Hand-printed books of poetry,
Plus tips and supplies for fellow letterpress printers.

Second Hand Type

The usual regime for sourcing second hand printing gear applies to type; scouring eBay, keeping an eye out for ads (in The Small Printer, Briar Press website etc) and keeping an ear to the ground (within your local BPS branch, on the Letpress listserv, etc). But we also have a few (!) words of warning on the subject...

You never know when you might find Victorian treasures – a curious and almost unused display face, perhaps. Maybe that ear you've got clamped to the ground will pick up a rumour about a very small commercial print shop closing down in your area.

Those Closing-Down Print Shops
Even if they were exclusively litho, don't pass them by, the inks are excellent and usually fine for letterpress, providing theres some still alive under the layer of skin in the tin! And there may be paper oddments and offcuts.

Their type will have usually come from the bigger suppliers, and will usually align well. There may be extremes of wear on some, especially if they printed posters. Such display sizes sadly are only fit for the bin (see Re-Casting Type below) To check for wear you definitely need a small magnifying glass, 10x or so.

The other class of second-hand that may come our way, is that from a truly amateur, hobby or pocket-money press, usually where the printer concerned is dead or nearly so. You'll need to be more cautious with this stuff. There may again be extremes or wear or simply damage. Very often indeed there will be type in all the wrong boxes. The amateur often sourced his ‘card’ founts from firms less careful, especially with the most popular faces (see right).

Adana cast some of their most popular faces themselves and, in the case of Gill Sans 262, seem to have chosen an alignment all their own. Less popular faces came to Adana from big trade suppliers definitely including Yendalls at Risca in Monmouth. Their output was always spot on.

It's a common place that you will find yourself being led by someone, who themselves knows nothing about letterpress, to some hut or cellar in the grottiest state, and a hand is vaguely waved. Sadly they often have inflated ideas of what its all worth, based only on the fact that ‘he’ spent hours down there, or the prices they've seen clean, catalogued items fetch on eBay. Old fashioned bargaining is often required – be fair, but remember they usually don't have any idea how to get rid of anything you leave behind.

Another factor affecting both trade and amateur sources, is that towards the end of production, ‘dissing’ (the return of type to case) was often simply not done. So there's loads of type somewhere, for the last few jobs, stacked with cardboard in between, and all those letters are missing from the founts in the cases. You will have to sort all that stuff out, and it will take days and days, otherwise the cases will be short of Es, commas, or whatever chance decrees. This most particularly matters with the larger sizes. Letterpress printers have to have vast stores of patience, and always did. 

Re-Casting Type

The three (or 4) metal alloy used has a number of quite unique properties, and it is vastly misleading to call it ‘lead’. ‘Typemetal’ seems to me to be about right. There is one situation however, that would call for immediate scrapping – very ancient, very wrongly cast type, with an alloy vastly out of recipe can, in damp conditions, get a creamy powdery deposit, with pitting on the body of the characters. Sling it in the bin, it will melt down with the rest and can be re-melted and re-cast normally.

‘Re-cast?’ you say – indeed – when you have a load of scrap saved up then give it to your favourite type founder. He'll be glad to have it, but only if its strictly sorted. There needs to be three bins for your scrap:

  1. Small composition type and spaces.
  2. Leads, clumps, and quotes.
  3. Ludlow and Linotype slugs.

These are each of different printers alloy mixes, and must be kept strictly apart. (Any scrap, even the tiniest, of brass or copper or plastic must be kept out and disposed of elsewhere.) In passing the very special three- or four- metal alloys used in typefounding, somewhat akin to, but not identical to, pewter, are best not called 'lead'. Of course wash your hands well every time after handling type, just as you would for many other crafts. But new, or reasonably new type never killed anyone. As I recall it, Fleet Street was never littered with dead compositors (though the Proprietors might have wished it so, on numerous occasions!).

You Might Also Like...