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The Home Stretch: Building a Wooden Common Press

The partially constructed Uncommon Press at RIT, soon to be housed at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

The partially constructed Uncommon Press at RIT, soon to be housed at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

This is the fifth in a series of posts that will appear throughout the year.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that building a wooden common press is a massive undertaking in more ways than one. Literally, a common press is huge, standing over six feet tall and weighing a few hundred pounds. But, it’s everything that goes into actually constructing a press that really adds up. 

When my teammates and I began designing our press at the start of this year, we were slightly naïve thinking that it would be a simple process. Research press designs, create our own based on research, make all the components, then assemble them. Simple. My previous posts in this series offer only a small insight into the incredibly involved research process, which was anything but simple. As it turned out, the construction process proved to be even more involved. In 1796, John Hamilton of Elizabethtown, New Jersey advertised that he could produce a press “at three weeks notice.”1 Our press has taken much more time than that.

John Hamilton’s ad in the New Jersey Journal, 1796.

John Hamilton’s ad in the New Jersey Journal, 1796. Adjusting for inflation, his price today would be between $1364 and $2,618. The two divergent amounts were calculated at davemanuel.com and halfhill.com.

Our press, which is on track to be completed later this month, will be a faithful reconstruction of an eighteenth-century English wooden common press. In the eighteenth century, making a printing press called upon skills in metalworking and woodworking. The same applies to making a press today, but what has changed is the infrastructure for making one. Compared with today, blacksmiths were plentiful in the eighteenth century. Finding a blacksmith, then finding one willing to work on our project, was just one of the hurdles we faced before we could begin making parts.

The Rochester Institute of Technology campus is conveniently close to the Genesee Country Village & Museum, a living history museum that maintains the nation’s third-largest collection of historic buildings. Situated on 700 acres in Mumford, NY, the nineteenth-century village is staffed by a wonderful group of interpreters, including blacksmith Matthew Schofield.

The Levi Rugg blacksmith shop, built in 1830 in Elba, NY and moved to Genesee Country Village. Rugg purchased the shop from his competitor and was active until his death in 1875. The shop was actively used by blacksmiths into the twentieth century. (Photo courtesy Matthew Schofield)

The Levi Rugg blacksmith shop, built in 1830 in Elba, NY and moved to Genesee Country Village. Rugg purchased the shop from his competitor and was active until his death in 1875. The shop was actively used by blacksmiths into the twentieth century. (Photo courtesy Matthew Schofield)

The staff at the museum were thrilled to have our team approach them asking to work with Matthew to produce some of the metal parts for our press. Matthew was excited to take on the challenge of making parts for a press, which he usually wouldn’t make for the village. Working with Matthew has given our team of engineering students a different perspective on manufacturing than what our classmates might see.

Engineers communicate using engineering drawings, which are part of a very specialized language. One of the challenges we faced was translating the information on our drawings into a language better suited for production by a blacksmith rather than a modern machine shop. The dimensional tolerances on some parts had to be relaxed, and sometimes we had to make parts that looked “right” even if they didn’t necessarily match the drawing perfectly. Producing metal parts became a conversation, and each side had to give and take. Sometimes, we used modern shop practices in conjunction with blacksmithing in order to produce satisfactory parts.

The nut bolts hold the nut of the press, which the spindle screws into. These came from Matthew as forgings, and the team cut threads into them using a modern machine shop.

The nut bolts hold the nut of the press, which the spindle screws into. These came from Matthew as forgings, and the team cut threads into them using a modern machine shop.

Our project is to build a wooden common press, of course, which wouldn’t be possible without the wooden parts. In my previous post, I wrote about the process of finding wood for the press. Even before we had all the wood, the team was looking for craftsmen who might be able to help make parts. In the end, all we needed was one craftsman, Stephen Spector of S.F. Spector, Inc. in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.2 S. F. Spector is a custom cabinet, furniture, and millwork shop, but that only begins to describe the broad capabilities Stephen has. Working with him from all the way in Rochester was very easy, and our semi-weekly road trips to help with work in his facility became a routine.

Ferris Nicolais in the S. F. Spector shop, sanding the plank of the press before final scraping and finishing. The plank is part of the bed of the press. Making parts from wood was another new challenge for us as engineering students because the workflow for woodworking is distinct from metalworking in a machine shop. The two parts of a metal joint, for example, are designed with tolerances so they will fit together even if they were made in different factories. In a wooden joint, like a dovetail, the two parts are made to match each other; one half of the joint is made, then used to lay out the cuts for the other half. We had to consider the order in which the parts would be made.

Ferris Nicolais in the S. F. Spector shop, sanding the plank of the press before final scraping and finishing. The plank is part of the bed of the press.

Making parts from wood was another new challenge for us as engineering students because the workflow for woodworking is distinct from metalworking in a machine shop. The two parts of a metal joint, for example, are designed with tolerances so they will fit together even if they were made in different factories. In a wooden joint, like a dovetail, the two parts are made to match each other; one-half of the joint is made, then used to lay out the cuts for the other half. We had to consider the order in which the parts would be made.

From left to right, Daniel Krull, Randall Paulhamus, and Seth Gottlieb in the back of a box truck with the wooden parts of the press.

From left to right, Daniel Krull, Randall Paulhamus, and Seth Gottlieb in the back of a box truck with the wooden parts of the press.

Work on the parts in Harrisburg wrapped up in the middle of November and we moved them back to RIT’s campus. Having the most massive pieces sitting in front of us at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, the future permanent home of the press, gave some perspective to how far the project has come. It’s not over, with more parts yet to be made. We’ve begun reviewing printer’s manuals to make sure that we’ll be able to properly set the press once we’ve assembled it. By the end of this week, the press will be completed.

Working with these craftsmen to build the press gives a better understanding of what a common press really is. It is a machine, although it is made of wood, and should be treated as such. Although today we refer to blacksmiths and woodworkers as craftsmen, these people were the industry of their time. They used the same processes that craftspeople today use, but the intent of their work was more closely aligned with today’s manufacturers; namely, to produce a practical object, not necessarily something aesthetic. As engineers studying to join today’s industry, we’ve learned while working to produce a press from the past.


Notes:

Comments

  1. I can’t imagine how exciting it will be for you and the rest of the RIT team to pull the first proof. Keep us updated, Seth.

  2. I would love to discuss (by email if possible) some of the details of your press, because I am undertaking to build a wooden-framed hand press based on aspects of the Ramage Proof/Foolscap, the Common press, and George Clymer’s early experiment using the torsion toggle. How can we manage this? My particular questions have to do with the ribs and cramps, primarily.

    Regards, Bob Oldham, Ad Lib Press

  3. Bob, please email me about this. I would be happy to discuss your project further. Send me an email at sjg6582@rit.edu

  4. My Father built one of these 20-30 years ago. It is still working but sadly he’s now getting beyond using it and is looking to sell. Fascinating to see someone else building one – brings back memories. Hope you have great success in finishing and using yours.

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