Update: on Wednesday 26 October 2011, Whitley Wood Press of Reading, Berkshire closed its doors forever. The good news is that it has a new home 35 miles northwest in Appleton, Oxfordshire. Parsnip Press is its successor.

The story so far

From the first this was never going to be a commercial concern. It was more of a tactical error.

I was shown a venerable platen press, the ‘Arab’ model that Josiah Wade of Halifax launched on an unsuspecting British clientele in the 1870s. This particular specimen was aged about 103 at the time I saw it; it was built in about 1898. It weighed a lot. And I fell for it, which meant manhandling it down a flight of stairs, into a car, to another town, and then putting it back together in a shed that did not exist.

We printed our first item on 21 October 2001. Since then, given the time elapsed, progress has been modest; a QSL card, the cover for a wedding invitation, a Christmas card, a party invitation, a simulated book spread, some stationery for the Press.

Four and a half years since that press arrived in Reading, the setup is thus: the original Arab, which could be powered only by its 1933-vintage half-horsepower electric motor, sits outside. It is stripped back to the bare frame, and would be in even more pieces were it not for the fact that a large driving gear wheel and its axle refused to budge from their journals. A slightly newer Arab now has residence in the printing shed; this one has a foot treadle, allowing the operator to find a comfortable working speed. Experience showed that there was little forgiveness in the electric motor-driven setup; either the motor was too slow and stalled or the press ran fast enough to be frighteningly dangerous in use.

In the meantime, the shed has appeared, and almost doubled in size as the true space occupied by a printing press became clear. There has been lots of press restoration, involving cleaning strangely-shaped parts that hid their true form beneath layers of ink, oil and grit and puzzling over the archaically-worded and curiously suggestive ‘instructions for erection’ that were in all likelihood written by a straightforward Halifax engineer but seem to have a touch of the fetishist about them. The most challenging problem has been to find a way to support the paper evenly and keep it in position when the press is closing up for an impression; the crudest and most awkward arrangements have been the most practical so far.

Slated is a Whitley Wood Press bookmark. This simple object has served as the test piece when trialling new arrangements of packing the platen (and also in a long and dull set of tests to discover whether the platen and the bed, the two parts that close together to press the type into the paper, were in fact parallel with each other). It’s so far been six months in the making. Perhaps when it’s done we’ll celebrate with a pamphlet of poetry.

There are some photographs of both Arab platens in use on Flickr. The first press being used to print an invitation in the original half of the shed: the second press being used to print a simulated page spread with line blocks in the new half of the shed. The frames of the second press being reassembled.

The definitive study of the Arab platen is by Geoffrey Osborne: ‘Josiah Wade and the Anglo-American Arab Press’. Matrix 4, Winter 1984, 100-110. Notes from this article