Rocker Weekend

Here are some photos from my December visit to the Museum of Printing History in Houston, where I spoke about the Vandercook centenary and consulted on their recently acquired circa 1909 Vandercook Trip Action Proof Press, commonly known as a “rocker.” It had belonged to a company in Cincinnati whose owner said that his grandfather purchased it new. Vandercook’s first model, the rocker was built in four sizes, this one with a 17 x 25½” bed was the second largest. (I’ve seen two others: one in private hands and one at the Museum of Printing in North Andover, Mass.)

I had my first look at this press the day before my presentation. The heavy cylinder was stuck by an odd appliance wedged on the bed labeled “Miller Holdtite.” With some help I pushed the cylinder back to remove it. I didn’t know its purpose but was certain it’s unrelated. I posted a photo on Briar Press where David M. MacMillan says its a “Workholding Vise” and uploaded a pdf of a 1927 Miller catalog.

While there’s rust on the legs, this press is well preserved. I saw planing stripes on the bed telling me it has seen little use. After removing the old packing I found a pristine cylinder face free of rust, grime or any discoloration—astonishing given its age. With assistance from curator Amanda Stevenson and volunteers Gordon Rouze and Steve Sylvester, I cleaned and oiled the rails and bearings, and repacked with a Mylar drawsheet making it ready for a public demo the next day.

After my slide talk most of the audience joined me at the rocker, where I demonstrated its operation and invited them to pull a proof. Printing on a rocker is more akin to using a hand press than it is to cranking a later model Vandercook. The printing form must be inked by a brayer and the paper laid over. An operator needs to lean in over the cylinder, grasp the high side arm handle with the right hand and pull back. The cylinder—actually a curved segment—is heavy, and the operator feels the momentum as it tips forward, and so at the mid point over the form must be ready to grasp a shorter left side handle to help complete the cylinder’s travel until it reaches the end stop. The cylinder will then shift into trip and should be rolled back to the original position before removing the printed sheet. All in all, a vigorous workout. Practice is needed before a fluid motion is obtained

Touted in 1909 as a leap forward in proofing, the rocker is not suited for the kind of production work most Vandercook operators expect. But with its heavy and deep undercut cylinder, it makes an excellent press for hand printing or relief printmaking.

Photos by Amanda Stevenson and Linda Haynes.

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