A Monkey Wrench

To paraphrase a famous proverb about fish or something:

Help a woman adjust a press impression and she’ll print today. Teach her how to use an adjustable wrench and … she’ll never stop messing with the damn platen.

OK, so maybe Shop Boy carries on a bit overly much about how hard and annoying it is to adjust the platen, the steel surface that pushes the paper you’re printing to the inked form on a C&P or other clamshell-type press. As we’ve discussed before, some printers never adjust it, preferring to use paper packing and make-ready — or anything else they can think of — to correct an imperfect impression. Big, burly dudes afraid to even mess with it.

Not Mary. And the only limit on her pursuit of perfect evenness has been Shop Boy’s patience level. You can tell by all the grease pencil lines, used to mark the starting point in case we need to undo our adjustment.

Well, it is hard, especially dealing with the lower platen bolts, accessible only from below. You’ve got to hold a wrench in each hand, weave one arm through the drive wheel (unplug the C&P first!) and one through the chassis, while on your knees, in dim light (flashlight in teeth, which does help keep down the swearing) and remember which way is clockwise … upside-down. Really.

So, we turn the inside nuts counterclockwise to loosen them, freeing the outside bolts, which do the actual adjusting of the platen. We use the points on these bolts to make sure we turn each one the same amount, figuring that we’re starting from something close to even, if not from perfect. Then we tighten them up, load in the chase and place polymer-plate corners at the edges of the steel Boxcar base. (Taking notes, tough guys?) Now we roll the press through impression by hand — just in case we’ve raised the platen too much, which could lock up and potentially damage the press as it comes together too tightly.

Yup, it’s stuck. Back up the drive wheel just enough to let you throw the machine into “trip” mode, which separates the plate from the packed tympan. Check the marks left by the polymer corners on the tympan paper. Uneven. Dang. Decide which edges of the platen need to be tweaked even while you’re backing the whole thing off. Loosen, turn and retighten the bolts. Roll it through again, check the corner marks. Still off, but at least the machine didn’t lock up. Curl yourself back under the press. Adjust. Test. Repeat. Test. Repeat. Test. Repeat … up, down, up, down, reach, turn, drop wrench, hit head …

Suddenly, the old grease pencil marks — blue, white, yellow, red — become a kaleidoscope, spinning faster and faster as I fall into despair, knees screaming, face planted against the dirty leather drive belt, favorite shirt ruined by grease from the C&P’s underbelly, mind feverish with things I’d rather be doing … just done with this, you know?

“Shop Boy,” Mary scolds, “forget it. Just chill out. Go get a beer and sit down.”

She grabs the wrenches and slightly tweaks the top of the platen, rolls the press through and deems the impression just right.

“There,” Mary says. “Was that so hard? Why do you get so bent out of shape? Anyway, I think I’ve got the hang of this wrench thing now.”

Guess she already knew how to turn the screw, eh?

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