A renaissance in craft print prompts the return of a favourite.
What does it do?
This is the only letterpress machine you can buy brand new. It is a hand-operated lever-pull vertical platen type, small enough to fit a desktop, with an 8x5in (203x127mm) print area. It takes standard height metal type, blocks or photopolymer plates.
The new press is based on the 1970s Adana 85 MkIII but with thicker, stronger frames to suit today’s craft letterpress fashion to ‘deboss’ print, i.e. indent it into the paper surface.
The Caslon name dates back to William Caslon, an engraver who in 1720 created and named the serif typeface that remains popular today. A Caslon family still owns the firm, albeit thanks to a name change in the 1800s. Richard Caslon is managing director. His father Roy Caslon remains chairman and demonstrated the new Adana at the company’s St Albans HQ.
When was it launched and what market is it aimed at?
Adana was founded in Twickenham in the 1930s. It introduced the 85 (pronounced ‘eight-five’) hand-operated press in 1953, priced at the equivalent of £16.80.
Caslon acquired Adana’s business and goodwill in 1987 and the last all-new press was sold in 1999. Since then Caslon has refurbished old presses with new parts to high standards. Richard Caslon says that demand for the refurbs grew so high that it became more cost-effective to build all-new ones.
New presses are called Adana 85C, with C standing for ‘Caslon-made’. A trial batch of 20 machines sold out almost immediately. The next batch will arrive in January with no limit on future numbers.
How does it work?
It’s a small clamshell platen press with all operations controlled by a double-armed lever. Ink is applied to the circular top plate and the lever is part-operated several times to run twin inking rollers over the plate, which rotates to spread the ink evenly. After that the lever is advanced further to ink up the type or plate on the vertical bed.
Finally a sheet of paper is placed on the tympan (a resilient paper sheet that covers the platen) and held by a movable stop and small gauge pins. The lever is fully depressed to press the platen against the inked type bed, and the ink transfers. Releasing the lever opens the clamshell, the printed sheet is extracted and replaced by a blank.
You can put in a different plate/type and ink colour and run sheets through again, but very close register isn’t feasible.
An extra few cm of movement on the lever arm is new and applies enough extra pressure to indent the type into soft paper if you want to. Tissue paper can be put on the platen to increase pressure still further.
The bed takes letterpress type with the standard 0.918in (23.3mm) height, or it can take metal or photopolymer plates mounted on blocks to bring them to type height.
Caslon can supply metal type fonts from 6pt to 72pt (made on a Monotype caster) or a vacuum exposure unit to make your own photopolymer plates. Lith film negatives are best for plate exposure, so Caslon offers a basic processing kit. Films are contact-exposed to laser/inkjet printed positive sheets in the exposure frame.
How does it differ from previous models?
Thicker side frames and extra travel on the lever now allow an over-pressure stage. Kiss-impression print is still possible, but many of today’s users prefer the debossing effect; there’s also a security aspect, as photocopies can’t reproduce indents. If you want raised type, Caslon sells thermography powders and heaters.
What’s the USP?
It’s the only hand-operated desktop letterpress platen that you can buy new. “It’s a small but very versatile letterpress machine that can be used by enthusiasts as well as pros,” says Richard Caslon.
How easy is it to use?
Anyone could learn to print in about five minutes. The challenge is the pre-press. Purists will use traditional metal type, set upside down and back to front in composing sticks. Pragmatists will use computers, film and photopolymer plates. Caslon can supply the lot.
What training and service support is there?
Caslon will point you at letterpress enthusiasts around the country who offer training in hand composition and the like. You’d have to try hard to break the press, but if so it’s small enough to send to Caslon by courier to be fixed.
What does it cost?
£1,299 for the new press. An Adanalite plate exposure unit costs £170, and a lith film processing kit is £120. Caslon offers a complete range of letterpress supplies, including inks, fonts, leading, lead cutter, composing sticks, furniture, quoins and quoin keys.
How many of the presses have been built?
So far 20 of the new ones, 10,000 or so of the old ones. From January the new press will be in regular production.
Print area 8x5in (203x127mm)
Substrates Thin paper, napkins, business cards, up to beer mats
Speed around 500sph depending on operator
Impression Media standard letterpress type, blocks or dies
Type/block height 0.918in (23.3mm)
Price £1,299, includes press, one chase, one pair high-definition ink rollers, roller runners with locking screw, lay gauge, gauge pin, gripper arm, instructions, support
Fonts Monotype cast metal in 6pt to 72pt, priced from £5.10 to £128
Contact Caslon 01727 852211 www.caslon.co.uk
The main alternative for a new Adana is a used/refurbished one. There are small £100-plus hobby machines that can print with rubber stamps and even emboss with thin metal dies, but they’re not in the same quality league. There’s a lively secondhand market for letterpress. The first port of call is probably eBay, but there are also specialists, eg urbanfoxdesign.co.uk or enthusiast websites where people offer used presses and other items.
Heidelberg’s powered ‘windmill’ platens and flatbed cylinder letterpress machines haven’t been built new for 40 years. They’re still in demand for cutting and creasing and foiling in modern print works, so prices may be high.
Chris Bottomley, managing director of Letterpress Services in Wakefield, says that models that still have inking rollers, so can print, are in high demand: www.letter pressservices.com.
Alternatively, you could build your own Gutenberg-style mini-press from wood, angled steel and a hydraulic car jack. Vancouver printer Charles Morgan posted plans here www.tinyurl.com/hrpqvmj.
“We probably print about 4,000 cards per day on our three Adanas. Because of the way you put the plates and the cards in, every one is slightly different, which I like.” 5/5
Katie Leamon Owner, Katie Leamon Cards & Stationery