book arts


the golden fish press

It was 1992; we had been running our workshops in the grounds of Downside Abbey in Somerset England for about 8 years. We had established a thriving bindery and had been marbling our own marbled papers and book edges for a couple of years.

I had naturally been very interested in letterpress printing for as long as I had been a bookbinder, but had never felt the urge to get seriously involved in it. However events were going to converge that made it almost inevitable we form our own letterpress printing press, after a litttle thought we decided on a name for our press, we would call it The Golden Fish Press.

the golden fish press

Firstly, having had access to the monastery library I had more than ample examples of early letterpress printing onto vellum, which became my chief interest. Margaret, my wife was a skilled bookbinder she was a great help she also was quite keen to set a press.

Secondly we had picked up some letterpress equipment in the form of a very nice Western cylinder proofing press from a college of printing, it was a really nice machine from the 1950's and it came with new rollers having been fitted. We told the Abbot that we would had decided on a name for our press, it was to be called the Golden Fish Press, he approved of the name, so we were quite content.

Third I became aware of someone who wanted to be rid of more letterpress equipment, a Ludlow typecaster, complete in every way and with a great many desirable type faces.

And lastly I knew the Abbot of the abbey had a great interest in letterpress printing, he was very enthusistic about our setting up a private press.

the golden fish press

We had to move quickly as the person who wanted to be rid of the typecaster badly needed the floor space, he ran a litho press.

The abbot of the community was a very aristocratic soul; he had an unapproachable air, though in truth he was very friendly and kind. I asked him If I might see him about setting up a private press. I explained to him that we had a press and now the once in a life times opportunity to obtain a letterpress typecaster, I also told him that it was pre-reformation printing techniques that I wanted to explore.

the golden fish press

I just knew he would be interested, but, I told him, the problem was that we had no space for a press and could not afford to rent any.

His eyes went like those of a dead fish, trying to get rent free space out of a catholic abbot is very much like getting blood out of the proverbial stone.

He said he was sorry but the abbey had no space available on a free rent, this was a blow, I felt sure he would want to see a press formed.

the golden fish press

A couple of days later the abbot approached me in our workshop and asked if I would accompany him, he took us around the back of a lot of dilapidated buildings and finally up some concrete steps which led to a very wobbly looking wooden door.

He went inside and turned on the light bulb that hung from the center of the room, just a bare room with rough plastered walls and no ceiling, he looked at me and almost whispered, "I can let you have this room as free space".

Now who says miracles don't happen! I built a partition and put an insulated ceiling in, a small space which would house the letterpress and which could be kept warm if need be.

the golden fish press

The typecaster and all the other letterpress equipment plus type cabinets went into the unheated part of the room.

It was all done very quickly, and by the time spring 1994 came around we had been operating the press and typecaster, getting to know the sort of problems we would be facing.

We were lucky to be friends with some of the



community at Stanbrook Abbey who helped us to broaden our letterpress vellumletterpress printing education.

For a while we just practiced, we used the type caster for producing titles of books to be blocked in gilt.

Our situation in the grounds of an abbey church meant we had some visitors with matrimony on their minds, we got asked if we could print orders of service, this became quite routine work for the press, sometimes made more interesting by the incorporation of hand rubricated initials into the text.

I contacted Henk De Groot in Holland and explained I wanted to print onto vellum; Henk produces an exceptional range of vellums. He sent me 3 skins of calf vellum.


letterpress vellum proofsI had been making my own ink for some time. Now I swear this is true, you can put a piece of modern black printing up against a hand ground ink made from lamp black and you will see right away just how grey the modern black has become.


I made ink by collecting lamp black and grinding it with linseed oil on a thick glass plate, my one concession to modern methods being the use of a drying agent. I used Hostmann Steinberg Quick Drier Paste.

We continued to print bespoke orders of service, helped on occasion by the late Margaret Adams, sometimes printing a one off copy on vellum as a keepsake.

We also printed any text onto vellum for framing and presentation.

We ran the press for nearly 11 years and in 1998 won an award for its broadsheet printing.





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