Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What, Oh What Can a Kelsey Do?

It all began on the Letpress List when the subject of roller height control for the C&P Pilot press came up. The person posting was having problems with the well known C&P Pilot Press which this person had not experienced with their Kelsey, "a supposedly inferior press". The subject of Kelseys comes up now and then, and the "cheap" or "inferior" monicker pops up again and again.

My experience with the Kelsey presses has been wholly different. At the risk of sounding cliched, I made somewhat of a living between jobs using Kelsey Presses. I think I know something about them short of being some sort of expert. And the ensuing years have provided me something of a standard for comparison.

No, I am not an expert. I am on the curve. Guess what? So is everyone else, whether they admit it or not. But there are those who have been to the mountain top. Theirs is the world of Heidelberg Windmills, Little Giants, Vandercooks, Kluges, many spending over fifty years or more behind the feeders, delivery boards imposing stones and paper cutters. Some - not all, but a vocal few - tend to be rather opinionated, bordering on snobbery, about what a "quality" press is. Their Standards can be somewhat vague. And their comments can have negative results if not balanced by - let's call it a minority opinion.

I use as my 'personal standard' the output product. Does the press print well? Are the results acceptable? Consistent? Can you produce good products for a long duration? I also use some external dynamics. Is the machine dependable? Can you get parts as needed? Do you have to replace parts frequently?

Notice I did not include speed. That's a no brainer. But then, this only puts me in the camp with Ben Franklin, Kristoff Sauer, Albrecht Duerer, Bewick, and Gutenberg himself! Not a bad lot, I'd say.

I find the average Kelsey Front Lever Press stands up well in each category.

So, what do Kelsey Presses NOT do well?

Kelsey's literature was obviously trying to sell presses, so you won't get anything but glowing reports from them. However, they also published photos of samples of work each press was able to do for short run. These are "short run" presses. They were not meant to do 10,000 impressions at a time, day in, day out. But you know? Neither were Pilots and the early Pearl OS Models 1 and 3! their castings show it. None of these "Parlour Presses" were designed for heavy runs. By the way, neither were Vandercooks, yet they are "pressed" into high production service every day!!

Kelsey printed some parts of their catalogues and manuals on a 5x8! Many folks missed that. I have catalogue inserts printed specifically to compare with the rest of the catalogue that was printed, reportedly, on a Heidelberg Windmill! It was an effective way to prove a point!

Kelsey presses could be found in Churches, Executive mail rooms, even larger printing firms. One large production firm used them to save about 500 bucks per run with short orders and printing their own billheads. Kelsey was pretty smart to print letters of professional testimonial. Many were written by industry veterans then engaged in their trade. The simplicity of operation may have been somewhat overstated - I chock that up to enthusiasm on the part of many who wrote Kelsey. And I disagree with Kelsey's claim that anyone can learn the basics of the trade sufficiently to produce an acceptable product within 24 hours. ( they were quick to point out that they did not mean you could learn everything in 24 hours - or 24 days!) - but that's marketing for you.

Cutting through the propaganda, one is left with the Kelsey Excelsior Press. The essence of bare essentials. The "Deux Chaveux" of Presses. Each press comes in three separate parts that separate one from the other for various reasons: the Ink Disk, naturally. The type bed- something not common and very, very handy. The Mainframe. Of course you can further break down the Excelsior by removing the platen from the back, and complete dis-assembly, but the above three sections were specifically designed for frequent removal.

Kelsey used roll stock, which actually amounts to very thick wire for some of their parts, as opposed to bar stock for some of the hardware. This draws fire from critics. But it must be observed that many popular classics that do NOT draw fire utilise the same cost cutting measures. For instance, roller hooks. Very primitive by C&P standards. Golding used the same exact system for their OS Pearls. Roll stock for the gripper bars - again a replication from the Pearl. The gripper bars themselves are simple steel straps, rolled at the base and threaded to receive a screw. The Pearl uses a slide cam guide and retention spring to guide gripper bar motion, the Kelsey used a sliding feed wire that protrudes beneath the handle casting. One is no better - or higher quality than the other. Kelsy rollers and their trucks were not keyed. Some think this to be a mark of inferiority. I know more than one Pilot user that wishes their rollers were NOT keyed too! The extra rotation provided by momentum - just a few millimetres - helps to fully charge the rollers with a smallish ink disk. Personally, I find precious little difference in the final product both in behaviour of the press OR the printed product. ( note: the Kelsey press need slower, more deliberate roller speeds to avoid skidding over the forme, one disadvantage of not having keyed trucks and cores - but then Kelsey operators are not in a race!)

The front lever Excelsior or side lever Victor both require the development of a "touch", a sense of feel of the pressure developed between platen and forme. This is easily developed. The platen is probably the easiest of all such presses to adjust and level. And the principles learned on the Kelsey is portable to all platen presses, really. The skills and touches I learned on my Kelseys help me tremendously on my motorised slick and fancy NS C&P and my classic Pearl. The things I learned such as registration techniques, dealing with high and low spots, backing a forme, etc., helped me on multicolour runs with the 12x18 Kluge. I was not fumbling in the dark adjusting for registry, for instance, or putting together tricky makeready for combination type and cut formes. These were learned in detail on my 5x8, 3x5 and 9x13 Excelsiors.

Another thing that draws fire from critics is the casting quality. This is purely subjective and based entirely upon a person's experience and perceptions. I find the castings extremely robust. I have sheared one casting on my 9x13 - by closing the platen on an iron rod that had fallen between the bed and platen and stupid me just wasn't looking! Was the bed or platen damaged? No. Was were any stress bearing castings compromised? No. The cast eyelet for the gripper bar rod feed-thru broke. It was glued back on with JB Weld 18 years ago, and is still holding!

We also busted a casting on the Kluge at Mama's Sauce. Bad enough to render the ink fountain inoperable, so now we hand ink the disk. The mere speed of the ink roller somehow exerted pressure on the right hand advance gear and it literally flew against the wall! So, how should I now rate Kluge castings? Catch my drift? Kluge is also a derned nice press.

Ok, enough pontificating and on with the show and tell.

What I wish to illustrate here is NOT my artistic abilities, but rather the ability of Kelsey Excelsior presses to create fine, articulate work with consistency and dependability. I want Kelsey owners to understand that they posses a fine instrument capable of excellent work, and worth every dime of investment you put into them. They stood between me and the food stamp line for a year. I have nothing to gain personally by promoting them - and really, I don't consider myself promoting them as much as defending them. Jeesh, it's getting mushy in here.

Here we go. Story Time!

A long time a go there lived an out of work Optician who really was glad not to be Opticianing anymore. He longed for his early days when he used his hands for a living.His eyes fell upon an ad. Printing presses for sale. Two Kelseys and a cabinet of type. One photo cutter. Cheap. So, this out-of-work Optician purchased the whole outfit for 250 dollars and began doing something he hadn't done since 1974: set type, cut linoleum, and print.

Our hero began to ask folks if they'd like business cards. He showed them his own. "Wow", they said. "How did you get the letters to stand out like that?"

The out of work Optician thought "Hmm . . . they don't stand out - they sorta press inward."

"Oh, gosh. These are hand printed on some old Iron Handpresses!" said the Optician. And folks suddenly began to pay him 80 dollars for cards they could have spent 10 dollars on at the local Kinkos.

Soon, the nice guys from the American Amateur Press Association caught wind of what the Out of Work Optician was doing and began to help him out by getting him a nice Rouse Composition Stick and a pica stick. And a larger photo cutter. Eventually Mr. Bill of Dunedin gave the Optician a big 9x13 Kelsey Excelsior, cast in 1903, because it hurt his back to pump it..

The AAPA folks introduced the Out of Work Optician to Southern Engravers, who started to take pictures of the Out of Work Optician's pen and ink work and make zinc and magnesium dies from them.

Soon the Out of Work Optician and his sweet Wife joined American Craft Endeavours and came up with the name "Heirloom Press". And the Optician began to make Holiday cards, custom shopping bags for the Antique Dealers of Main Street, Dunedin, and business cards for the Antique Emporiums of Palm Harbor Fl. and the Flea Marketeers at Boot Ranch. Heirloom Press became the only commercial letterpress operation on Alternate 19, Pinellas County Florida.

Soon, the Out of Work Optician began to show at different shows locally, and sold everything he printed, with orders for more. People didn't know about Lettra Paper and deep dish debossing then, they just liked his work and the pretty colours. Black. Red. And sometimes, Blue. And more black. The Out of work Optican was pleased, and finally happy at his work, something that he had not enjoyed in 18 years as an Optician, which was one reason why he was Out of Work.

I would like to say that Heirloom Press lived happily ever after. But it didn't. All good things must come to an end. Bad things too. Living expenses were mounting faster than the Press was generating income because of the show frequency and elevating prices. The Out of Work Optician began to realise that he needed to float a loan to see Heirloom Press through long enough to build up a cash reserve to negotiate for a longer billing cycle. The bank wanted to see a full time job, so the Out of Work Optician, sadly. became a Working Optician, donned his chain mail and armour, and charged off into the violent world of Retail Optics, possibly never to return again.

One day during a lull in the Battle, the Optican happened upon a little Settlement. He noticed that they had a broken press and no printer. He inquired if they would like to have Heirloom Press, still in Palm Harbour? "Yes", they said, "And can we have YOU too?"

The kindly Optician took off his helmet and smiled. "Yes."

And to this day, the Optician still works the Press at the Settlement. And now, we hear, he is starting up his own press again. Has he left the violent world of Retail Optics? Is he Out of Work and Happy once again?

The End.

Here is my old Logo. Happy times in Palm Harbor!. Nice presses. Good people. Great rotisserie chicken (Ya Ya's Chicken!).

This was one of my Christmas Cards from "Christmas Under the Oaks", a show that was regularly held on the campus of St. Petersburg Community College. These samples were actually part of the "rejects" that I held on to for other uses. I sold all my exemplary copies. The centre design was hand tinted with Berol Prismacolour. I'll see if I have one left somewhere. I came across a few of these recently.

Here are some detail shots. The original artwork was fine stipple rendered from an 001 Rapidograph. The Kelsey 5x8 and 9x13 did an incredible job with inking the forme and delivering the ink to the rather hard card stock. No plugs anywhere. These dots are extremely fine. I would be hard pressed to do an equal job with any other letterpress.

More detail. The outside shell is green, the design inspired from the US Regular Postal issues of 1920 - 30. The "Cabin in the Woods" design inspired from a 1920's era Christmas Seal.

More closeup detail. I ran several hundred of these cards and sold them for a dollar apiece, not too shabby for home-made cards in 1992. Letterpress had not begun to "revive" and I had to do a lot of explaining what Heirloom Press was all about! But the difference between my work and the commercial counterparts were quickly observed in almost every case. No talk of deep deboss then, it was the design and fully saturated colours that attracted folks to my Letterpress!

Here is another design in the same shell. Note the centred registry! Registry, once set, was rock solid on all my Kelseys!

Here's the inside verse of the card you just saw above. Yes, I wrote it. The poem is called "The Greatest Gift". It's the truest thing I ever wrote.

Close up of the Monotype cap. This came from Bill Reiss at Quaker City. I just want to show the detail: again, perfect articulation. Every dot, every line, perfect. Excellent coverage. Paper was, I believe, Hammermill grey stock with darker fibres scattered throughout. I have long forgotten the name of the stock.

This is the verse inside the first card with the Cabin. Border font again from Quaker City. Verse is a traditional toast raised at Chownings Tavern, Williamsburg, back in the 1760's, when I was apprenticing.

This is a three colour prop card that was intended to be a QSL. Inspired after a French postage stamp from around 1900. This was a proof used to set the registry of the red and blue dies. So when you see the close-ups, know that's the reason why registry was off. I sold each and every copy. All I have are the registry proofs and the original acetate layered artwork. The black was the key, blue is the border, red are the roses . . . of course.

Detail of the face. It's my wife. And she drew the lips and chin. Again, the original artwork is stipple, my illustration media of choice, all using 01 and 001 Rapidograph.

Detail. The red is off, but once it fell into registry, it stayed there!

Detail. Note the blue border encroaching on the black. I could have trapped it by running the blue first, but I wanted registry. This same image was part of the registry setup for the blue as well as the red.

Detail. Note good registry of the blue and black. We were almost there on that run when this card was printed. The red is getting close, too! The pins were tilted a bit.

This was a little 2 x 1.5" Plexicut run on the 3x5. Plexiglass is actually engraved by large gravers made from key stock. The product looks very similar to a woodcut. Like wood engraving, you work white on black. But the cuts are deeper and wider.

A close-up. A square rigged Barkentine. Plexiglass mounted on end grain Maple, cut about one-eighth under type high. Kelseys are perfect for this sort of printing.

This is another Plexicut run on my 5x8 Excelsior.

A close-up of the detail around the footbridge. I recut this in Linoleum because the adhesive used to mount the plexiglass to the larger backing made raised spots that were a pain. The Linocut and detail is shown below.

This cut actually carved a niche for me in the Bay Area Art community. It was probably the only thing that I ever did that really made money, not that money was the object. It was a large Christmas Card. I grew up in Bavaria, and was influenced by the woodcuts of the 16th century. You may see some influence here. Two versions exist: one with hand tinted sky like this one, and one tinted by a blue registry linoblock. I prefer the hand tints, personally.

Bridge detail.

The perspective is distorted by the camera. I had to angle the print to avoid a lot of reflection. The paper is hard with a polished surface, but not glossy. I also printed these on handmade paper designed for woodcuts and linocuts. Those are all sold. My mom has one framed in her study. Yeah. Mommy.

I actually lived near a town similar to this picture. I think Garmisch Partenkirche was in my mind when I laid this block out.

Well, that's it. Show and tell and a little bed-time story. Hope you enjoyed it, but more than that: that if you are the proud possessor of a Kelsey Press, you can know you have a quality device that can stand toe to toe with the best of them if you learn how to use them correctly, and within their design limits - which I find not too limiting!!

Good Providence in all your endeavours!



  1. Gary -

    Thanks for such a great post! I've been lurking on the letpress list for a couple of months, as I get up to speed on the Kelsey 5x8 I picked up at an estate sale for cheap. I've been a little chagrined at the disdain that the Kelsey's seemed to be held in, so I was interested to read your post. Because of limited space to devote to printing, a tabletop press makes the most sense for me. My plan is to really learn the Kelsey, so I can get the best results possible from it!


  2. Thanks Gary for the insight. I enjoy your posts.

  3. Gary --

    That's some beautiful work. I own a Kelsey Excelsior 5x8 and love it. I'll try and post some pictures of the work I've done on it. Nothing as beautiful as this, but still pretty good. My clients have been happy anyway.


  4. I stumbled into your blog on my quest to find a really cheap (or free) Kelsey Press to be used in the High School classes that I teach. I'm looking to do some simple die cutting and this should work perfectly. Anyway, I noticed in your text a reference to the Kelsey Catalog being printed on a Windmill. As it happens, I worked for Kelsey in Meriden, CT in the early 80's when they still manufactured presses, rollers and packaged foundry type for sale. My recollection is that the catalog was printed on a Miehle Vertical- the type forms all set by hand and re-used year after year with changes. I loved this place and my only regret is not having purchased a few presses for later use.

  5. Gary -

    This is great. I'm very glad that you made the time to write this up. As one of those guys who have spent many years behind the feed, watching my Heidelberg Windmill do the printing - yet still prints his own business cards on a 5x7 Pearl - and helps folks with little Kelseys & Pilots nearly every day, I applaude your message.

    But one correction: as Dave notes above, Kelsey used a Miehle Vertical, not a Windmill to do their in-house printing.

    I got my first Kelsey - a 3x5 Excelsior - when I was 12. I put it on the shelf when I got my first 8x12 C&P two years later - when I was 14, and have collected and used quite a few presses since then.

    These days, my favorites are the Pearl (it's fun to use), a 10x15 C&P for most hand-fed runs, a 10x15 Windmill for longer runs, a Vandercook Model 4 for too many reasons to list.

    But, since I named my shop for that first 3x5 Excelsior, (in 1962) then created a web site about my print shop (in 1997), the world has deluged me with questions about the Kelseys and requests for help with them, so these days, I spend just about as much time dealing with Kelsey issues as anything else.

    Please come visit. I'll be adding a link to this page in a few minutes...
    from: and

    Thanks, Gary. Keep up the good work!

    - Alan Runfeldt

  6. Corrections noted! Since the writing of this post, I've managed to add a 6x10 Kelsey to the collection at the Florida Pioneer Settlement. Man, I think that press is actually a bit more heavy duty than the larger 9x13 as far as hardware goes, and very possibly stouter than my Pearl OS Mod. 3! It uses saddles instead of the normal hooks. I am wondering if, after Kelsey took over the Cook Victor side lever, either it influenced the 6x10 design or vice versa! The 6x10 front lever seems to be different from the rest of the front lever designs in these details.

  7. I have a 6x10 Kelsey Excelsior Mercury press, and I am looking for the chase for it. Any ideas where I might find one?


  8. Thank you for this post.

    My husband and I recently bought a Kelsey 5x8 - one that had been unused/in mint condition? - from eBay, and, starting from scratch, we're just getting into the big wide world of printing. I'm still trying to figure out all we need to make the press go, but information-collecting is a process, I suppose (the press we bought is just the press, with rollers that presumably need to be replaced and a scanned copy of the original manual that came with it).

    I came to your blog from Alan Runfeldt's website, and was quickly rewarded by your post. Shortly after our press arrived, I became a little skeptical about its quality given its apparently small size and very low-tech methods compared to what I was finding about presses on Youtube. I had immediately loved the press ever since it arrived at our door, but compared to the other things I was seeing and reading about, I was afraid it wouldn't turn out to be too great, and that maybe our seemingly costly investment was a gyp.

    Your post has helped give me some honest perspective and reassured me that my fond instincts for the machine were correct. I don't intend to run huge amounts of print for people - I want to print a just-right amount of business cards and greeting/holiday cards with a machine that can make it look personal, professional, and beautiful in the integrity of its production. I'm the kind of person who makes and gives away handmade artwork and cards anyway, but I've always longed for something that could make it look better than either my own handwriting or something shot out of a computer printer.

    Your beautiful artwork, printed on Kelseys, have proven that these goals are very possible, and this is one of the websites that have encouraged my excitement about our clunky-but-cute little press. Thank you again for defending the Kelseys; I'm looking eagerly forward to the day when we have all the parts and know-how to make ours go!


  9. Lalita, sorry for taking so long to post this. The Kelsey is certainly a capable press, the secret is in taking your time, and learning the personality of your press. NA Graphics or Tarheel Rollers can help supply rollers. The 'great equalizer' of all platen presses lie in the three things that they all have in common: a level surface (type bed), a level platen, and a means of conveying an even, level charge of ink to the surface. Everything else is basically adjusting these three components. Now, what makes the Kluge different from the Kelsey, apart from the obvious size and heaviness....Kluge has four rollers. Kluge has finer adjustments, nuts that lock down positively, and conveniences that aid in production speed. It has a self aligning side gauge. But the Kluge and the Kelsey can do the exact same business card or thank you card, and they will look identical. I would not deboss 220 Lettra on a 5x8 Kelsey, I do it almost every day on a Kluge. BTW, I would not do it on a Heidelberg Windmill either!! So.....all this to say: Your Kelsey is certainly a capable machine. It has its limits. So does every press, large to small, that I have, or have ever - possessed.

  10. Captivating....these prints inspires me a lot...