History Comes Alive at the Library: Collins Library restores 135 year-old printing press.

The Iron Hand Press in Collins Library. The Press was made by Paul Shniedewend, Chicago-based print
and press entrepreneur.

In 2017, the Collins Library received a gift from the West Coast Paper Company of a unique iron Handpress.  The Press was part of the William O. Thorniley collection that was maintained by the Company for years.  The majority of the collection comprised of historic type and presses found a new home at Pacific Lutheran University, but Collins Library was lucky to receive the beautiful iron Handpress.  The collection originated with William O. Thorniley, who received a small printing press in 1909 at the age of 10, beginning his fascination with type. He traveled extensively for his job, constantly on the lookout for type. Over time, his collection grew — from discoveries in Alaska and New England, to pre-Civil War type he found in the Deep South and Gold Rush-era fonts obtained in California. As Thorniley aged, R.W. (Dick) Abrams, then-chairman of West Coast Paper, offered to buy the collection. Both men desired to keep the collection in the Seattle area. It now serves as an educational resource, honoring local graphic arts and book arts communities.

The Collins Handpress was restored by expert printer and engraver, Carl Montford of Seattle and local Tacoma artist Mark Hoppmann.  The restoration was supported by the Puget Sound Book Artists organization.  The Press was made sometime between 1880 and 1890 in Chicago and then shipped to the west coast and sold by the firm Russell Reed.  It was used as a proof press to test that a layout and design was correct before making a large print run.

Carl and Mark had to disassemble parts of the Press and clean them with steel wool then oil them, adjust the balance and secure the bolts! It took over 5 hours of working together to complete the first round of restoration and a few hours the next day. We are so grateful to them both.

Jane Carlin, Library Director at Collins, hopes the press will be integrated into a number of classes and will give students a sense of the labor involved in hand printing as well as sense of history.  As she states, “today, all we have to do is pull down a menu on our computers to select from hundreds of fonts and then hit the print button to get a copy.  But hundreds of years ago, printing required a great deal more effort.  It is our hope that students will gain a deeper understanding of the history of the printed word as well as creative and artistic practices involved in hand printing.”  In addition, the press can be used to creative unique original works of art as well as to fuse traditional and modern technology.

Jada Pelger, Manager of the Collins Library makerspace, has been experimenting with using the laser cutter that is located in the Library Makerspace to create plates to print of Mt. Rainier.  As Jada states, “Combining the rapid prototyping available from the laser with the century old craft of typesetting is very exciting and provides ways to blend old and new technologies.  Our goal is to show that historic and modern technologies can be used in harmony to create new works of art and ways of making.”

Pelger introduced the press to the Alumni Council at a recent meeting held on campus. Everyone was able to print a unique handmade keepsake. 

The interest in book art and design has been growing over the last few years.  The Library has an excellent collection of artists’ books and zines, frequently hosts exhibitions of unique and special books and supports programs and workshops sponsored by the Puget Sound Book Artists, now in its 10th year.  The PSBA received a Tacoma Arts Commission Award for community engagement and supported the restoration of the press.  They have also provided funds for Collins to develop a series of workshops for faculty, staff and students on the book arts.  Tacoma has an active community of printers so it is great to join this unique group of artisans.

Printing is an art for that requires setting type, selecting paper, ensuring you have the right amount of pressure for your image as well as mixing the right ink.  Every impression on the press is a unique item. Setting the type of the press can be a painstaking process and can take hours.  As Pelger says, “we have learned to say, it is not a mistake, it is artisanal.” 

As Carlin states, “We hope to show students how printing would have worked during the hand printing period in the 19th century, but we are also excited to show how new technologies can be used to embellish and enhance the historic process.”

Mark Hoppmann pictured with a number
of his original prints.

Mark Hoppmann served as our first ever Book Artist/Printer in Residence during the 2021-2022 year.   

As Mark states, “When Jane Carlin asked me to be printer/artist in residence on the Reliance hand press in 2020, little did I know the journey on which I would embark. Postponed by Covid until July of this year, it has been my pleasure to learn the art and craft of printing on a hand press and in assisting Collins Library in this endeavor.”

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