Letterpress and the Price of Crude

By Bill Denham

When you see and feel the beauty of crisp letters and images, debossed into the paper or gently kissed upon its surface, that is the hallmark of letterpress printing, you are not likely to go immediately in your mind to the cost of a barrel of crude.

But the centuries of the development of printing technology that resulted in the creation, in the early years of the twentieth century, in the very birth place of printing itself, of the Heidelberg windmill
press, is inexorably tied to the existence of lubrication, to the existence of oil that allows the literally hundreds of moving parts to move smoothly and with the exact precision, repetition after repetition after repetition, as we, the printers, tweak the impression or roller adjustment and monitor each page as it drops from the jaw of the windmill, in our never ending and never successful pursuit for perfection.

It is a very physical universe and, in that sense, quite different from the world of cyberspace, though our end product, most often, is a marriage of those two worlds, since we employ photopolymer plates in most of our printing. And those plates originate as digital files, transformed into photographic negatives, which are in turn laid atop the polymer, exposed to ultraviolet light, which hardens the exposed portion, and then placed in a water bath, which dissolves the unexposed polymer. Following drying time and additional exposure to ultraviolet light, for additional hardening of the text and image, we are ready to enter that very physical and empirical world of the actual printing.

And here, we come back to that barrel of crude. Before we crank up the Heidelberg, our daily ritual is
applying the lubrication—VACTRA EX-HVY OIL—with an oil gun to the dozen and a half, or so oil fittings, marked in red (for daily application) or yellow (for weekly application) and an oil can for another couple of dozen, or so, open oil points around the press In the above photograph, which looks into the guts of the press from the rear, the cast iron door resting open, you can see two oil fittings in the foreground and
behind, on the main shaft you can see two vertical cylinders with little caps. Those cylinders must be filled with oil each day to lessen the friction on that shaft. You can also see a couple of small tubes that are part of the oil distribution system, though I don’t know exactly where they come from or where they go to.

So there you are. Letterpress printing is an act of “taking care” and that “taking care” begins with the press, before moving on to “taking care” of the images on the paper and “taking care” of the vision of our clients.