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An Uncommon Conclusion

The completed press, named the Uncommon Press, at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT. (Photos by Seth Gottlieb except where noted)

This is the sixth and final post in a series that began last year.

Building a wooden printing press takes more than physical means. It requires a great deal of patience and humility. Of course, it also takes tremendous hubris to complete one within a single calendar year.1 The project would be completed on time and under budget, we told ourselves. There was no other option. 

The project had several setbacks. We originally planned to have more metal parts fabricated by the blacksmiths at Genesee Country Village and Museum, but time constraints necessitated that we remove some of the burdens we had placed on them. Instead, some parts were fabricated in the RIT Mechanical Engineering Department machine shop. In another instance, we found ourselves with one week’s notice that we would need to locate a new supplier of our mahogany.

We contacted Irion Lumber Company inWellsboro, Pennsylvania and confirmed they had the right wood the evening before traveling to visit them. Having made sure our professors did not mind us missing classes, Daniel Krull and I left before dawn in a rented pickup truck in order to arrive at the lumber mill when they opened. Sitting on several acres, and with enough stock to fill the twelve buildings on the property, Irion Lumber had wonderful material to choose from.

A glimpse into one of the buildings full of wood at Irion Lumber. One of the boards in this view eventually became the press’s platen.

Irion specializes in producing the thick, wide lumber that we needed to make the platen and hose for the press. Longtime employee Myron Yoder helped us choose the right pieces of mahogany and load them in the truck. From there we drove three hours South to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver the wood to S.F. Spector, Inc. the custom cabinet, furniture, and millwork shop we hired to shape the parts of the press.

The finished platen installed on the press. Mahogany was chosen both for historical accuracy and because its dimensional stability will ensure the platen remains as flat as possible.

One of the most amazing parts of the project was the willingness we found in other people to volunteer whatever help they could offer. Some help came when we realized our research hadn’t yet given us enough details to inform our design, and more help came while we were constructing the press.

In late October we realized we still didn’t have enough information to produce a historically accurate way of clamping the leather girths to the plank of the press. When the printer turns the rounce handle, these straps are what move the bed of the press along the rails. By the late eighteenth century, presses featured clamps which held the girths in place instead of the nails used previously. Most of the presses we studied for this project were from the early eighteenth century and did not have clamps.

Using Philip Gaskell’s 1970 census of presses as a basis,2 I contacted the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK requesting some photos of the press held there. The Apenshaw Press, identified as GB9 in the Gaskell census, is a well-preserved example of a post–1750 common press. Audrey Glasgow, Assistant Keeper of History for the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums,  graciously provided photos of the press’s girth clamps, which supplemented the few photos we already had and provided the basis for our design.

The proportions of this girth clamp and the layout of its mounting screws were based upon photos of late eighteenth-century presses, especially the Apenshaw Press.

Throughout the fabrication process, our team had assistance from fellow students and the staff in the RIT mechanical engineering department machine shop. Not even the nuts and bolts on the press are standard, off-the-shelf parts,3 and the man-hours required to make them, all other parts excepted, were tremendous. The team became very friendly with the late-night student staff in the machine shop as a result of this effort.

In the final weeks before the press was unveiled on December 9th, a seemingly unlimited group of volunteers made themselves available and offered whatever help they could (although it rarely felt like we had enough people at any given time). Working essentially for free, and the occasional pizza, these volunteers worked literally around the clock to help the five of us on the team complete our project.4 Their contributions cannot be overstated.  

A late-night photo in the machine shop two days before unveiling the press. From left to right are: Ferris Nicolais, volunteer Ashley Kosak, Randall Paulhamus, Veronica Hebbard, and Seth Gottlieb. (Mark Saunders)

If anything, it was people’s willingness to help that stood out more than anything in the final weeks of the project. The idea of pulling late nights to perform thankless tasks isn’t a new concept for college students, but most wouldn’t willingly choose them. When asked why they were helping, most volunteers replied with some variation on, “How many chances will I get to build a printing press?”

The team also appreciated the help and support provided by Professor John Kaemmerlen, S.F. Spector, Inc., the staff of the RIT Mechanical Engineering Machine Shop, Genesee Country Village and Museum, and Dr. Steven Galbraith and Amelia Fontanel at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

The first impression produced by the press, before any adjustments to the packing were made. The illustration comes from Diderot’s Encylopedie and depicts a late eighteenth-century French common press.

Ultimately, we produced a faithful reconstruction of a late eighteenth-century (ca. 1770–1790) English wooden common press. Given the freedom to choose any specific time period within the span during which common presses were produced, our choice to produce a late-style common press was influenced by our desire to do something different. Seeing a lack of scholarship on this period of press design, we wanted to offer a contribution to the study of printing history. All of the documentation from our project, including our research materials and final design,5 will now be available at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT.

The unveiling of the press on December 9th was a small gathering of some of the people who helped make the press a reality, but the press wasn’t finished until the 16th.6 This was when we successfully pulled the first proofs on the press. Just before we made the first impression, someone worried aloud whether the press might not actually work. After all the research, all the hours, a few trips to the hospital, the stress, and the effort, we told ourselves it would have to work because, after all, there was no other option.