Contributed by Ivend H. Krohn
Published Winter 1984
Pilot Press. These two words will surely conjure lip nostalgic memories in the minds of many Letterpress printers. They will recall how they, as young men, with just such a press and a few card fonts, embarked on careers destined to unravel the mysteries and delights of the Black Art
.Upon reaching adulthood, using the skills mastered, many of them founded commercial enterprises that often mushroomed into large profitable printing businesses. For almost 100 years printers have created some of the finest examples of the Letterpress art on these "miniature" presses.
The Pilot has long been a favorite of the amateur and private pressman as well as the professional because of its ability to print, emboss, perforate, number, score, foil stamp as well as die cut on many types of materials. For short runs, it has no equal for ease of makeready, set-up and fast getaway.
The date of the conception of the Pilot is obscured with the passing of time. Steve Saxe, New York printing historian reports that the forerunner of the Pilot was the Standard job press which was built by (or for) the H. H. Thorp Mfg. Co., better known as Cleveland Type Foundry, sometime prior to 1889.
About 1891, Illinois banker, Harrison T. Chandler, while negotiating to buy an interest in the foundry, met William H. Price. The two men formed the Chandler & Price Co., and began building and selling printer's equipment.
About 1892 the company introduced what was to become the most popular press ever conceived –the Chandler & Price. Acquiring the rights to the Standard, they changed its name to the Pilot.
Competition was intense with better than than 25 manufacturers battling for a share of the small press market. The Kelsey Company bought out several of its competitors and eventually most of the others retired from the business. C& P continued to build the Pilot and the Sigwalt Co. produced their presses until 1962, when they ceased production.
The Pilot and other small lever presses were used by restaurants to print menus, funeral directors for prayer and memorial cards, department stores who issued price cards and signs; churches ran newsletters, tickets and programs; fraternal groups letterpressed membership lists, cards and tickets, doctors prepared prescription blanks, appointment cards and statements. Almost any commercial endeavor could make good use of one of these small machines.
Eventually the original Pilot patents expired and competitors moved in. The Craftsmen Machinery Co. of Boston, produced a look-alike model of the Pilot, calling it the Superior.
Around 1950 C&P updated the Pilot with modernized castings, resulting in it having a heavier appearance. But basically it was the same press.
An imported version, based on the restyled Pilot, was later introduced in the U.S. It sported a bent stirrup handle and a lightweight version was available.
The re-styled Pilot came with two rollers riding in saddles and depressible grippers. The press was 201/2" wide, 28" deep and had a platen 71/4xl2 1/4." The Pilot was made in one size only – 61/2xlO." Maximum sheet size was 14." It could be had with a stirrup or a straight impression lever. Weight was listed at 195 pounds.
The eventual domination of offset printing ultimately compelled C&P to discontinue manufacture of all Letterpress equipment including the Pilot. It was a sad day for the small printers who said: "It was a splendid little press."
An imported version of the machine, the American Pilot, is sold by the American Printing Equipment & Supply Co., Long Island City, N.Y. Price is listed at $825! Quite a difference from the $35 price that C&P maintained over the years!
Most printers will agree with the one who wrote recently: "In my over 60 years in printing I've had many hand presses . . . and I firmly believe that the Pilot is the best of the litter. It has more impressional strength and adjustments are simple. I had my first Pilot when I had my first print shop in Morris, Illinois, about 1923. 1 still use mine a lot now for scoring and light die-cutting. But because my arms don't function as well as they might, I have a German Hohner press with an automatic delivery. It is easier to use."
– Ivend H. Krohn, The Poor Richard Press, Chicago, Illinois.