Bringing Home A New Baby (Poco Proof Press)
Last December I adopted a Poco Proof Press of my very own. I found him cold and abandoned in the dusty corner of a house whose owner had sadly passed away. He was in a few pieces, coated with a thin layer of dust and rust. With help from a more seasoned printer who assured me that what we were doing “wasn’t that dangerous,” we loaded the little press into the back of a pick-up truck along with some type, galleys, and other miscellaneous equipment. I drove the 60 miles to my place elated, but with fingers crossed, continually checking out my rearview mirror to make sure I hadn’t caused some heinous vehicular letterpress pile-up.
Back at my place, we built a plywood ramp, then shimmied the press out of the truck bed with a come-along winch onto steel pipes. Once on the pipes, the press could be easily rolled into his new home. I was the proud parent of a new/old proof press that I now had to figure out how to mend and take care of properly.
The bad part about the letterpress community is that it can be daunting as a novice, and the slew of information available can quickly become overwhelming. The wonderful part about the letterpress community is how welcoming and approachable printers can be once they realize that you share a common passion. I posted pictures of my new iron-clad baby online, and almost immediately was met with congratulations and helpful tips from printers and Poco Press enthusiasts. Printers shared their methods of cleaning off rust, their opinions on whether or not to repaint, techniques for color-registration, and even provided pictures of their own presses for reference. Obviously, I don’t know anything about children since I keep comparing a 210lb hunk of metal to a human baby, but in my mind this is what it must feel like to be in a parent co-op group: everyone is eager to share their own tips and tricks about care and maintenance, and are beaming with pride when they show off pictures, while also possibly silently judging anyone else who does things differently.
I learned that what I had on my hands was a Poco Proof Press #0, the smallest of the Poco line capable of printing up to 12”x18” galleys. Poco presses were patented in 1910 by Walter Potter in Chicago, was later bought by Hacker by 1920, and then again by Vandercook in 1937. It’s a sweet little proof press that came with an optional stand (mine is still attached to his), and as an advertisement from 1920 declares, “[they are] small, inexpensive machines without registering or automatic inking facilities, but strong of impression and capable of the best one-color proofs. No shop is too small for a POCO PRESS!”
Though a little dirty and rusty, all of this little Poco’s parts and hardware were present; just disassembled. I found the inking plate, handle, and even spare tympan sheets tucked away in the cubbies of the stand. Once the handle was in place, the cylinder was able to turn right away. It just needed a bath and a little TLC.
I collected cleaning suggestions online ranging from vinegar and lemon juice, WD-40, Simple Green, naval jelly, gasoline, and kerosene mixed with paraffin. In the end, I chose the less toxic and potentially explosive route. The inking plate was by far the most rusted, so I placed it in a vinegar bath for about an hour. After soaking in vinegar, I was able to scrub off the rust fairly easily and then thoroughly dried and waxed the plate. I was able to clean most of the gunk off of the rest of the press with Simple Green and elbow grease. I scooped blackened grease and dirt out of the tracks and cylinder with long-handled cotton swabs and a toothbrush. I had to clean in sessions, so I wiped everything down with a little WD-40 to avoid having all my work undone in between cleanings. When the little Poco was squeaky-clean, I oiled him up, gave him a nice wax coating, and dressed him in new packing and tympan. My new baby was ready to print!
Now I needed the perfect print block for a test print. Around 10 years ago when I was studying abroad in Germany, I went to a flea market in Berlin. Amongst the rows of random odds and ends there was a booth selling printed matter, assorted printing blocks and letterpress ornaments. One of the blocks caught my eye as being the only one written in English. It has an image of a wooden common press with a banner which reads “The tyrants foe; The peoples friend.”
Though I had been interested in book arts and especially bookbinding, I hadn’t used a letterpress before. I knew this little block was special though, and felt like it was “meant to be”. I paid a few euro for the block and kept it with me through the next 10 years. It has moved into 6 different houses in 4 different cities since then. It moved with me to California and accompanied me through grad school, but I still had never printed with it. I was waiting for the “right time”.
I probably don’t even need to mention how stoked I was to finally print the block on my very own Poco, but then again for continuity’s sake I probably do…
I inked up the block with a brayer, plopped it on the galley tray, got the paper in place, and cranked the handle to turn the cylinder.
And it was glorious.