Big Jump Press

Post #74, In which I clean a Vandercook press

If you want to use a press, you have to clean a press. This is the cruel truth of the letterpress world. A printer should be able to clean a press so thoroughly that someone can come along an hour later and ink that press in a pastel color without picking up the residue of the last run. But how? Aha! Keep reading.

To clean a press, you will need:

#1 A presswash solvent. I use white spirit (mineral spirits)
#2 One or two sturdy rags about the size of pillowcases.
I use old bedsheets.
#3 Baby oil.

Baby oil? Yes, baby oil. Using a bit of this will break up the ink and cut down on the amount of solvent you’ll have to use. Some people use Crisco or vegetable shortening to do the same job. I add a few drops on the right hand side of the metal rollers and allow the oil to distribute slowly.

While the oil is distributing, I putter around, unlocking the furniture and putting various things away. After a few minutes I add a bit more baby oil to the center of the roller.

After a little while the oil will make its way to the far left side of the rollers and they will lose traction. at this point, turn off the press and lift the metal rollers using the yummy bakelite knob on the operator side of the press. Look, you can see the ink, all broken up and streaky thanks to the baby oil.

Now it’s solvent time.

Before anything else happens, fold your rag into a neat little square. If you ball the rag up into a messy bundle like a child would do, the rag will be useless in no time. Look how nice:

Douse the rag with solvent and start wiping the metal rollers down. Because the baby oil has broken up the ink, it should come up easily. Keep in mind that you need to clean all of this oil off the press, or you will have difficulty when it comes time to ink it again. I use a dirty rag at first and pick up all the ink and oil, then switch to a clean rag and hit it again.

A personal confession here: Many times when I clean red ink off a press, I have trouble preventing myself from finding someone else in the shop, walking over to them nonchalantly, coughing into my mostly clean rag, and showing them this:

I just can’t help it. I know it is gross, tacky, and horrible. But there it is.

When the metal rollers are wiped down, it is time to tackle the rubber rollers. These will take significantly more time. Use a liberal amount of solvent, continue to fold over your rag to find a clean area, and methodically wipe the rollers using long strokes going in one direction only. Turn the rollers a small amount between the strokes. Don’t simply rub the rag back and forth or you’ll just smear your ink and solvent around. Be patient. Often with the rubber rollers, I will start with an already dirty rag and switch midway through to a clean rag. When the rubber rollers are done, it is drum time.

The “drum” is the powered metal roller in the guts of the automatic-inking press. (manual inking models will not have this drum.) Cleaning it will be the most satisfying part of your whole day. Get solvent on your rag, put steady pressure onto the rag on the far right side of the roller, (the side away from the crank on the cylinder,) and slowly move the rag to the other side. The ink will disappear like magic.

When this job is done, things look superficially clean. But look at the mess you’ve made!

Your messy inky rag has made a mess of things all right, and now you have to go back with a clean rag and clean it up. But that is not all. Those first passes over the metal and rubber rollers certainly made the press look clean, but there is still a lot of inky residue hiding there. This ink could mix with whatever ink is laid on the press next, turning it (in this case) a slight pink color. Here I give the metal rollers a quick pass with a solventy, clean rag, and look at this:

Go back over everything one more time. The rubber rollers are the most stubborn. You know that the rubber rollers are ok when you can draw a rag across them and it looks like this:

Confident that your press is clean, you can now turn to your ink knives. Ink knives seem like a no-brainer, but here is something that many people forget to do:

Clean the edge of your knives. Small amounts of ink lurk there, ready to contaminate a beautiful can of pure white or transparent ink with red, or green, or (*gasp*) black ink.

Ta Da!

6 comments on “Post #74, In which I clean a Vandercook press

  1. Glenn House Sr.
    October 24, 2012

    That press is so clean I could eat a platter of fried pig chitlin’ biscuits
    off it.

    • Big Jump Press
      October 24, 2012

      Glenn, keep your fried pig chitlin’ biscuits off my press.

  2. Ellen Slade
    October 25, 2012

    I wish I could be there watching you clean that thing!

  3. Ellen Wall Knudson
    October 28, 2012

    Will baby oil make the rollers deteriorate? I’ve heard that about any kind of grease (veggie oil, crisco, etc.)…what’s the t? (That’s drag-speak for what’s the truth?)

  4. Big Jump Press
    October 28, 2012

    Hey Ellen! I have never heard that before. I have never had any problems, but that doesn’t mean that I know the t. So many people start off cleaning with oil or crisco, though, that I wonder if it can really be so terrible. ANYONE OUT THERE KNOW THE T?

  5. Ellen Wall Knudson
    November 5, 2012

    i guess nobody knows. oh, well!

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