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Preserving the craft of lettepress printing, Pinnaroo, Mallee

Letterpress Printing Museum

In memory of Rob Wilson OAM

Part of the Mallee Heritage Centre, Pinnaroo, South Australia

Preserving the printing craft

With the technological changes in the Printing Industry during the 1960-70s, type, machinery and skills built up over five centuries were rendered obsolete.

As the change took place, the Wilson brothers, of Pinnaroo Border Times, preserved the old equipment, which subsequently formed the nucleus of the Pinnaroo Printing Museum. Donations of equipment from printers in South Australia and interstate have built up the collection to be one of the best in Australia.

One of the unique collections in the Mallee Tourist & Heritage Centre, it is not so much a museum of single exhibits, but is set out as a typical regional printing office of the early 20th century - the preservation of a craft, Letterpress Printing.

Letterpress Printing is just that - type bearing letters being inked and pressed onto paper.

A Compositor "comp" sets the type, that is, puts it together, letter by letter, line by line, page by page, until the job is complete.

Letterpress Printing

Letterpress, as the word suggests, is the method of printing in which the letters (type) are coated with ink and pressed on to a paper surface to provide the printed word.

This suggests three essential ingredients - type, paper and ink.

Printing has well been called the "Art Preservation of all Arts" By whatever process printing is carried out, it still bears that distinction.

In early times all lettering was done by hand. The fashioning of pieces of type meant that they could be pressed on to paper repeatedly to make multiple copies.

Paper had bee in existence for centuries; in likewise; but when Gutenberg invented his movable types in 1450, and the press to combine them with paper and ink, the four ingredients came together. A new age was born. Johan Gutenberg has been called the first modern industrial genius.

Printer's Type

Credit for being the first to use printing goes to the Koreans, believed to be in the fourth century AD. Chinese and Japanese were also printing. Early examples of their printing may be seen in the British Museum, dating to the 8th and 9th centuries.

Movable metal types (bronze) were used in Korea up to the 13 century. Type casting in Korea was advanced during the 14th century, but because of the nature of oriental languages, "block" printing remained of major importance.

European languages, however, were better suited to the use of individual type letters, and when Johann Gutenberg introduced his movable lead-based types, the method spread quickly.

Hand-set type remained in general use for four centuries, made from an alloy, usually 65% lead, 35% antimony, 10% tin, with copper sometimes added for hardness.

Wooden type was made in a variety of sizes, from 6-line (6 picas) to 24-line and larger, and was used primarily for posters, Pinnaroo museum has over 200 fonts lf lead type and 40 fonts of wood type, from local office and other sources.

The Linotype was invented in 1885. Monotype soon after, and Ludlow 1911, replacing to a larger extent the hand setting of type. This caused an explosion of printing of newspapers, books and periodicals. Linotype metal is usually 85% led, 10% antimony ad 5% tin.

These three machines remained the main mechanical methods of typesetting until the end of the 1950-70 period, a time of another great technological change in the printing industry.


Johann Gutenberg around 1450, conceived the idea - and what an idea! Up to then, all reading material had to b hand-written. Whole books were painstakingly written - by scholars of course, because only a few people could read and write.

Gutenberg and those who followed in his steps were to change all that. This was a time when there was a desire to learn, to read, and to write. It was the beginning of that period of European history known as the Renaissance.

The Renaissance gained added impetus from the new method, and printing was boosted by the Renaissance.

Within six years of Gutenberg setting up his printing plant, he had printed a book - the Bible - not in his own language, German, but in Latin.

First he had to find out the best Metal Alloy to use for his type metal, and he chose lead with the addition of antimony and tin. At each step, he had important decisions to make. He chose well, because those decisions were to be retained, and the terms used retained, for more than 500 years.

Among decisions he had to make were:

  • How many of each letter to cast and how
  • How to make the Moulds for all the letters
  • How to arrange the letters in boxes, so that they could be assembled in a Setting Stick
  • How to make a Case or Tray with enough boxes for all the letters and spaces
  • How many of each letter and of each size would be enough to fill the boxes. A full set of any size was considered a pouring, or a fount, or a Font.
  • What sort of a machine would he need to Print from his type? He made a Press not unlike in principle that used for pressing grapes.
  • How many such presses would he need to print the Bible - and how many press men, or printers, would he have to train?

Laurens Coster

In Holland, a man named Laurens Coster is recorded as having one hunting. When it came on to rain, he took out his hunting knife and carved his initials from the bark of a tree. Waiting for the rain to stop, he wrapped them in his handkerchief and went to sleep against a tree. When he woke, he inspected his work and behold, the green bark had stained the cloth in reverse. So he cut some more letters, this time in reverse. Some say this makes Coster the first to make type.

Of course, printing was known in China, Japan and Korea in the 8th-10th century; but they had many different characters. The European languages, with their smaller alphabet, were able to use Gutenberg's system to advantage.


William Caxton as an Englishman who came across printing while in the Netherlands, and set up his press in Bruges, where he printed in French and English, often translating from Italian and German. Eventually, the volume of work he was doing for England caused him to take his press to England in 1476.

Letterpress printing was carried out without much change for several centuries, until the 19th century, when advances in engineering made possible power-driven printing machines. For small jobs such as cards, a foot-treadle was sufficient to operate a platen printing machine, which became the universal 'bread and butter' press in many countries in the 1800s and into the 1900s.

Type Designers

In the intervening years, type designers made new type faces - roman, italic, bold, text and cursive - each with a wide variety according to the designer. Many of their names - Bodoni, Frederick Goudy, Nicholas Jenzen, Gill, etc. - are perpetuated in the type styles of the computer age, as are others like Cheltenham, Christchurch, Fremantle, Kingston, named by the typefounders after capital and provincial cities where they wished to sell their type.

Point system

In the early years, sizes of type carried names like Nonpareil, Bevier, Primer and Pica. Type was being made in France, Italy, Germany, England and the United States, and in some cases there were inconsistencies in size. At the suggestion of the American typefounders, a point system of measurement was adopted by all.

Pica was taken as a standard and given 12 points. There just happened to be 6 picas to an inch, almost. So the compositor's type gauge showed 12 inches on one edge and 72 picas, divided into 12 points to a pica, on the other edge. The printer measured his type by pica ems and his paper by inches, which made it convenient to work out margins etc.

For type sizes, nonpareil became 6-point, brevier 8-point, long primer 10-pt and pica 12-pt.

The old compositors were well paid, being people who could read and write, while other manual tasks were not as well paid. but when mechanical power began to be used to drive the presses, the "comps" started looking or ways to set type mechanically.

The Linotype - caused a revolution

This resulted in the invention of the Linotype, by Ottmar Mergenthaler, in 1885, the Monotype, the Ludlow and other typesetting machines.

While the improvement of printing machines was gradual over time, the Linotype caused an entire printing revolution. Although one man on the Linotype could do the work of six compositors, it caused such an upturn in volume of printing that the effect was cushioned and no unemployment was caused in the trade.

Paper for printing

Paper was made by the Chinese in the 2nd century BC, by the Arabs in the 8th century AD, Greeks in 11th century, Spanish, Sicilians and Italians in 12th century Mills were set up in Italy, which became the major supplier, then in Germany and England by 15th century.

A big upsurge in paper making came with the invention of printing from movable type in 1450.

As general manufacture developed, paper makers gradually standardized their sizes, and such names came into use as Foolscap 13 1/2 x 17in, Crown 15 x 20in, Large Post 16 1/2 x 21in, Demy 17 1/2 x 22 1/2in, Medium 18 x 23 in, Royal 20x25in, and Imperial 22 x 28in.

The next boost came with the invention of a paper-making machine in 1799. Ever increasing use of wood or paper-making followed. In Australia, large paper mills operated in most states.

Sizes of printing paper changed to metric in the 1960s - 650mm x 910mm (25 1/2 x 36in) being used for journal work, and A size 610 x 910 mm in bond papers, trimming to the office A4 size, which replaced the old Post Quarto.

Printing Inks

Printing inks have been in existence since the first use for type, being a mixture of lampblack (carbon) and oil.

The printing inks of today vary greatly according to the material on which they are to be used - newspapers, bond papers, coated (art) papers, plastic, cellophane, tin plate, etc.

The work of the ink maker or mixer calls for a special kind of chemist, while the printing machinist must have some knowledge of chemistry as it applies to the printing process.

Many of the letterpress inks were not suitable for offset printing purposes, and went out of use.

Printing Machines

Payne Double Royal Newspaper Press

This press is believed to have been brought to Adelaide to print the Register in 1901. It was installed at Murray Bridge in 1934 and was used for newspaper and general printing until 1955. It was brought by Rob Wilson in 1956 and installed in Pinnaroo Border Times office by engineer Jim Stacy as a replacement for the Dawson Double Demy which had printed the paper since 1911.

The Payne has a top speed of 1800 impressions per hour. It was built by Payne & Sons, of Otley; England.

"Swift" Demy Press

The Swift cylinder press had an automatic feeder attached when bought secondhand by PBT in 1961. Its first big job was the book "Land of Promise" a history of the Pinnaroo district compiled by Rob Wilson and published to commemorate 50 years of Pinnaroo Border Times.

The automatic feeder was later taken off and adapted to a Cundall folder and is still in use at the local printing office.

The Swift was made by Dawson, Payne and Elliot, of Otley, England. Driven by a 3hp electric motor, it has a maximum speed of 4000 iph. the maximum paper size is 17 1/2 x 22 1/2 (demy).

Holmes Vertical

This machine was manufactured in England in the 1940s and is similar to the Vertical Miehle made in the United States. It was donated to the Pinnaroo Printing Museum by Ron and David Blomley of Seagull Press, Belgrave, Melbourne. It has automatic feed and had a top speed of 6000 impressions an hour.

Chandler & Price Platen

Hand fed platens were common from the early 1800s until superseded by automatic platens. They were used for printing tickets, labels and small jobs up to 8 x 10 inches (20 x 25cm). This platen was used for many years at the office of G.G. Jones, Strathalbyn and was purchased by the Pinnaroo Printing Museum in 1988.

A bench model Squintanis miniature platen is also on display. Believed to have been brought to Pinnaroo by Mr John Letheby in 1911. It was donated to the Museum by the Wilson brothers.

Heidelberg Platen

A 1960 model Heidelberg made at Schnellpressenfabrik works in Heidelberg, Germany, was donated in 2003 by the Ellis family, of Yorke Peninsula Country Times, Kadina, South Australia. This machine has variable speed control up to 5000 iph.

Hand Lever Guillotine

The "Advance" hand operated guillotine will take paper up to 25 inches (635mm) wide. this was used at Burra, SA up to 1994, and was exchanged for a Triumph power guillotine which had been at Pinnaroo from 1954, when it replaced another old lever machine.

The Museum also has a Waite & Sheard paper ruling machine, a large French Press (for pressing books), a small Book Press, a Book sewer, a Bremer Wire Stapler and a variety of other equipment. Most machines are in working order.

A fascinating item is the Trader Horne, a small device for duplicating a single piece of type. This was donated by Jock Haire, of Jeparit, Victoria.

Typecasting Machines

The Museum has on display a number of operable machines including:

  • Ludlow Typegraph Machine and Matrix Cabinets - donated by Stateprint SA
  • Monotype Keyboard and Caster - donated by Stateprint SA
  • Model 8 Linotype (one magazine) - donated by Wilson Brothers, of Pinnaroo Border Times.
  • Model 48 Linotype (3 magazines) - donated by Stirling Print
  • Model 78 Linotype (4 magazines) - donated by Border Chronicle, Bordertown
  • Model C Intertype (3 magazines) - from Age Newspaper, Melbourne - donated by Mr Bruce Postle
  • In Storage - 48 SM from PBT, Model 48 from Geelong Advertiser, Model 48 from Myer Centre, donated by Terry Williams

Preserving the Craft

The Pinnaroo Printing Museum is laid out as a typical provincial printing office of the Letterpress period, thus preserving a craft, rather than just a collection of items.

Included in the display are a number of donations, including - a Brehmer Wire Stitcher from Loxton News, Pair of Type Pages and "Turtle" from Adelaide News, Stock Blocks, Stones, Setting Sticks, Setting Rules, Gauges, Quoins, Gold Blocking Tools, Cundall Folder from John deckert of Nhill, Machine Manuals, Type Books etc.

Visitors to the Mallee Heritage Centre at Pinnaroo can see the typesetting machines under traditional working conditions at certain times.

In other words what has been preserved as part of our heritage is not just a collection of items in static display, but an actual typesetting and printroom of the early 20th century - the preservation of a craft.

The Pearl platen press operating at the Loxton Village is on loan from Pinnaroo Printing Museum.

It is good that most of the standards of original typesetting, sizes, names, measures and printing styles have been adopted by the computer systems of the lat 20th and early 21st century.

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