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An Uncommon Reconstruction


Illustrations from Mechanick Exercises of English (left) and Blaeu (right) style presses.

This is the first in a series of posts that will continue throughout the year.

Beginning in late January and continuing through the middle of December, a group of four students at the Rochester Institute of Technology will be designing and building a wooden common printing press to be installed in the Cary Graphic Arts Collection there. The team consists of myself, Seth Gottlieb, Ferris Nicolais and Randall Paulhamus, all Mechanical Engineering majors, and Veronica Hebbard, an Industrial and Systems Engineering major.

While replica common presses have been made before, ours is better described as being a reconstruction, which will be representative of what might have been made, but is not a direct copy. We will perform an engineering analysis of our design to improve it wherever appropriate, but will use historically accurate materials wherever possible.

We aren’t scholars of printing history, but we’re prepared to learn as much as we can. We’ve already collected a lot of information in the weeks since starting the project, and have a much better idea of what we’re doing. Wooden presses changed slowly in the time between Johannes Gutenberg’s development of his press and the birth of iron handpresses in the late eighteenth century. In his Mechanick Exercises, Joseph Moxon described two styles of press, the “old fashion’d” (the English common press) and Blaeu styles.

The main difference between these styles exists in the hose of the press, a component that works in conjunction with the spindle of the press to actuate the platen without rotating it, analogous to the toggle mechanism in later iron handpresses. The hose sits around the spindle of the press, and in the case of the English common press is a hollow wooden box. On the Blaeu style, the hose is an open iron frame that is mounted to the spindle with a collar. These styles existed concurrently, with the Blaeu style never supplanting the former. In England and the American Colonies, the English common press remained dominant, and most surviving examples in North America are of this style.

Our team plans on visiting surviving presses from this period held around the U.S. and Canada, and hopes to photograph and measure these presses to collect a set of data from which to create our design (I’ll also be writing here about the trips we take). Because most presses available to us are built in the style of the English common press, we will be building one as well. However, our press will not be a hodge-podge of design elements from presses made spanning a period of many years. Instead, we will build a press representative of a narrow window of time, say the 1740s for example. We will determine this window as the project progresses. Several presses have already been thoroughly studied, such as the purported Benjamin Franklin Press held in the Smithsonian Institution detailed by Elizabeth Harris and Clinton Sisson in their 1978 work, The Common Press. Our studies of other presses will likely not be so thorough.

We’re only just embarking on this journey, and I invite you to join us. Come December, we will have a full operable press on public display in the Cary Collection. Additionally, we’ll be publishing the full details of our design, along with a structural analysis of it, so that anyone could construct a press based upon ours. Soon we’ll have an Instagram account to share photos, which I’ll be announcing in a future post. If you would like a more technical view than the narrative I’m offering here, check out our project website: Eventually the page will contain all the documentation relating to our project. Our contact information is available there, and I welcome anyone to drop me a line at In a future post, I’ll be writing about an upcoming trip to the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, Ontario, so stay tuned!


  1. charlotte gottlieb 20 February, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    This sounds like a very ambitious and fascinating project. I look forward to the completion and the finished product, which I’m sure will be one to be proud of.

  2. What a neat project! We’re outside your time range, but if you’re ever in San Francisco, you folks may be interested our museum here – the American Bookbinders Museum.

  3. If you have any interest in consulting it, I have compiled a North American Hand Press Database in which I have recorded almost 1200 hand presses located in North America, among them all old the wooden presses recorded by Gaskell, and a few others including modern reproductions and reconstructions. I have photos of about half of all the presses recorded, and platen and bed measurements of many. I am glad to share.

  4. Bob, I would appreciate seeing a copy of the database. At the point my team mates and I are at in the project, we’ve already established most of the details of our press, but having more photos to compare to wouldn’t hurt.

  5. In 2014, I was asked to produce a press “like one that would have been used in London in 1725”. I got a copy of the Harris/Sisson book about the reproduction of the Smithsonian’s “Franklin” press which was from that era. However, ours was needed asap for use in the musical “Amazing Grace”. It did not have to be fully functional or accurate, since it was needed as “only a prop”. Well, we couldn’t do that; it had to be as authentic as possible – and is. We used fir instead of oak and elm and made a “stone” of mdf – both to keep the weight down and to get the job done quickly. The spindle was the biggest challenge, and an acme threaded rod was used in place of the $3,000 spindle. Not the best option, but it works – with a 1/8″ travel instead of 3/4″ as it should have been. But it was completed in just 6 weeks – and it works. Now back in our collection, it is currently on display at – see: for the story…

  6. Fascinating project! I am in initial phase of collecting info to begins a scale model reproduction using paper (cardstock). I would be interested in your final drawings. I have Harris & Sisson plans & text. Thanks!

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