Help with Building

Hey all, i am an art student with a sculpture major and i am looking to make an old school letterpress from scratch. the idea is for it to be both functional and a sculpture in itself. I’ve been doing my research and have gone to see some presses in person but have had trouble finding any schematics, blueprints, or other measurements. i want the press to be human scale and the Gutenberg press style, not a tabletop. can anyone help me with finding measurements or schematics, any other advice would be great too.

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There are measured drawings of a Colonial era common press included in the book “The Common Press”, by Elizabeth Harris. It is out of print, but may be available in a good library.

Good luck with this.

Many libraries hold this title check Also several copies are for sale via

You can get a scale model kit here. They also have a DaVinci press. It shouldn’t be hard to scale it up to the size you want.

Though you won’t find measured drawings in it, Joseph Moxon’s 18thC book Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing has a lot of good information about the many steps in building a hand press. It and Harris & Sisson’s The Common Press should be all you’d need.


There are strong vertical stresses generated on a handpress, and wooden handpresses only had enough strength to print half a form at one pull. The earlier wooden handpresses were braced against the ceiling to maintain pressure and the integrity of the press.
Even the first iron handpress was under-engineered. The Stanhope press, which could print the entire form at one pull, in its earliest design also suffered from the stress. The oldest Stanhopes all have added splints to strengthen the press where they cracked.

Thanks for your help every body, feel free to keep them coming if you would like. I’ll head to my library straight away. as far as the vertical stresses compromising integrity goes, any solutions? I was planning on making the main body of the press out of red oak for monetary reasons, but now am worried about it not being strong enough…

You may find some interesting links and examples on this Face Book page.
Building and Restoring Artists Printmaking Presses

Make sure your mortises are deep enough and far enough from the ends to prevent them splitting out and you should be OK — especially if you don’t follow Ramage and put in a 3-1/2 inch triple-start screw for more power — but his presses didn’t have extra reinforcing (he used mahogany, Honduras, I think)! There is a Stansbury press on Staten Island that has wrought-iron bars rabbetted into the cheeks and hooked onto the head and summer cross pieces for the purpose of making the frame stronger, but that press has a full-size platen and uses a torsion toggle for power, much stronger than a screw.

If you follow Harris & Sisson for dimensions and methods the press should do fine — many of the modern reproductions made from their plans print just fine every day.

By the way, the bracing against the ceiling was not for impression reinforcement, but to prevent the press from walking around under the pull of the bar.


Bob -

Are you sure about the ceiling braces????? I never thought much about it, but it would seem to be much easier to simply bolt or spike the press to the floor than to go through all the trouble of rigging something to the ceiling. I would much rather believe they were there to prevent the top of the presses from wobbling or twisting under the force of the pull.

I’d love to hear more discussion about this.


Rick, you and I are both correct — the braces were to keep the press from moving when the pressman leaned hard on the bar. If you look at the old engravings of press installations, you’ll note that the bracing is to the cheeks, not the head, which is where the impression pressure would be. However, the way those wooden presses were assembled nailing them to the floor wouldn’t help much — the feet would stay put but the rest of the frame would be free to go wherever it wanted to!

See what Moxon has to say about it — I’m 3000 miles from my copy.


i realize this may be a topic for another thread but, anyone have any good homemade recipes for ink?
i know that traditional recipes have linseed oil as the binding agent and pigments from plants and berries for the dye. i was hoping to find a recipe with proportions and directions and the like.

A resource would be:

“On the preparation of printing ink: both black and coloured” By William Savage (1832)

Which fortunately is included in Google books at the following address:

A good deal of most ancient ink formulary explanations deal with the preparation of the varnish itself. You may substitute some of the varnishes used in oil painting or even standrad Boiled Linseed Oil, but might need some drier to get the ink to dry in a reasonable length of time. I have formulated paints with boiled linseed oil which dry in 8-12 hours, so I can assume that the same would be true of inks. Given the thin layer printed, they actually should dry more quickly.

The most simple formula is lamp black and boiled oil. That would not be difficult to put together, but must be milled to fairly fine particles to disperse fully in the oil.