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If it's broke - fix it!

Okay that's not exactly how the saying usually goes. But, that's definitely how it goes when an antique press breaks and they just don't make 'em (at all) anymore.


I had the unfortunate experience of breaking my Pilot press. A hand-operated and hand-fed tabletop platen press. For context, the pilot is a very beautiful piece of machinery, and large as tabletop presses go (the chase size is 6.5" x 10"). Although it sounds heavy at 250 pounds or so - it really isn't compared to non-tabletop models like our new Gordon treadle press (1000 pounds).



The weight puts a little more punch into impression. In general, a press can print about 50-70% of it's chase size well with some impression, depending on the robustness of said press. Really these presses were not made for the modern "deep deboss" effect that we associate with letterpress printing today - they were meant for a "kiss impression" where the ink sits lightly on the surface of the paper with no indentation. So a printer needs to be careful, use the right press for the job, and do appropriate make-ready for printing with impression. So I think I was pushing my little tabletop a little too hard and it had a weak spot to begin with where it had been welded at a pivot point on the yoke.


After my initial shock and horror at the terrible, "clunk" sound that happened when this piece broke I quickly began exploring options for repair. I contacted the people who originally restored this press and although they were quick to respond, it would cost many hundreds of dollars and I'd have to take apart the press anyway. They were in the states and everything is expensive when it involves brining things from the US up here. So in the end I made a new friendship with an artist in my building and, it turns out - he was also an incredible machinist and focused perfectionist - basically a knight in shining armour at this point. The second step – after assessing the feasibility of the repair– was to take apart the press. It turns out this wasn't so bad, but these presses are made in such a way that removing just one part isn't really an option - you have to take apart the whole darn thing. Luckily we had some photocopies of the diagrams from the original press manual which would help us label and reassemble the press. Below are said diagrams and here is a link to the PDF of the Pilot press manual should you ever need it like we did.

Next, Ken (artist/machinist/genius) took the part of the press that needed a new piece. He removed the old, crappy weld (side note: I learned through all of this that cast iron -aka what old presses are usually made from- should not be welded as it is very brittle, hence the weld was probably always destined to fail at some point). To remove the weld he had to also saw off a little bit of the yoke, enough to attach a new piece that could have holes where screws could go to attach it properly.

So Ken did some magic in his shop creating a new piece for the press (photo on the left). Now, we had to put the thing back together. Which, luckily turned out to be not so terrible. [advice: label every piece with tape according to the manual when you take it apart, including nuts, bolts and washers] And guess what - now the press is good as new and actually properly repaired from what was the original break to begin with. Here is a video of the new part in action:




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