Reviving the old print charm with antique printing presses - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

Khushru Patel of Jak Printers is a regular visitor to Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar and thinks that it’s a place where you will find excellent collector’s items. He believes that anything that is in his house should not be in any else’s. “It’s not about money, but there are some things you find in Chor Bazaar, which will surprise you,” he says.

26 Feb 2016 | By Noel D'Cunha

My colleague Tanvi Parekh, who has positioned herself to the best outside view, next to the glass-clad window in our office on the fifth floor, points at the surrounding mill topography in Byculla, in the midst of which lies the Jak compound.
A wooden-framed entrance door ushers one into the lush green compound. Yet, not everything here is just green and gloss. There are little things about Jak’s plant that makes it special. A visually impaired employee at the front desk, the collection of customer comments on a notice board and in a few places lurk printing presses of yesteryears - Chandler Price letterpress, Gestetner copier, Yoda, a Gestetner duplicator, all in restored and running condition.
But it’s the daddy of them all, the Alexander Litho Press, which Jak used to produce the 2016 new year greeting card – The best is yet to come.
Patel spotted the Alexander Litho Press lying in one corner of a shop, in the Chor Bazaar. “I was surprised to see the press there and I immediately knew it was a precious piece. I informed my partner, Aspi Forbes, we’ve got to get it,” says Patel.
Patel walked off without engaging the shopkeeper too much, for he did not want him to know that he had something that would fetch him good returns. “I just asked where did he find this piece, to which he replied: "humne to ship ka samaan kharida to yeh captain ke kamre main tha. Kuch printing ka hai, lekin humko samajhta nahin.
Patel let his operators handle the purchase, which took at about three to four months and Rs 1.20 lakhs, twelve years ago.
Smitten by the presses
Being passionate about old printing equipment is one thing, but the commitment to restore old printing presses and run them is what makes Patel the enthusiast that he is. “This is a piece of history,” he says.
He recalls the Javed Akhtar speech delivered during the NAEP awards function in Pune. Akhtar, had said, "Two inventions changed the world. One is Shunya. Because of the circle, the wheel was made. And because of the wheel, the world evolved and is still evolving. The second is: printing. Because of print, information could be spread and makes us what we are today."
Patel says, “This innovative technology piece was responsible for print. How could I let it go?”
Did he know about the kit? “Yes,” he says, “During one of my trips to Amsterdam, on the outskirts of the city, I saw a wooden Alexander press and wanted to buy it. But the owner refused to part with it. And rightly so. Nobody, who is passionate about print, will.”
A bit of survey to check if he was buying the original, and the press was on its way to the Jak premises. So overwhelmed was Patel that he followed the haath-gaadi, which was used to transport the machine, on a bike. “I made sure that the machine is being transported safely, well knowing that given the condition of the press, the handlers would give a damn about its safety,” he says.
Restoring the press
The next 12 months were spent studying the press.
The actual restoration was a four-month process. Certain bolts were missing. The team had to visualise and understand its placement. The platen needed adjustment while the shaft that connects the platen and the handle was missing. So were the wheel and the belt.
The parts were manufactured at one of Patel’s friend’s workshop. “He is the one who actually helped us restore the press. There were trials and errors in the process. We worked on the press on almost a daily basis, till we started to get the correct prints.”
You cannot fix a time limit to any antique restoration, be it a car, a machine or any old artefact. “You may get it done in the first attempt, and sometimes, a lifetime. It all depends on how much time and learning you can devote to the work. We are lucky that we got it done in four months' time,” says Patel.
The internet was of immense help, he says, adding, we saw some images, some similar machines, to derive ideas of designing the parts. The Jak team knew that pressure had to be exerted on the platen to create the impression, and if parts are missing they may not be able to do that.
Patel thinks that the reason the press remained unsold was the missing lever. “It made the machine defunct, and I am so happy that it was missing. If not, I am sure it would not be part of Jak’s armoury,” says the delighted Patel.
Patel was solid in his belief that he would be able to restore the press and get it up and running. “I had the patience to wait. Thanks to my business of printing. I think every printer has patience in abundance, and that’s the hallmark of a good printer,” he says.
Print thrills
The Alexander was the first press to be restored. “We were extremely thrilled when the press started producing print,” says Patel.
In 2007, Jak transported the machine to Goa for display at the Kyoorius Design Yatra event. Two years later, the press was on display at the same event, but in Mumbai.
“We ran live demo as well as let the enthusiastic young designer run the machine. They were happy that they could touch something that is part of history. Some understood that we were showing them something unique in motion, to others it was education,” says Patel.
How did the idea of printing the New Year card on the Alexandra come about? “In the last 31 years, Jak has never sent a New Year greeting card. This year, for some reason, the whole team felt that we should wish our friends and clients with a New Year card,” says Patel.
For Jak, this endeavour had to be something special, something unique. The team brain-stormed, and one of the members suggested that they print the card on the Alexander.
Both Patel and Forbes knew that though the press was restored, it would be hard work. “The demonstration during the two events were token, but here we were, for the first time doing print with a purpose,” says Patel.
It was decided that the card will be a single-colour, one side printing, and folded. The closest handmade paper, which was possibly available in those years, was used. The artwork was prepared, and a copper die made, which took about three days. After the first die did not work, we made another one. The challenge was in setting the right pressure using the die, so that a reasonably good print can be derived.
It took about three to four days and inky hands to get the first sheet right, after which about 200+ cards were printed in a day.
The tagline on the card – History being created – said it all. “It may not have that great multi-colour look, but we tried to come as close as what it would have looked like when printed on the Alexander Press, 130 years ago,” says Patel.
Jak produced and distributed over 1,000 cards. “Even if 100 people preserve it as some kind of history, our job is done,” says Patel.
Many printers, who visit Jak, get inspired by these old machines. They now look out for such antique pieces. Patel says, his good friend Faheem Agboatwala of Hi-Tech Printing Services in Mumbai has bought one and restored it.
“I am happy that I have been able to trigger such liking for these older presses,” Patel concludes.
Chandler Price letterpress
Supposedly one of the best letterpresses, it was picked up from Indore. This would be about 100 years old press. There is no motor or motorised pedal.


Gestetner copier – 1931
This is a baby offset press. It has got the ink roller, the water tank, a water tray, a plate cylinder, blanket cylinder and paper transfer.
What we call offset today was called copier in those days.
Jak has not printed anything on this, but with a little bit of servicing, it can be made functional.

This press is around 70 years old. It was in use in the sixties. Patel picked it up from Amsterdam. It is manufactured in Japan.
It is a foot pedal machine. After the foot pedal technology, came the motorised era, with the motors instead of pedals running the machines. This press is also functional and what we call, print-ready.
Gestetner duplicator
This was picked up from Germany.
Anything that can create a impression on any substrate is a press. Question sheets for exams used to be printed on these machines.