Building a press

After wanting for years to build a relief press in the style of the 15th century press, as seen in the famous Lyons 1499 Dance of Death print, I set to in the Spring of 2021, during lockdown No 3.

The first stage was buying and conserving an antique wooden screw and screwbox from a fruit press; this needed a few repairs, filling of woodworm holes, and general wood-feeding with a mix of boiled linseed oil and white spirit, with a little beeswax dissolved in it. After several weeks of drying I built a frame to take the inverted screw and the bed. I wanted to secure the crossbeam with protruding tenon joints, secured with pegs; this was harder than it looks, but satisfying, and crucially allows the whole thing to be dismantled if necessary.

All the wood is reclaimed. The top cross-beam is from our replaced kitchen doorframe, the uprights and base supports are excess structural timber from the rebuilding of a side extension to the house, the handles (1 short for general raising and lowering, the long one for the final pressing) are from a broken broom handle and a window frame, and the base is the oak top from a sideboard which had to be consigned to the fire when the woodworm turned out to be unmanageable - though it did also furnish the angled top-braces.

Observation of the Lyons 1499 Dance of Death print reveals that the screw is no more than an inverted fruit or wine press-screw; it is worth considering that Gutenberg's key inventions may have been to invert the screw to build the press, and to invert the vertical order of printing, so that the paper went down onto the block instead of the block going down onto the paper.

As of May 2021 I am waiting to acquire a thick chopping board to replace the temporary 1.5cm chopping board I am using for testing.

The press is mounted on a mobile bench, screwed into position from below; so in effect it is a desktop printing press.

Total cost, minus the bench: 4 x L brackets £5; wooden screw and screwbox £30; a few screws and some wood glue. But a fair amount of space, time, stored wood, the right tools, and a lot of tolerance from my family.

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Test printing, on 13 May 2021, using oil-based ink on slightly dampened 160 gsm paper gave good results. A heavier platen will probably be better results over a larger area.

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