Details on Gutenberg’s Press

I am writing a series of middle-grade novels about two siblings whose search for their missing parents takes them to a variety of different places, including a print shop, where they become involved in printing the town’s daily newspaper. I have described the letterpress they use as “like Gutenberg’s,” and I am looking for some specifics on how Gutenberg’s press worked, so that I can provide as much detail as possible. For instance, after setting the type, would it have been locked in a chase, or simply sit in a galley on the press bed, or some other arrangement? How many pages might typically be printed on a single sheet? I can find some information in books and online, but the more detail I can find about how this specific screw press might have worked, the better. If anyone is able to offer any insight, it would be much appreciated. I will post a few pages when the print shop scenes are complete.

Thank you,
Eggshell White

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Can’t see why you couldn’t print a town newspaper on a common press.

First printed newspapers date as far back as the beginning of seventeenth century, so they certainly would’ve been pulled “Gunenberg-style”.

For a good overview of the old printing trade (the techniques, terms and traditions of an old printshop) you can take a look at Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises Applied to the Art of Printing:

Thank you. You’re very right. (You’ll notice my comment to the contrary has been removed.)

I am not much of an expert on common presses, so some one else might do a better job but here goes:

The type would be locked in a chase (probably with triangular wooden quoins) and placed on the press bed. Two inking balls (tight leather pouches filled with hair and attached to the short wooden handles) would be used to ink up the form. /as a side note, the inking balls were routinely soaked in cow urine to preserve the leather so they tended to give out a rather nasty odor)

A hole would be cut in the frisket to the dimension of the printing area, and a page would be positioned between the frisket and the timpan, lowered onto the type, and the whole thing would slide under the platen.

A handle would be pulled, driving the platen down, pushing the paper into the inked-up type.

For a large format newspaper, one might have to do a number of impressions on a single page, printing one page/column at a time.

A few more side notes that might be fun for the kids:

A young apprentice at the printshop was often called the Printer’s Devil, as much for the tendancy to mess things up, as for appearing black from all the ink and dirt he collected doing the work.

A popular game in the shop was Jeffing (or Quadding) a variant of a dice game. Em-quads would be used in place of dice, and a scoring quad would be one that lands with a grove on top. A Jeffing game could be used to distribute work, or decide whom to send for more beer.

Then there’s the subject of type lice…

You don’t say what time period your story is set in. Gutenberg’s press is an unknown quantity because no pictures exist of a printing press until 50 years or more after Gutenberg and those pictures are pretty crude. The Common press was pretty well standardized after about 1650 and changed very little until it was essentially replaced by iron presses around 1820. The presses required two pulls and could print two newspaper pages, one pull each, at one time; a 4-page newspaper required two runs of two pulls for each side of each sheet. The typical country newspaper was four pages and required most of the week to set all the type and one or two days to print it. Depending on where you are located, there might be a museum nearby with a common press you could look at to see better how it works.



Thank you so much to Devils Tail Press for that very detailed explanation — there are lots of interesting details to pull from here. I will try some nearby libraries for the quarterly you mention.

Oprion: I appreciate your comments about print shop games. I never thought much about what activities apprentices might develop in the culture of the print shop.

AdLibPress: As to the time period of the story, it is set in a mischmasch of time periods. The story occurs in more or less modern day America, but a sort of fantasy, storybook version, where people drive cars, print on letterpress, and listen to gramophone records all within a few sentences of each other. So as far as historical accuracy, the story is not a piece of “historical fiction,” but, having established that the children are to use a common press, I wish to describe its use accurately.

And how about simple looking at the website of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz (Germany) and search a little bit further at the source?


Don’t know where you are located but the museum of printing in North Andover, Massachusetts has a wooden press on display. Check out their site. Dick G.

The British author Stephen Fry did a very good program for the BBC on the invention of printing. You might be able to find it on YouTube. In the program you see the engraving of punches, casting of type, the making of paper, the press and the printing on the press. Historically and technically accurate.

I agree with Thomas. Excellent - the best programme I’ve seen on printing for a very long time.

Everyone thinks they are printers these days - tap the copy into a computer, click ‘print’ and out comes a ‘printed’ sheet - but how many people now have the skill to carve that amazing double thread used on the press?

There are so many other skills needed in printing besides applying ink to paper!


Truth be told, there is no information available on the presses used to print Gutenberg’s work or his one time partners, Faust and Schoeffer. There is no information on the type, the chases, etc. Nothing material survived. All else is speculation. There is no way to know. Two friggin centuries later, the first writer on printing, Joseph Moxon, was clueless.


The biggest problem you would have is the business one… it would take a minimum staff of around 10 to write, typeset and print a small daily newspaper on a hand press - and at most you’d manage to print about 200 copies. That would mean, in today’s terms, that a single copy of the newspaper would have to retail at something between $30 and $100 to make the business viable.