Putting the “Wood” in “Wooden Common Press”
This is the fourth in a series of posts that will appear throughout the year.
The term “wooden common press” is fairly self-explanatory. It is a press, and it is made of wood. Before the invention of the iron hand press, all presses were common presses, and all of them were wooden. Since January, my teammates and I at Rochester Institute of Technology have been designing an eighteenth-century wooden common press. What proved to be one of our greatest challenges—and one of our favorite adventures—was the search for wood from which to build the press.
A historically accurate common press can’t be made from 2×4s purchased at the local home center. Common presses weren’t made from pine, and besides that many of the press’ parts are made from stock much larger than what can be commonly found.
The parts of English common presses were made mostly from hardwoods. Based on the trip my teammates and I made this past spring,1 we could see that there was no single species that press-makers preferred for constructing their presses. Press-makers used different species of wood for certain parts of the press based on their individual properties. When examining presses, we were only able to conduct visual analyses of the wood from which they were made. However, we did observe some general trends.
In Caleb Stower’s The Printer’s Grammar(1808), the platen is made of mahogany,2 but this was not a rule. In our trip through New England we found presses with platens made of other woods. One platen that was definitely not mahogany was that of the James Franklin Press in Newport, Rhode Island. It has a platen that is almost certainly white oak. Unlike mahogany, which has a fine grain structure with small pores, white oak has large pores that are clearly visible in the face grain. The end grain shows structures called medullary rays, which present themselves as light-colored lines perpendicular to the growth rings of the tree.
Consider the platen of a printing press. It must be as flat as possible to deliver a high-quality printed sheet. Unevenness in the platen surface would complicate the make-ready process when setting type. Complicating the issue of flatness is the fact that wood expands and contracts seasonally due to changes in relative humidity, and how much a particular species “moves” is a measure of its dimensional stability. This expansion and contraction varies depending on how a board has been cut, and is not uniform in all three directions (length, width, and height).3
Mahogany, for example, is a very stable wood. It moves very little seasonally, and whatever expansion it experiences is fairly uniform. Thus, it makes good sense to make a platen from it because that platen will basically remain flat over time. White oak, on the other hand, can have very poor dimensional stability. When flat sawn, a board can cup and very quickly lose flatness. However, in the case of the James Franklin Press, the board used for the platen displays mostly quarter sawn grain structure, meaning it is much less likely to cup. Therefore, the lack of standardization in press-making materials is not indicative of shoddy craftsmanship, but more likely of the intimate knowledge press-makers had of the properties of the woods available to them.
When selecting wood for the press that my teammates and I have designed, historical accuracy was a top priority. We did not want to use woods that would not have been chosen in the late eighteenth-century for a press. As a challenge, we also decided to use new lumber, not reclaimed material. This is not to say that press-makers were not recycling material, and for the cheeks of a press, large reclaimed beams may have been used. But considering the prevalence of wood as a raw material at the time, it would not have been unreasonable for a craftsman to find brand-new beams.
“Brand-new” is a perhaps a misnomer. When a tree has been felled and cut, it still holds all the water held when alive. Depending on the species and location, the tree can have a moisture content (MC) of over 200%.4 The freshly-milled lumber will lose moisture and change shape as it dries, in a process called seasoning. Eventually, the wood reaches equilibrium with the surrounding air, which in the U.S. would leave it around 12% MC.5 When left to air-dry, as was typical in the eighteenth century, this process could take many years for a large beam. A “brand-new” beam may have been cut from a tree felled a decade or more prior to its use. In his Mechanick Exercises, Joseph Moxon called for “well-season’d oak” for making a press, and surely this would have been a beam cut long before it was ready to be used.
Today moisture content remains a critical factor. Luckily, we have improved technology and processes that can dry wood much faster than air-drying. Specially designed kilns can cut the drying time from many years to just a few months. It can be argued that it would not be historically accurate to use kiln-dried wood, but this method of drying, if done properly, has no effect on the material properties of the wood.6
With this in mind, we had to choose which species of wood to use for the press. In the end, we settled on three: American white oak, Honduran mahogany, and American beech. American white oak, Quercus alba, is closely related to Q. robur, another member of the white oak subgroup, commonly found in England. Short of ordering lumber from Europe, we chose the more readily available domestic species, which has almost identical material properties. We chose Honduran mahogany, also known as genuine mahogany, because it would have been the mahogany available to a press-maker in the eighteenth century. Finally, we selected American beech (Fagus grandifolia) instead of European beech (F. silvatica) because the two are very similar7 and it is easier to find in the U.S.
Our team chose to use white oak for the large uprights, or cheeks, of the press. Finding a sawmill that could provide large beams proved a challenge, one that at times seemed insurmountable. Having had several representatives from lumber mills literally laugh at us, we were discouraged. Eventually, we found New England Naval Timbers, a naval timbers sawmill in Cornwall, Connecticut.8 Duke Besozzi, the owner and founder of the business, started the company over 25 years ago to provide large oak timbers for the restoration of historic wooden ships.
Although the pieces needed for our press are much smaller than what Duke would usually mill, he agreed to help us find a suitable piece of oak to become our press. We had to go to his facility in order to select a large slab, or flitch, of oak. As engineering students we have busy schedules, but Randall Paulhamus and I from the team managed to find some time during our final exam week in May to make a round trip in a single day.
Duke had trunks over 30 feet long, but he directed us to a stack of his “small” material. He had a stack of flitches cut from a large oak tree that was felled near Rock Point, New York. We eventually found a suitable flitch, nine inches thick, nine feet long, and 45 inches wide. This single flitch, we realized, would be able to provide all of the needed white oak for the project. In order to inspect both sides of the flitch for any defects, Duke used a large, truck-mounted crane to maneuver the piece.
After we left Connecticut, Duke took care of milling the flitch into smaller beams. The challenge now became finding a kiln in which to dry it. One of white oak’s most desirable traits is also one of the biggest challenges when drying it. White oak has closed pores, unlike red oak, which means that it will not easily absorb moisture and is very rot-resistant.9 Unfortunately, this makes drying it a challenging process because it does not dry easily without splitting. Most of the companies we contacted with available kilns were not willing to dry the wood because the risk of the drying process rendering it unusable was so high.
Fortunately, we found Brent Feldweg with Forest All Consulting in Wappingers Falls, New York.10 In addition to helping forest owners manage their land, Forest All also provides custom lumber production services, from sawing to drying. Brent picked the wood up from Cornwall in July, and the wood has been drying in his kiln since then. It will be dry and ready to come out within the next week.
The challenge of finding suitable material to build our common press served as yet another reminder of how far industry has come since the 1790s. In a time when steel was still expensive and produced in small quantities, wood was a construction material of choice, and large beams were not uncommon; finding the necessary materials for building a press would have been a straightforward process. Working today on a project like this, we constantly find ourselves with uncommon needs that would not have been so unreasonable 230 years ago.
Luckily, we’ve been able to satisfy our needs so far for the project. Once the wood is dry, we’ll be able to begin work cutting it to final dimensions and making parts. By the middle of December, we’ll have a finished press. We’ll also be presenting some of our research at the APHA annual conference this Fall. Keep an eye out for new photos of our progress on our Instagram, @UncommonPress, and feel free to drop a line with any comments or questions!
- 1 See my post about that trip here: https://printinghistory.org/hand-press-crawl/
- 2 Detailed measurements and an engraving of the platen (spelled “plattin”) are on page 329
- 3 A basic explanation of wood movement can be found here. http://www.alamohardwoods.com/blogs/alamo-hardwoods-blog/2012/09/18/flat-sawn-versus-quarter-sawn/edge-grain/vertical-grain
- 4 See Wood and Moisture Relationships, by J.E. Reeb
- 5 See here. http://www.woodweb.com/knowledge_base/Kiln_dried_Better_than_air_dried.html
- 6 From an engineering standpoint, kiln-dried and air-dried lumber are indistinguishable. Kiln-drying can affect the color of some species of wood, and can cause the wood to split as it shrinks when not done properly.
- 7 A succinct verdict on their differences is here. http://www.fdmcdigital.com/article-details/articleid/759/title/american-vs-european-beech.aspx
- 8 Their homepage is here. http://newenglandnavaltimbers.com/index.php
- 9 An excellent comparison between white and red oak is here. http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/distinguishing-red-oak-from-white-oak/
- 10 Their homepage is here. http://www.forestallconsulting.com/