Press Template

This is the first of a series of posts that will talk about the setup and learning curve on a new piece of equipment. It’s a pretty steep one, but I’m climbing it quickly.

The Whelan press is different from any press I’ve ever seen. First, it has a stationary bed. The rollers and wheel move down the bed during printing.This has two benefits that come to mind immediately – the press bed won’t warp from being unevenly supported while it’s extended, and the press takes up less space. The studio floor plan doesn’t need to accommodate a press bed sticking off the press into the walkway. “Moving bed” presses almost require twice as much space when the bed is extended.

Second, the pressure system is entirely unique. The steel springs that create pressure allow the top roller to move vertically. If you look closely in the video at the end you’ll see the side plate move up and down as the roller rolls over the plate.

Folks refer to this as an “etching press”, and that really is the best name for it. With plates 1/8″ thick or less, it works perfectly with no special effort. Set the pressure, place the plate and paper directly onto the bed, and go! Wood blocks are a little trickier, though. The rollers cannot easily roll all the way up and onto 1/2″ wood blocks. My wood blocks require some special preparation to make them behave like etching plates as far as the roller is concerned.

The manual gives explicit instructions for how to drill and cut MDF (medium density fiberboard) to make what they call a template.
[Instruction manual]
I call it a jig. The point of it is to raise the effective press bed up to a short distance below the plate height. This is the same vertical distance that the roller would have to travel if my plate was thin.

If you’ve been following along for a while, you know that I’m perfectly set up to design and carve complex shapes from wood. I have even designed the digital carving file for a registration jig that accommodates the wooden plates I’ve been using. All that I needed to was calculate the carving depth to make my plate stick up by the recommended 3/32″ and design a simpler jig than I’ve been using.

[Sketch to calculate thicknesses]
In a funny bit of self-reference, the only piece of MDF I had lying around was the lid of the crate that my Richeson Baby Press arrived in. (You can see that the press was crate 1 of 5, and that it weighed 63 pounds.) Once the cutter carved the recess for the plate, I marked out and taped up the paper boundary for my greeting card blank.
[Finished template]
One thing that is important about this jig is that it allows the rollers to be kept at the jig surface height between impressions. There is enough space above the paper area to park the roller on the jig while I replace the paper and block for the next pass. I would never leave a blanket on a press under pressure for an extended period of time, but it’s convenient to keep it trapped there between impressions so I don’t have to reset the pressure to coax the roller back up onto the jig.
[Ready to pull]
Sometimes the best way to understand how something works is to see it in motion. Here’s a video of pulling a print with the new press and the first block jig ever. I know that, over time, I’ll streamline the process even more. The thing to notice is how little effort I’m expending to pull the rollers over the block. You can’t tell, but this press is under quite a lot of pressure to push the ink into the paper so nicely. The weight and diameter of the wheel means that the press is doing all of the work for me, which I’m sure my shoulder will greatly appreciate. That’s why I’ll be eventually switching away from weaving, remember?

At last, I can see that the primary work in the print studio will be the design and creation of new blocks. The printing part should be very efficient, keeping my prices down in a range that more people can afford.

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