• Our story
October 17, 2023

TH Pullan & Sons Proofing Press rescue

Finding the press

Some time ago, we were contacted about an old etching press that was about to be sent to scrap. It had been in use for many years at the Epsom Teacher’s College in Auckland, New Zealand but had since been moved around and left out in the elements as a piece of “visual art”. Not really knowing if we could use it, we decided to at least grab it before it was smashed up.

Upon picking it up, the press appeared to be is fairly good condition, but it was clearly a proofing press and not a typical etching press. The makers plate only had inscribed on it T.H. Pullan & Sons, Engineers, Glasgow. There was no other information anywhere on it, and searching for its likeness returned no results. We called it the Glasgow Press for lack of anything better, and we now call it the Pullan.

What have we got here?

We brought it to our studio where it sat for the next couple of years, awaiting attention. Once we started having a closer look at it, the years of neglect and abuse started to become more obvious. Much of the press was coated in rust, it was so thick with dirt, dried oils, blobs of spilled ink, and caked with dust, that moving the truck could only be achieved with some effort, and there was no way to create a clear impression. We also had to rethink what this thing was that we had obtained, there was nothing similar to it and our most knowledgeable friends at TATATM had not seen anything like it before.

When the restoration began, we started by cleaning the muck off with a mix of kerosene and turpentine. This was to loosen and dissolve years of accumulated oils from skin cells, inks, and anything else that had accumulated. Unexpectedly, the process also started dissolving black paint! It was then that we realised that the whole thing had been liberally doused in layers of thick black acrylic enamel paint. Oh no!

Now let’s show this puppy some love

At this point we decided to not strip the whole thing down and try to do a nut and bolt restoration. Mainly because there is no manual about it, and many of the machine parts and screws appear hand made and are unique. So to take them apart may change its geometry and that may never be re-established. So instead, we have opted to pay attention to the working parts and stabilise those other parts as required. The upside is that nothing is broken or cracked.

Stripping off the paint was a manual process of soaking with the kero-turps mix, then gently scraping with paint scrapers and flat edged putty knives. As the layers came off, it started to become obvious that in its original state, most of this press had not been painted at all, and the quality of the iron was exceptional. A true credit to the craftsmanship of 19th century Scottish (Glaswegian) engineers. Even after over a century, the machining of the toothed tracks was perfect and the alignment almost exact (well not exact because poor use has meant that some aspects are not working well, yet). While there are some worn parts, in general the press is operational.

But the best was yet to come.

The emphasis up this point was get the truck working right, which entailed discovering all the oiling points, figuring out the cylinder height adjust system, working out how to ensure the cylinder applies even pressure and derusting everything as we went. Then almost by accident, we discovered that the paint abuse was hiding what is probably the best secret. The whole bed, which looked like a patchwork of lumps and dips, had been painted with the acrylic enamel. In taking the paint off left us with a pristine bed of perfect iron! Using a laser level showed that it is not warped in any direction and that it is level across the surface.

To protect all this newly exposed iron from atmospheric moisture, we have coated the exposed parts that are not normally oiled with a wax finish. This allows for a micrometer thick layer that is impervious to oils and water, and is not paint. The wax is buffed, which allows for easy movement of chases across its surface.

Some things are unusual on this press

The work of restoration did not stop at stripping paint.

The first obvious various from other flat bed presses is the truck that moves across the bed, rather than a bed that is pushed under a fixed roller. Also, the cylinder is rubber coated and not steel, meaning that impressions probably should be made without the felted blanket usually used on hand printer etching presses. And, the type high is extraordinary, at 27mm.

We also found a number on the press that we believe to be the production or serial number, 178. So there may have been at least another 177 of these somewhere in the world.

We think that this proofing press may have been built for a specific application, but don’t know what printing press it was made to proof against.

Coming up next

Read about the testing of the Pullan proofing press here