The Windmill in My Garage

There is something special about the printing method that is letterpress. Brief affairs between the very real metal type and beautiful uncoated stock produce children of tangibility, each slightly different, but always of the same family. A thinly veiled process that gives any piece of design extra warmth and comfort, metal type was the norm from Gutenberg through to only a few decades past. Through a stroke of good luck I’ve managed to get a 1930s designed Heidelberg into my garage.

Friday

Oh, by the way, you’re getting your press tomorrow. This simple email from my wife was by far one of the best I’ve ever received. I now knew for certain that the following day I would have a large track backing into the drive way, to deliver something I’d fallen in love with; a piece of engineered beauty—a Heidelberg Flywheel Platen Press.

Naturally, I was so excited that I shared this little piece of information with the whole studio and spent the rest of the afternoon thinking of what my plans were for my new toy, while working through changes to jobs and anxiously drinking copious amounts of coffee and water, waiting for the day to come to its end.

How it Happened

I didn’t go looking for this press. I wasn’t looking for any type of press really. The 2 tonne machine just fell into my lap. I married into a family of printers. My wife and her family run a printing business—something that made introductions easier. To make a long story short, in the pursuit of expanding their business, they’ve recently bought out another printing business and effectively doubled their list of equipment. In their list of machinery was now two of these presses, when they only need one (mostly for die cutting and numbering), so instead of it taking up space in their shed, we gave it a home in the garage.

The Heidelberg “Windmill” Platen Press

The moniker Windmill comes from the way the paper-gripper rotates when moving paper through the press. Two arms rotate as they pick up a sheet of paper on the left, drop it in the middle to be impressed by the inked type, to be picked up again and dropped off on the right.

Heidelberg built around 250,000 of these machines over a 30-odd year span, ending in the 70s. Going by a serial number on the front of the press, this was was manufactured towards the end of the run, in 1967. Unlike most mechanical things you buy, a Heidelberg press isn’t one you need to worry about. As long as they are kept well oiled and fairly clean they’ll keep on going, making impression after impression.

Saturday

Saturday morning rolls around and I’m reminded that my wife’s father, the truck/crane and the press will be arriving sometime soon. We clean up the garage, have some breakfast, move the car and wait while watching some awful Saturday morning television.

Around 11, things start to happen. We get a phone call to let us know they are on their way. Not long after this, a truck wider than our house shows up and the fun starts. Doug (the truck & crane guy) steps out of his truck and introductions and pleasantries are exchanged. A few moments later, he hops back into his truck and backs it into our driveway, right up to within a couple of meters of our garage.

A few moments later and the press is unchained and floating through the air—I don’t know why, but 2 tonnes of flying metal is a rather intimidating sight. Ten minutes after it initially goes airborne off the back of the truck, it finds its feet back on the ground. Now the tricky bit – getting it into the garage.

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The press arriving on the back of the rather large truck

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At this point I realised the press was a little dirtier than I remembered,
but looked to be in great condition

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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s 2 tonnes of
German-engineered printing brilliance!

Into the Garage

We had two problems – the crane was too tall for our garage door, and we have a slight lip, or step up, into our garage. Nothing devastating really, only a few inches, but something that was going to make things a little tricky. Doug the driver raised the press a few inches again and backed the whole truck up a few more feet, getting with intense inches of going straight through the top of the garage door.

We put some steel pipes down and Doug lowered the press. The hook of the crane was removed and the moment I had been wondering (read that as “worrying”) about all morning had arrived. While I trust my father in law, his assurance of “we’ll just roll it in” had me a little nervous. The idea of just rolling it in seemed a little too easy. This thing can hit full-colour registration—it’s too delicate to just be rolled around on impromptu rails! Ok, so I was thinking a little too preciously … turns out, all we had to was “roll it in”.

 

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Getting the pipes into position

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In this one, you can see how the crane was already as tall
as the garage door and if it wasn’t for some careful maneuvering,
could have ended badly

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Looking at it now, it’s rather hard to believe that this tiny loop
was all that was holding up the press in mid-air

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Back up into the air …

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… and back down to Earth, ready to be pushed forward

With two pipes under the press, it was easily pushed up to the garage door and the infernal lip. Because of the garage being about two inches higher than the driveway, a slightly smaller pipe was place onto the drip dray, with the hope of just being able to roll it straight onto the new, smaller, roller. Turns out it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Rocking the whole press back and forth on the axis of one of the first pipes, while pushing it forward, we managed to get it partly into the garage and up onto the roller on the drip tray.

Now that it was on the drip-tray, it was easily rolled into position. It was then rocked forwards so the front roller could be removed – no problem here at all. With the front of the press in place, the front was lifted with a (very large) metal stake and the front pipe removed. With a rather loud THUD, the stake was removed and the press fell into place. So much for my allusions of a delicate piece of machinery. The steal loop that the cranes hook clipped into is unbolted and removed and the press is welcomed to its new home.

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You can see the little barrier that protects the garage from rain running in, which caused a little bit of concern for a moment

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After a little rocking back and forth, we got it over the lip and onto the drip tray, which was then put up onto the pipe half out of the shot

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We wanted to get the press right up to the front of the drip-tray, as it can be a royal pain to always kick it when you lean over the front of the press

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With one roller out of the way, the stake was put under the press to raise it,
to remove the other second pipe

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Press half-sitting in its new home

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Nicely in place!

Tags

One thing I really want to mention are the tags, which are all over the press. There are little notes and reminders found everywhere. From instructions such as “Pull to stop suction” to stop the vacuum that picks up the paper being lifted to be grabbed by the Windmill, to reminders like “Remove and clean paper dust filters regularly” and “Let air escape when pressure is too high,” there is just something about the humanness of this press that I love.

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Plans

The press has a couple of hills for me to get over. It needs to be cleaned—really cleaned. While presses aren’t meant to be the epitome of cleanliness, this one is downright rotten. It also needs a different motor as the current one is 3-phase, when our only options is 2 phase (Not that I fully understand it all, something about 3 being being like 2 phase, but with plus-one ka-pow). A couple of the rollers are a little rusty, so a little TLC with some super-fine sand paper is needed before it spreads. And the biggest hurdle? I need to learn to tame the beast. This one I’m not too worried about, as between my family, the previous press man who ran it and the immense wealth and passion that is scattered across the web, I’m sure it’ll be nothing but an enjoyable experience.

Some of my more grandiose plans:

  • Buy at least four sets of fonts
  • Build California Type Cases for all fonts I end up with
  • Buy some wood type
  • Print a small book of lyrics (I’m thinking Led Zeppelin) to help me learn how to use the press
  • Make a digital font analogue. So many of our beloved fonts started out as metal—I’d love to take a beautiful font that has never been physical, and cut it by hand. Stay tuned for a while to see this one happen.
  • Write a series of articles related to letterpress, from cleaning this press, how it works and how far it can be pushed into craft and artistic realms through to Linotype, other letterpresses and the current revival of this craft.

Linotype

Luckily my wife and her family discovered something that I wasn’t told about till the press arrived. The print business they purchased use to have a Linotype machine, which we knew about through discussions with the previous owners, as well as finding a (parts) manual for it. I looked all over, but couldn’t find any old sticks of type. Turns out it was because it was found and hidden from me, before I got there, to be handed over as a surprise at some point down the road. Much to my glee, it’s now sitting in our garage, next to the press. It’s nothing overly interesting content wise as it appears to be things like bus timetables and membership forms. Not super-exciting, but perfect to use while learning and writing a couple of the above mentioned articles.

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I’ve been noticing such a love for these types of machines and this technology lately, that I thought some people might find this story interesting. I’m planing on taking you on the journey of discovery this machine will take us, so that we can learn about this great piece of typographic and print history together. Over the next month or so I plan on getting the machine as clean as I can, while learning how it operates as well as scouring the internet for some fonts and knowledge.

REFERENCES & LINKS

Boxcar Press A great press shop in New York that has a great site you can get lost in easily. Including a nice little page (and a good shot) of the Heidelberg Windmill. The best find on the site? A scan of the manual which is proving to be invaluable.

Creative Curio
Lauren Marie of Creative Curio has been doing up her own press lately and has done a great job of documenting it.

Brooklyn Bookbinder
Some stunning work can be found here, as well as a great blog by Maggie Campbell, who has recently gone freelance and is sure to go very far.

Don Black Linecasting
A great video and discussion about the Heidelberg Windmill Platen, which shows the machine in action and gives a nice background on it. Red balls, black balls, it’s all beautiful!

Briar Press
A community for those who love letterpress in all its forms.

British Letterpress
Good site with a fair bit of knowledge.

26 Brilliantly Fantastic Responses

    LaurenMarie - Creative Curio

    Alex, that was such a fun adventure! You tell such great narratives. I love reading your articles! And your intro was very poetic (I know I’ve said that before). You took some amazing pictures. Have you uploaded them to Flickr?

    Interesting that you noticed all the little notes on the press. I love that arrow! (“Turn flywheel in direction of arrow only”) How stylish! You wouldn’t find something like that on a machine these days. There is just something so enchanting about a letterpress and the work created on them. How exciting for you! You have to post shots of your first project!

    I’ve seen a few people say the Heidelbergs are used for die cutting. What exactly does that mean? “Die” has two meanings to me (besides “death”): die cutting to get paper to have a shape other than square and a custom die for the letterpress is a custom image plate. Can you explain which it is and how/why the Heidelberg is good for that?

    Thank you for sharing this Alex. I enjoyed it very much!

    Alex Charchar

    Hey Lauren, thanks for the kind words yet again. Even having said it before, it still makes me feel better about this whole writing thing — it’s very encouraging!

    The notes are just fantastic. Every time I clean the press I find a new one. This morning I found one that was so caked over and hidden by ink and grease I would have put money down that it wasn’t there!

    As for the die-cutting — basically cutting to get a different shape (as you said) and also to do some kiss-cutting, which is where you can adjust the pressure so if you’re cutting stickers it’ll only cut the top layer and not going right through.

    Why this press is good for it is probably something I couldn’t answer fully just yet, except to say that the amount of control you have over the pressure is quite precise and I think it’s also a speed thing. It has a max speed of 4000, which I’m assuming means 4000 sheets an hour, which is an awful lot of stickers, heh.

    Another assumption I’ll make is that it can apply even pressure over the entire plate, so you can have a nice even cut all over the sheet. Ie. when cutting stickers, the ones at the top aren’t cut straight through and the ones at the bottom hardly cut at all – they’re all cut evenly.

    Helder Guimaraes

    My father uses one just like yours for many years now. It is used mainly to number documents and for die cutting.

    Is is good for die cutting because of the pressure it can make to cut the paper. You just put the die cutter where you usually put the metal type, remove the ink rollers and you’re ready to go. it is a sturdy, very reliable machine.

    With the proper, but very small maintenance, these machines run flawlessly for many years.

    Almost all small printers I know of over here (Portugal) have one of this.

    As for the tags, my father’s as them too but in portuguese. They put them on the machines translated into the language of the country they would go to.

    Ric Johnson

    Nice site. I never got to making one for my C&P 12X18. When I moved, I got the flatbed truck guy to push it into my pole barn with an array of 4×4′s.

    Alex Charchar

    Helder
    I’m hoping your right about the machine being able to run flawlessly for years with only a small amount of maintenance. I think time is on my side as I’m not going to be running the machine for more than a few hours a week, so hopefully I can give it a good oiling once a month and it’ll keep on running.

    It’s really interesting that they only made 250,000 (or so) of these machines, but they just seem to pop up everywhere!

    And I love the idea of the tags being in Portuguese, it’s a nice amount of effort on Heidelbergs part.

    LaurenMarie
    Yeah, scary is the word alright. But the amount of safety things that are part of the machine, I think you’d have to try pretty hard to hurt your self.

    Ric
    Do you use the Chandler & Price often? It’s such a beautiful machine that really puts the craft into the whole process, isn’t it?

    David Burney

    Wow. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a couple of years. I’ll be following your experience closely.

    Ric

    I don’t use the C&P as much as I like. I’ve done paying crash numbering, and some plate work for myself.

    I really want to get some large wood fonts and do handbills and boxing-type posters. I odn’t have the patience to set 11×17 sheets in 12 point lead type. :)

    There are 47 oil points on my press. If you oil all the points as often as the manual says. It’ll last forever. I’ve had to re-fab my left roller tractor as it was in a school and didn’t get oiled like it should have. Other than that, it’s 85 years of perfect.

    Ric

    Oh. And I got it on eBay 5 years ago for $13.50 It cost another $100 to get a friend help me get it from 150 miles away.

    Alex Charchar

    David
    I’m glad you’ve found an interest in this! I thought about it forever and it was just simply a case of being in the right place at the right time, so keep your eyes peeled and you might end up in the same situation!

    Ric – Yeah, I’d love to get some lard wood fonts too. I like the idea of running a sheet through the press a few times – the first getting hit by the wood type, then using 12 point metal for some body copy, could do some interesting things with it i think.. ultimately I like the idea of incorporating silkscreening too, heh, just to keep me thinking

    47 oil points, yikes! I’m not sure how many this one has yet, but there are quite a number of them, but as far as I can tell, only a few that need to be done often.

    And $13.50 aint too bad!

    Maggie Campbell

    Alex,

    Thanks for the great mention! Your site is gorgeous, and I haven’t made my way through everything yet, but the writing is wonderful and – I have to say – I’m officially jealous of your press! (It may be that I’m jealous of your garage & extra space, too!)

    I love the “Pull trip to suction” photo – great shot, and amazing press.

    Thanks again…and I’ll keep tabs on you, too!

    Maggie

    Alex Charchar

    Hey Maggie, thanks for the kind words and for dropping by!

    Don’t be too jealous of the press, while the speed and pressure stuff is fantastic, once you ink it up, you need to run a whole heap of copies out to make it worth it! I actually envy your new press because of the small size and you can do small jobs without a heap of effort. I don’t think I’ll ever do more than a hundred copies of anything, so it might be overkill, but time will tell. I still love the machine

    And the Pull to trip suction photo is one of my favorites

    Richard Topel

    Your story of you windmill was very interesting. I have a windmill also (13×18) and it is my favorite press in the shop.
    I had to get this press from a 2nd story printshop, so getting the press out was a chore. I had to remove the feeder and delivery section of the press so it would fit down the steps. I pushed it to the edge of steps. Then I put a large strap around the press at the top of the steps, attached a cable that had to come through a window pane that I had removed from a wrecker truck that was parked in the alley. On the steps I had bolted 2×12 as a ramp so the press could slide on them. And now the moment of truth, push the press down the steps. Wow what a rush, will the strap hold? Will the old wooden steps hold up with the 2×12 bolted on them? Will the cable stay steady and not take out the rest of the windows? If something does go wrong how much damage will a 5500 lb. printing press do at the bottom of the steps? Well I wont find out until I give it a push, so here we go. The press tilted over and right on the 2x12s it went and little by little the wrecker truck operator let more cable out until it was safely on the ground at the bottom of the steps. Every thing worked perfectly. I rolled it out the door and another wrecker with a ramp loaded it up. This has been a wonderful press for the past 14 years. I use it for die cutting, numbering, perf. scoring and even print with it sometimes.
    One of the other presses in my shop is a Kluge and it came from a basement print shop from under the sidewalk , but that’s another story.

    Alex Charchar

    Woah! I don’t think I’d have the nerve to do that. Even though the machines are built to withstand a whole lot of abuse and still hit registration, I still treat it like a delicate piece of machinery!

    While we were moving stuff out of an old print shop (where my windmill use to live) we had to move an image setter that was monstrous in size. The most nerve-wracking moment was when it was lifted into the air and being held in place with fabric straps and swaying side to side. I kept running a scenario over in my head of it falling, crushing a few legs, sliding down the ramp it was at the top of and going through the wall/door.

    I’m glad to hear you’ve gotten 14 years out of your press, how many pieces of second-hand equipment last 14 years?

    Courtney Peters

    I’ve spent about 15 hours cleaning my windmill and I hate to say it but your’s is dirtier. Purple cleaner from the auto parts store and shop paper towels work great. Good Luck!

    Burnel Heglie

    Our shop has a 10″ X 15″ windmill.
    A great machine. We use it mostly for small die cutting, Scoring, perfing and numbering forms and tickets.
    I am 72 years old and operating this machine keeps me from wanting to retire.
    My hobby and I get paid for it.

    Alex Charchar

    Hi Courtney, I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your comment sooner, it slipped through the cracks!

    I’ve gotten my press to the point of it being clean enough, if you know what i mean? There isn’t any grit, dirt or grease in the major and important spots, so I can run it without too much trouble :/

    Burnel — I’ve spoken to some people and read many more say that the older generation of printing presses hold a printers heart because they’re more of a craft to operate than the modern, digital, presses. From what you said, I’d say they’re right ;)

    Jim Chase

    Alex,

    There are two round holes, visible in the pic titled “Press half-sitting in it’s new home” that were designed to raise and transport the notoriously top-heavy Heidelberg windmill.

    Your WINDMILL moving story had a happy ending, but I would not recommend moving the windmill more than a few inches without a pro rigger, and plenty of insurance. You got lucky, once. Half the time, they end up… End Up!

    I’m not a rigger, or an insurance agent. Just a pressman of 35 years that has seen too many of these girls dumped on their side – resulting in catastrophic damage – which is sad.

    I wish you (more) luck! And, many enjoyable impressions with your beautiful Red Handle T model!

    Alex Charchar

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the advice! The way we moved it seemed pretty stable, but I guess these things seem stable till their upside down in your drive way. It’s the same way my father in law moved his press (and has done so a few times) and, I thought, the way it was meant to be done as per the manual. But I’d take the word of a 35-year pressman over a vague thought I had, be it in a manual or not. Thanks again for the advice.

    Jonathan Parsons

    cool story, i have moved many of these heavy beasts, the windmill is guite a press, ran a couple of them for several years, a 10×15 and a 12×18. i have friends still usning them daily. i also have an old one from a shop i bought ount in ashland ky. i had a linotype which was build the last year they were built. its same as new, bought by a deaf blind school in wv and used to train deaf folks a trade. was used only a few years tilll the school closed, been in storage ever since. if you ever decide you want a linotype to sit beside your windmill, let me know. i also have a 50 font type cabinet with about 40 fonts of handset, and several fonts of wood type, some of it new. have fun with the windmill, and good luck on your search for a motor.
    jon

    Alex Charchar

    Hi Jonathan

    I had enough trouble moving one, so I commend your efforts in moving a few!

    I would love some metal type, but I’m on the other side of the globe in Australia and shipping would be a real killer! I’ve also been looking around locally for some metal type from time to time, but from what I hear, those who are willing to part with it already have and the rest are holding tightly onto what they’ve got.

    I ended up getting the motor in not too long after this story here, which you can check out http://www.retinart.net/beautiful-things/thewindmillturneth

    chris

    just been reading about your windmill and need some much needed advice.
    I’ve just been given, yes GIVEN a windmill 10×15 red ball. All in working order but has missing rubber rollers and sludge basin which is not an issue.
    I was wondering what i should clean the 30+ years of oil build up on the machine off with.
    The trays and metal rollers were all rusted up but 6 house of cleaning and they are sparkling but the rest of the machine is filthy.
    Any advice??

    María Amalia Molina

    Hi Alex, great article, i read it some years after, better late than ever.
    Im a graphic designer from Argentina, some months ago i fell in love with this kind of printing… specially with the Windmill. I have no experience on printing (yet) just a few weeks in Spain at my friend`s letterpress studio, with a hand fed press, but im learning all i can watching videos, and reading, before buying my own press.
    The thing is im having a hard time deciding on what kind of press to buy, hand fed, or automatic, on either one of them i know im gonna have to be patient, and treat them with respect, and if possible learn from a printer.
    A lot of people tell me that starting with a small hand fed press is better for a begginer like me, but i know eventually im gonna end up buying the windmill anyway.
    Do you think its crazy to start with a windmill?
    Thanks!
    Amalia

    Jerry Friend

    Great website !!

    I might be picking up a windmill, I’m just trying to figure how to move it & the expense involved!!

    It’s been used for 99% die cutting… But it’s a one owner !!

    Your site has been very useful!!!

    Thanks very much…

    By the way did you make this website or is it a template ??

    It’s really cool!

    Sandra Rerrie

    Here I am again bothering you – so sorry.

    We (being my dad) have removed the old 3 phase from my Heidelberg and measured up. The shaft is 75mm long on 24mm diameter. We are finding it hard to locate a motor with 75mm shaft. 5omm seems to be the preference and just wondering if your very wise father-in-law knows if we can run with 5omm or if we must have the 75mm. Many thanks in advance for your help with this. Feeling quite desperate to see her run!!
    Warm Regards

    Sandra (and dad)

    Ken ( father of Sandra )

    Hi Alex,
    I know Sandra has just sent you an email re the replacement motor for her Windmill but I have just finished reading ” The Windmill Turneth ” and low and behold there is a picture of a brand new motor ready to go in your Windmill.Would it be possible for you to give me all the information off the specs plate on the motor and where your father-in-law purchased it from.I have a daughter who is very keen to see this Windmill running.

    regards Ken Welch

I would be so delighted if you were to contribute