Printing our 'prop' card

The Counter Press prop card
There's a long held tradition for private presses to print 'prop' cards, small calling cards that explain who owns the press and what its purpose is. It's also a means by which to register ownership of the press name. The Briar Press describes them as…
Adapted from All About Prop Cards

(1982) by J. Ben Lieberman
The term “prop” is short for “proprietor,” stressing the individuality of the private press owner and operator, exercising freedom of the press. The prop’s card, or prop card, is akin to a calling card: printed on a letterpress, it has a standard form and bears a few essential pieces of information as described below … The prop card is used primarily, or ostensibly, for an address file. Hence, the prop card traditionally has the prop’s last name first, in the upper left corner of a standard 3x5 inch card, using reasonably stiff stock printed horizontally. The full name of the press and mailing address follow. Prop cards may also be double-sized, i.e., a 5x6 card folded to create a double 3x5 card, with the prop’s name at the top left on the front side, just below the fold.
Having already printed thank you cards, we decide our second print should be our 'prop' card. Time to make this official. Sort of.
Hand typeset 8pt Plantin Roman and Italic
The card was designed around a structural typographic background printed in opaque white on GF Smith Colorplan Real Grey using an 8-line condensed grot wood typeface. This was then overprinted with two columns of handset 8pt Plantin 110 roman and italic in black.

The white on grey reacts differently under different lighting to great effect
The finished cards – a limited edition of just 10.

Little card, big thank you

Now our presses up and running (and looking rather good too), we have been able to get our type, paper and inks out and start printing. As so many people had given us a helping hand, much needed advice and encouraging words along the way that we felt they deserved a thank you. And so as a little token of our appreciation and gratitude, we designed and printed our first proper limited edition print especially for them.

To start, we handset and locked up an extended 5-line grot for the 'thank you', inked it all up in silver and printed it onto GF Smith Pale Grey Colorplan.

Next up was the blind de-boss, handset in 7/8pt Univers Light, fresh from Supertype. We're pretty pleased that even on the hard paper stock, the Model presses were more than capable of getting a great impression. And all with very little effort too. 

The final addition was to print our logotype and monogram, made up for us by Metallic Elephant. All the while being careful not to crush the de-boss in the process.

We complimented the card with a tonal Smoke Colorplan envelope, sealed with our symbol in silver wax. And now they are sent, we're off to print the next thing...

A little (well, fairly big actually) restoration project.

Having decided that we wanted to finally take our love of letterpress from simply appreciating it from afar to getting inky and doing it ourselves, the first thing we needed to do was find a press.
From rusty, broken and unloved…

After months of fruitless searching, we finally found a lovely if not slightly unloved Model 3 being sold by a steam engine restoration trust in deepest darkest Devon. Where else?! Dave at the Robey Trust in Tavistock  had come across it by chance, it was due to be scrapped and despite knowing nothing about printing presses his natural instinct to preserved old machinery kicked in and he took it home. Top man.

We bought it, unseen, for the princely sum of £25, with a case of type and a box of furniture…needless to say, we snapped it up. However, when we finally picked it up it was clear that it needed more than a little tlc: although the rust wasn’t too deep, it had spread to all parts; the rollers were, as you'd expect, perished beyond all use; the ink disk bracket was snapped, although was miraculously still holding the ink disk firmly in place; and there was no chase. Let the adventure begin.

The broken bracket. Snapped clean but still holding surprisingly firm.

Having given the press a good clean to remove all the grime and dust, we wrapped the worst of the rusted parts in kitchen towel soaked in a solution of vinegar and lemon juice. Once the worst of the rust had been removed and the parts all moving more freely, we took the whole thing apart. Even though I said I wouldn’t. ‘I wonder what happens if I undo that bolt…?”.

The living room floor. For over a month. Oops.

With the press in parts, and scattered across the living room floor (oops), it was time for serious rust killing. A little research led us to a marine product called Fertan, a liquid that converts iron oxide to iron tannate, a black, shiny, stable substance that can then be painted or waxed. After the first coat there was a drastic improvement, a second coat finished the job and all that was required was a little paint on the barest of metal (we may have made this sound slightly easier than it was…the living room floor looked like this for a month!).

The newly welded bracket ready for painting.

Gas fusion welding. 
Whilst all this was slowly taking shape, the ink disk bracket was not in a good shape. It was snapped. Cast iron apparently isn’t very easy to fix once broken, so it needed to be gas fusion welded (nope, no idea either, but it sounds good), so we sent it to cast iron welding services to be repaired, re-finished, drilled and tapped. The £25 price of the press was starting to seem like a distant memory. 

One of the new chases cast by the Bridport Foundry.

Chasing chases
The next little problem, which was actually a pretty big problem, was the missing chase. eBay was scoured, wanted ads were placed, and everyone we’d ever met was quizzed, but to no avail. It was clear we’d need new chases cast, the next problem was finding someone who would be willing to lend us their precious chase in order for us to get new made. A little poking around amongst some BPS members finally paid off as Peter Scarett lent us a chase from one of his many sheds full of stuff. This was sent off to Bridport foundry, who were able to cast from the slightly modified original, which avoided the need for a very expensive pattern to be made for the mould. Chases procured, we were almost there. 

New rollers were purchased from Elli Evans Rollers, and the bearers were raised to the correct height (this required new bolts as the originals weren’t long enough. The only new bolts that are the exact imperial dimensions and thread type for a Model 3’s bearers? The top jaw screw from a blunderbuss gun!). 

…to gleaming, fully working and much loved.

And there we have it, 4 months, much frustration, a lot of mess, more money than was ever expected, gas fusion welding, newly cast iron, blunderbuss screws, paint, blood, sweat and tears, we’re proud to present our fully working, good as new (almost) Model 3. We are print ready, at last!

A brand new identity

For the past few months we've been busy getting oily and dirty bringing our presses back to working condition, but our little letterpress studio wouldn't be complete without an identity. So in-between the nuts and bolts and oil, we've been hard at work crafting our brand. We decided early on that although it would need to live in a digital world, the identity should be created from a purely analogue approach. So out came our wood type, and after some development we decided to use a combination of S&B Old Style Italic and De Little 296 for the logotype. A trip to Amberley then saw us tweaking and printing the design on the rather impressive S&B cylinder proofing press. Next stop was digitising the print ready for use on- and off-line.
The logotype hand type-set, locked up and being tweaked and spaced

The prints drying
Digitising and amending the logotype
Sketches for the symbol design.
Whilst the logotype was being crafted, we were busy obsessively sketching and scribbling down ideas for a brand symbol —a modern 'imprint' for our press. After much development, we finally settled on a graphic monogram that plays with the idea of negative space — the 'counters' of the characters — to create a simple, single colour mark that could be used across all applications and would lend itself to embossing and a range of print finishes. 

Finally the logotype is ready to go.

The final symbol. Our monogram and imprint.

The result is simple and clean, a modern take on the traditional approach we aim to uphold. A logotype created and produced from woodtype and bespoke symbol that perfectly captured what we hope our little press will be all about. 

The symbol is designed to work over a range of brand colours.

Inspecting our type

L: Erhard Ratdolt's type specimen (taken from
R: Caslon's Caslon specimen (
Taschen’s A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles)
It's been some months since we got our presses, and we are still not managing to print with them… So to indulge our addiction to letterpress we have been buying up type left, right and centre, with a particular weakness for woodtype. But being bought from various individuals, with varying degrees of knowledge on typefaces, we often have no name to put to the fount. To us, this is annoying – a piece of the puzzle is missing, and a little bit of history lost.

Luckily, way back when (or more accurately 1486), Erhard Ratdolt, a printer, type designer and punchcutter, came up with the idea of a decorative type specimen to showcase his talents in typography (above left). From then onwards type specimens became the norm for foundries to demonstrate the all point sizes and weights available in their typefaces. For instance, in 1734 William Caslon, 'letter-founder' extraordinaire, created a rather impressive and well known one (above right) for every iteration of Caslon. And he wasn't alone. So, in theory, this means that we can trace our fount collection. Once we've found the right specimen books of course. Fingers crossed St Brides and the British Library combined with a few hallmarks can lead us in the right direction…

'A Genesis of Sorts' at St Brides

The original first page of the King James Bible
(Have a look at the 'M' of Moses and 'N' of Genesis)
The rather amazing hand-made 24pt Matrix for the 'N' in Genesis

This year, 2011AD, is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible; which according to Wikipedia (where else?) was the third official English translation by the Church of England. It was first printed back in 1611 by the King’s printer, Robert Barker as a large looseleaf folio, and to mark the anniversary, Norwich Cathedral decided to recreate it. Or rather ask type founder, punch cutter, mould maker, printer, historian and expert, Stan Nelson to recreate the first two pages. 
After, I assume, many months of toil the pages have been printed and we went to hear and see Stan talk about his efforts at St Brides. Not knowing quite what to expect, we were overawed by the skills Stan, and a group of talented friends, used in the project. Quite rightly, Stan wanted the re-printed bible to be as accurate as possible, but being made 400 years ago, this posed a problem in itself. Or it should have done. 
Stan talked through matching up the Roman, and the English, or blackletter typefaces to the originals, how it was set, the spacing used and the wooden quoins used to lock up the forme. Then pointed out some beautiful and unusual characters, namely very unique serifs on the ‘M’ and ‘N’ and some very old and elegant figures. And nowhere can these be found these days. Luckily, Stan is a dab hand at punch cutting mould making, and type casting (you can see him in action on you tube and some results on flickr). So he made the characters from scratch, and at this point left us thorough in awe – the punches he carved are tiny and exquisite. And the printed results are astounding. 
The new pages are impressively close to the originals – some minor differences here and there, but overall prints are almost identical. No mean feat after so many years. Yet splendid as the prints are, they were overshadowed by Stan bringing along and allowing us to touch his punches, matrices and (hand-made) moulds. All in all, a very inspiring evening, with a true craftsman. 

New vs. old

When we began our letterpress adventure, one of our first concerns (after the presses) was excitedly looking to build up our type collection. After some talk amongst ourselves, and with people who know better, we decided to get new lead type cast. But when it came to wood, despite hearing whispers of new wood type being made, we felt old was best. Perhaps we came to this conclusion from wood printing's history in ancient China, before Gutenberg and movable type came on the scene in Europe. Or perhaps it was somewhere in the recesses of our minds that we held the traditional belief that letterpress should use old wood poster type. But its most probably because it not only looks beautiful as an object, but the nicks and softened edges of each individual letter create an unique print.

All that said (and old wood type duly purchased), recently there have been some very interesting rumblings from new wood type craftsmen. Notably, we stumbled across Virgin Wood Type over in America, where they have a large catalogue of type which is slowly being worked through, learning more as time goes on it seems. Then type maestros Dalton Maag launched their new digital typeface for Nokia… But interestingly choosing to collaborate with the design agency Build, who got the Paekakariki Press in London to create the brand new typeface as a wood fount to be printed. Not content with creating the wood type and printed edition, a film was made of the whole process… Well worth a look.

So, now we are torn; new or old wood type? Well its nice to have the choice, even if we can't make up our minds.

Rusting away

Wrapped in lemon and vinegar

The results starting to show

As expected, our presses having been a little neglected by past owners had developed quite a coating of rust over the last few years. So, after a bit of trusty internet research (often from the miles of letterpress discussion on the Briar Press) and some conflicting opinions, we found a traditional method. Nice and simple; mix up four-parts white vinegar to one-part lemon juice, then dampen kitchen roll in the solution and wrap up the press. Mind you wrapping up a press is no mean feat. But once it was done, like magic the kitchen towel started picking up the colour of the rust – its pretty amazing to watch. And now to unwrap it…

Our super Models

A Model No.3 of old
(image borrowed from the British Letterpress website…)

Our Model No. 2 inscription
We are the lucky owners of a pair of Model printing presses, but until stumbling across them we had no idea they existed. So wanting to know a little bit about their history, we have tried to find out more. Of course being Victorian iron beasts they don't have their own dedicated website.

However after a bit of digging we discovered that the Model Press was patented by Willian Clark and Joshua Daughaday in America in 1874. By 1877, Messrs. Clark and Daughaday had sold the British patent to one Carlo Giuseppe Squintani, who began selling the presses in the same year. Our Model No. 2 states in no uncertain terms that it was Squintani who produced our press, possibly in his London showroom in Farringdon (coincidentally around the corner from where we work).

Wanting to market his presses to the largest audience he could, Squintani declared everyone could be their own printer. Something we are hoping is true. And to make sure there really was a press for everyone, Models came in a range of sizes; from the teeny No. 0 to the hefty No. 6 jobber. We have a No. 2, with a 5" by 7 1/2" chase, but weighing 112lbs, and the larger No. 3 coming in at 148lbs and a chase measuring 6" by 9". Yet despite being beautiful and sturdy pieces of engineering, and with a big variety of sizes, the Model Presses paled into insignificance once Adana presses took over. Shame really.

A big thank you to Benjamin Brundell at, where they handily have articles on a host of presses. Next stop St. Brides…

Humble beginnings

Model No.2 Press

Model No. 3 Press
Not the cleanest, nor ready to use, but these are our two wonderful Model presses. The smaller (although still a weighty 8st) press is the Model No.2, and came to via eBay and a garage in Oxfordshire. Our Model no. 3 press needs a bit more love and attention, but we except nothing less after it was found after some years of being hidden in a corner of a steam engine repair shed in deepest, darkest Devon. Best get cleaning…

A little (ad)venture into letterpress

So, this is the first post from The Counter Press, a soon-to-be private press, producing small-scale, beautiful typographic designs. Although so far we only have two slightly rusty Model Printing Presses (No. 2 and No. 3), which we are slowly but surely cleaning them up, whilst gathering all the other necessary bits and pieces together.

And although the Victorian presses are new to us, we aren't entirely new to the print process. The Counter Press is run by graphic designers David Marshall and Elizabeth Ellis. But we have tired of our computers, and are now eager to get our hands inky using more traditional methods of design.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future we'll be up and running, and printing to our hearts content. Well, that's the aim anyway. We'll keep you posted…
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