Skip to the good stuff!


MIT Students Build a Common Press

Printing on the MIT Common Press

An MIT student prints on a press she helped construct at the MIT Open House, April 23, 2016.

A school better known for its high-tech achievements has recently focused its students on building a low-tech wooden common press. Ten Massachusetts Institute of Technology students had the chance in Fall 2016 to participate in 21H.343 “Making Books: The Renaissance and Today,” an interdisciplinary class that integrated studies of history, rare books, and printing press construction. 

The class was a joint project of the  MIT’s History and Concourse programs;  Concourse is an MIT learning group that aims to teach undergraduates the “great tradition of Western philosophy and literature that preceded, accompanied and followed the establishment of modern science.” The class was co-taught by Hobby Shop Director Ken Stone and history Professors Jeff Ravel and Anne McCants. The MIT Hobby Shop is a fully equipped wood and metal shop open to all MIT students, and supports departments (such as those in the Humanities) that don’t have their own dedicated machine shop.

Most of the wood for  the press was longleaf heart pine reclaimed from a mill building in Clinton, Massachusetts. Since it arrived as 10 inch by 14 inch cross-sections, students used the Hobby Shop’s band saw, joiner, and thickness planer to fabricate the press’s parts. For lowering the 9 inch by 12 inch platen, the press uses a triple helix wooden screw made by Lake Erie Toolworks. Students unveiled the press at the April MIT Open House by printing 18 point Dante type from The Bixler Press & Letterfoundry on their own handmade paper.

Why were MIT students engaged in press construction? The MIT motto is “Mens et Manus,” which means students should learn with both “mind and hand.” In the past, students had visited Bow and Arrow Press at Harvard to  develop an appreciation for letterpress craftsmanship, but this year the instructors wanted a more immersive experience. Professor Anne McCants explains: “I very much see the value of having the students work with craftsman’s tools and to develop an appreciation for what it means to take a full beam … and turn it into pieces of wood put together in a way that’s stable enough … so that an impression can be made.” Tasha Schoenstein, a Senior in the School of Science, said: “MIT Students have an interest in preserving good forms of old technology–not just moving forward without looking back.”

MIT is not alone in constructing a letterpress printing press to help students learn. Engineering students from the Rochester Institute of Technology  also built a press from scratch in 2015.  

MIT Rare Books

MIT Program Manager for Rare Books Stephen Skuce shows students how early books were printed and bound.

In addition to building a press, students in “Making Books” read about the intellectual backdrop to printing’s infancy and paged through early examples of printing from MIT’s Institute Archives and Special Collections. “Intellectual and cultural history can be a very abstract exercise,” says Professor Ravel. “You talk about ideas without connecting them to people …. Books can become the conduit for understanding these people and what these people lived and sometimes died for.” 

The class will be taught again in Spring, 2017. The press is seeking a home on campus, and could possibly end up in the MIT Libraries. Mr. Stone hope to find engineering students to publish CAD drawings of the press through MIT OpenCourseWare. By open sourcing his  design, Mr. Stone hopes that other educators and craftsmen can replicate and improve upon the class’s design.