 3 guys for $100. They showed up on time and with a lot of groaning managed to move it in our studio. Only one 3 inch step. It was in about a dozen parts and were all over the place. At the time I had no idea if it was complete, I'd tackle that problem when it became necessary. Fortunately, Richard-Gabriel Rummonds' book Printing on the Iron Handpress has many diagrams which allowed me to know what was what and how the parts went together. Everything other than the frame was rusted, especially the bare metal ones. The bottom  of the bed looked as if it left out in the rain and had a heavy layer of rust. The platen and bed surfaces had rust but they looked flat and without pits. My plan was to have the press cleaned and repainted. I had hoped to have it CO2 blasted but the cost and no reasonable way to move it, quashed that idea, the same for walnut shell blasting and even sandblasting.

I was left with the novel idea of doing it all myself. I got a small heavy table and whenever someone strong dropped by, I asked for help either lifting  or moving one part at a time. A plastic tent was built to help control the dust from flying all across our studio. With a six inch wire wheel and with a hand drill and a stationary grinder, I managed to clean all of the bare metal parts. That part took several months of very part time work. Next I attacked the platen, rail, bed and rounce. It took me forever to decide on what paint to use and finally decided on Rust-Oleum semi gloss black. Some primer, slow careful painting and soon the press was looking better that I imagined. finally I refinished the wood parts and polished the brass finials which went on top of the frame. All this took about a year and a half. See pictures

There was still one more thing to be done, the press had no tympan nor frisket. I looked into having one made, but the cost was far beyond my means. After doing all the work I had the confidence that I could make one. Searching on the internet I found two sites where tympans and friskets were made by two clever individuals. It was doable. I spent several weeks figuring out what I needed and where to get them when once again I was the recipient of a major bunch of luck. When I originally purchased the press, the owner was worried that I was going to sell it off for parts. I somehow convinced him that I was going to restore it, and promised I would let him see the results. I sent him a picture of the press and mentioned that all I needed was to build the tympan and frisket. A week or so later I received a reply that he had the original tympan and if I wanted it to just come down and get it. The next day I drove to his place and he gave me a box with the tympan hinge and the wood parts of an old tympan frame. Upon returning home  and looking at what I had, the end was in sight. To be continued...

March 19, 2010

My Early Presses

I've have an obsession with printing presses.

Where it came from is unknown as I never worked in a print shop, took printing classes in school or ever wanted a press. I do have a vague memory of my 1950s high school printshop. I wandered in and out a few times but always was told it wasn't for me as I was smart enough to go to college. I never looked back and my schooling lead me on to a path in the sciences, evolutionary biology to be specific. My career  mostly consisted of being an extended graduate school student, heavily into research, writing scientific papers and other such academic pursuits. I then met my wife who was an artist, about as far from the sciences as you can get. At the time she was pursuing her dream of becoming a jewelry designer. So with a bit of money and a lot of hard work we ended up opening a gallery where she could make jewelry and I could use my scientific background to solve whatever problems needed solving.

While on vacation in Michigan one hot summer, we haunted the antique stores. Deep in the recesses of one shop, I noticed a small press, totally rusty, but it was quite inexpensive, so home it went. I knew it had to be cleaned before being used for printing, so we looked up a sandblasting shop, brought it in, and an hour later I had a bare metal press. I was told to paint it as soon as possible otherwise it would quickly rust. A can of spray paint, some taping of parts which shouldn't be painted, and I had a press.

This first press was a Kelsey Excelsior 5x7. I read a few books, no internet at that time, and was ready to print. Bought a pair of rollers and gave it a try. I applied to the APA, was accepted, and printed a few pieces. I soon realized I  needed some help so I decided to take a class in letterpress. I enrolled at Artists' Book Works, at the time about the only place in Chicago to offer such classes. I took one, then another and another. Classes were small, taught by great people. My classmate for many of these classes was Amos Kennedy, Jr, who was learning his future craft.

I decided I wanted a larger press, so I attended an auction held at a closed printing plant, bid on and won a Vandercook  #4 for $75. A few years later,  needing space, I sold it for $300. Later, longing for another press, I bought a Model #3 for $65. Once again, a few years later I needed space, so out it went to reside at Paul Aiken's Museum, where it haunts me every time I see it. Along the way were the Kelseys, Sigwalts, and small Goldings. All are gone now.

It wasn't a good pattern, buy a press, sell a press. Of course, like so many that enter the field later in life, I never entertained the idea of making money. I missed my presses and I just wanted a new one. Many were available but settling on one which would have to last the rest of my life was a difficult choice.

In my life as a bookseller, many books pass through my hands every day. One day, in a box of books that I'd purchased was a copy of Printing with the Handpress by Lewis M. Allen. That was it, I wanted a handpress. Knowing the cost of such presses, reality soon dashed my desire. Oh well, I thought, maybe I'll win the lottery...

March 16, 2010

The Amazing Mr. Forgue - Part 2

Starting a bibliography of printed works looks easy; just collect all the printed works that Norman W. Forgue produced, printed, published, designed, etc. Simple? Not so.

One of the consequences of starting a project like this, is that little interesting  side paths appear without warning which demand attention.

One day I came across a 45 record that looked familiar. The red label read Stepheny Records, and it was produced in my home town. Coupled with the fact his daughter was named Stepheny, and that the label had the look of Forgue’s work, further exploration was necessary. An entirely new aspect of N.W.F.’s life was unveiled.

I soon discovered that he was indeed the publisher of a record label, which in its short life of less than four years (1956-1960), produced about 40 45 singles and 35 LPs. In that short period, they recorded Dixieland and other jazz along with rhythm & blues. Although most have been forgotten, one album does sell today for almost a thousand dollars.

Little other information was available. Although there were two discographies on the internet, both were filled with errors and incomplete. After several years of searching, I now have the correct information on about 75% of them. Hopefully, I may come across a collector of the label who will be able to help me fill in the blanks.

March 14, 2010

The Amazing Mr. Forgue - Part 1

"The Amazing Mr. Forgue" is how Norman W. Forgue is described by R. Hunter Middleton, one of the finest practitioners of the book arts in the past century. 

Who is Norman W. Forgue? 

I asked the same question about 10 years ago when I picked up and read a copy of Poorer Richard a short light hearted biography of a man who, without a background in art or literature, decided to become a printer and publisher of fine books. He printed and published under four different imprints, the most famous being The Black Cat Press. He never stopped - from his first book in 1933 until the last in the 1980s. At an age where most retire, he published about 100 miniature books, most in fine leather bindings. His output was prodigious. 

I've recorded over 1,000 items he either printed, published, wrote or otherwise was associated with. This information is rapidly disappearing, therefore a solid bibliography of his work is needed before much of this information simply passes away. Much of his work was ephemeral in nature but those are the ones that sometime tell the most about how an artist works. The vast majority of his output was published in runs of several hundred or fewer, several in the single digits.

As a bookseller I come in contact with vast number of books, and started collecting Forgue's work as I came across them. To date I've accumulated about 250 items. About 100 others are available but those are far too expensive for my budget. Most of the rest exist only as references in the literature. Several collections of his work and papers were given to various libraries and universities after his death and I hope to visit them to document in detail many of the items which I will never own.

After much consideration, I've decided to produce a bibliography of his work, at least the beginning of what I hope will be a much larger project. As to the form of this work, for now it will exist in bits and bytes, easier to publish and distribute. I also hope to include biographical material, which would mean talking to those who knew him, as well as his daughter, whom I believe was involved in his many pathways. As a labor of love, it will be a slow road as it will produce no income but I'll allow as much time as I can afford. If anyone reading this would like to reminisce about Norman Forgue, I'd be glad to listen. I'll be posting a list of publications for which I'm seeking information and would welcome input from anyone who wants to fill in the blanks with dates, photos, etc.