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Start the press!

Lari Gibbons, rear, with graduate student Laura Drapac, and restored letterpress.By Ellen Rossetti, News Promotions

Four old letterpresses - including one that had been rusting in a Denton driveway - have been given new life, thanks to four printmaking students and a faculty member who returned them to working condition.

The letterpresses - ranging from about 60 years old to 200 years old - have been married with cutting-edge printing technology to create fine art prints.

Cat Snapp, Laura Drapac, Linda Santana and Christopher Wallace - all of whom are working towards master of fine arts degrees in printmaking - restored the letterpresses in a semester-long research project led by Lari Gibbons, associate professor in the College of Visual Arts and Design. Above, Gibbons, rear, and Drapac.

Three of the presses were owned by the Print Research Institute of North Texas press, and were in various states of disrepair before the restoration. The three are:

  • Washington press, dating from the late 1820s - used to print books and newspapers
  • Reliance press, dating from the 1830s or 1840s - used to print books and newspapers
  • Craftsmen press was created about 60 years ago, the 1940s - for smaller material 

Gibbons spotted the fourth - known as the Gordon press, dating to about 1874 - sitting in a Denton driveway while she was on a morning jog. She found the owner and acquired the Gordon, which she says was once used for small jobs like printing church programs, cards and stationery.

Before the restoration, the students jokingly referred to the Gordon press as “the rust bucket.” Now, the machine has been given a museum-quality restoration, right down to gold pinstriping.

“Our Gordon press is very unique. We don’t know how many exist right now, but we haven’t been able to find any exactly like it,” Gibbons said. “It was made just before the company was bought out by Chandler & Price, which dominated the field for many decades. Because ours was made shortly before this turnover, there weren’t many examples, which means parts were impossible to find. We pretty much had to make them.”

They consulted with fellow sculpting students and learned to recast brass to make a piece that had fallen off the Gordon press. A metalsmithing student soldered a broken brass spring. Kurt Weihe and Bobby Turner, instrument toolmakers in the Department of Physics, made a chase — the rectangular piece of aluminum that holds the letters of the press in place.

Linda Santana and Christopher Wallace with College of Visual Arts and Design restored letterpress project“The Gordon is foot-powered, but at one point people decided they should also be mechanized, so it had the equivalent of a lawn mower motor attached to it,” Gibbons said. Right, Santana and Wallace.

For safety reasons, the students removed the motor. But the foot pedal was missing, so the students found that Hern Iron Works in Idaho, which makes cannons and other historic items, could make a treadle for their press.

Using vector-based software, images or type can be designed on the computer and transferred to materials that will be locked into the press for printing.

“The most innovative process that we used was carving materials with a computer-numerically-controlled router,” Gibbons said. “We also learned how to expose and to process photopolymer plates. Experience with these technologies will help distinguish our graduates in the field. I was insistent that we marry the old technology with the new because I didn’t want this to become just an exercise in looking backwards. We had to look forwards too.”

The merging of old and new technologies has created a resurgence of interest in fine art printing, Gibbons said.

“It’s different from inkjet, laser or offset,” she said. “This is stamped through an incredible amount of pressure onto a sheet of paper and creates a very physical, tangible embossment of letter onto the page, which is what people love about it.”

The students will use the presses to make fine arts prints, which will be on display in August and September in the Museum of Printing History in Houston. Eventually, the presses will be available for public use in P.R.I.N.T. Press workshops 

 (Photos by Jonathan Reynolds)

Posted on: Thu 21 July 2011

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