Albion Printing press, c. 1860 at the Museum of Printing, photo by Alison Wishart

Albion Printing press, c1860 at the Museum of Printing, photo by Alison Wishart

The Penrith Museum of Printing

Sydney is lucky to have one of the few operational printing museums in the world.

Yes, all the old printing presses in this museum actually work! The presses have been lovingly restored and cared for by a group of dedicated volunteers.  Some, such as the Jobber treadle platen, are powered by a foot peddle, and the operator pumps the peddle in a steady rhythm while feeding the paper in and out of the press – a skill which makes being able to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time look easy. You can watch the printing presses in action in this short video, but, as always, seeing it in person would be best!

The oldest printing press on display is the Albion, which dates from 1860s. This is a metal version of the wooden one which Johannes Gutenberg would have used in 1450. At the Museum of Printing, you will learn that a euro-centric view of history causes people to think that Gutenberg and some of his Dutch colleagues invented the printing press, but he was following the initiative of the Chinese. Six hundred years earlier, monks in China (and Korea and Japan) were applying ink to carved wooden blocks to print ancient sacred texts. They also experimented with breaking the written script down into its component parts so that the characters were moveable. However, the nature of Asian scripts with their many intricate characters meant this was still time consuming.  The German alphabet was much better suited to moveable type, and Gutenberg improved on this invention by experimenting with different inks and mechanizing the transfer of ink from metal type to paper. Printing boomed in Europe and by 1500 there were about 2000 operational printeries.

Trays for the upper and lower case letters at the Museum of Printing, photo by Alison Wishart.

Trays for the upper and lower case letters at the Museum of Printing, photo by Alison Wishart.

The volunteer guides at the Museum of Printing are fonts (pun intended) of fascinating printing trivia. For example: ‘italics’ comes from ‘Italy’, as French engraver Nicholas Jenson happened to be working in Venice in 1470 when he designed his Roman typeface. And uppercase letters were, literally, kept in a case which was above, or up from the case that contained lower case letters for type-setting.

Designers will appreciate that when it comes to printing, the space around the type is as important as the type itself. At the Museum of Printing, you can learn about type-faces, imposition and hand-setting at one of their monthly letterpress courses. The museum is on a mission to ensure these skills do not die out.

When I visited the museum the presses were silent, to allow Juliana O’Dean to talk about her artist book, ‘Twelve Poems’. The book is a selection of 12 poems by Les Murray and 12 etchings by O’Dean, which respond to the poems and which she printed in her own studio. After completing one of the museum’s letterpress courses, O’Dean was able to type-set the poems using the Ludlow Typograph machine. The pages were printed as double impositions on the museum’s 1880s Wharfedale stop cylinder press, which was manufactured in Yorkshire.

Artist Juliana O’Dean showing her hand-printed book, ‘Twelve Poems’ at the Museum of Printing, photo by Alison Wishart.

Artist Juliana O’Dean showing her hand-printed book, ‘Twelve Poems’ at the Museum of Printing, photo by Alison Wishart.

Only about one quarter of the printing machines in the museum collection are on display. They have been gathered from printeries which closed down or when newspapers turned to laser printing. There are two presses which were used to print the Nepean Times and a linotype machine, made with the precision of a watchmaker, which was used by Fairfax.  The imprint of ink on paper is one of the tactile pleasures missing from today’s digital printing processes. The volunteers explain that some boutique, bespoke printeries have started, for people who appreciate the handcrafted aesthetic of pressed printing.

The Museum of Printing encourages tour groups and is open from 10am-2pm on Saturdays (except long weekends) – check the website for details or call 0415 625 573. However, as one of the knowledgeable volunteers quipped, they, like the printing presses, just keep getting older, so don’t delay!  Their premises are paid for by the Penrith Paceway, who operate a bistro nearby. It’s a good place to patronise for a coffee or a meal after your visit to the museum.

Reviewed by Alison Wishart, September 2018.

The Penrith Museum of Printing

Penrith Paceway Complex, corner of Mulgoa Road and Ransley Street, Penrith.

Free parking on site



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