Does anyone make a new press? (building my own…)

I hear this question often, both from letterpress printers and from artists who want to print lino-cuts and woodblocks. There are quite a few new etching presses available for artists, but they are rather expensive. There doesn’t seem to be anything at all in the way of letterpresses. To make it worse, the price of smaller used machines has skyrocketed in the last few years.

Faced with this a few years ago, I designed and built my own, based upon the old Galley Proof Press of the late 1800’s. (see attached photo) Actually, I had to build several prototypes before I came up with one that printed well.

The original ones were all cast iron, but since I don’t know much about casting, I made the bed of mine out of two layers of 3/4” Finnish Plywood, with maple runners…. and the roller out of a large piece of PVC drain pipe with wooden cores, covered with hard-rubber. (Most PVC pipe is VERY round these days…. and quite thick walled.) I added a few features like threaded inserts for locking up, and a tympan/blanket system… and viola! It is hand-inked, of course. The one I’m currently using prints a 10 x 14 image, does a nice job of two-color registration, and has more than enough pressure to print a decent image on most papers.

Functionally, I’d say it works considerably better than my older Nolan sign press, but not as good as a Vandercook. In five years it has not warped or worn…. and it’s light enough that I can pick it up and move it around. As far as cost goes, this one ran me just under $100 to make, complete with a little shelf for holding my paper.

The design has proven somewhat popular with several of my lino / woodblock friends. Currently, there are five of various sizes in use and one more being built.

As soon as I get around to it, I’ll post a few pics of it in case anyone is interested. It might be a while, though… since I don’t have a digi-cam.

image: Galley1870.jpg

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I’d be interested in seeing pictures and/or plans.

BTW, I didn’t see any pictures attached to your message.

Arie, winking cat,

We’re having image problems lately. Evidently images that are too small don’t show up. I enlarged the one above and re-attached it, so you can blame the blurriness on me.

With any luck, this issue will be history after Friday’s site upgrade.

Regards to both of you,


It sounds promising. I am also interested in seeing plans and/or pics.



My only comment would be that the old Galley Proof Presses were really not too good for pulling an inked impression - especially if there is a large surface area involved like wood or linoleum cuts. There simply is not enough down-force or pressure exerted by such a “floating” cylinder.

I have seen a lot of Miles Nervine and Challenge presses of this sort over the years and can recall on several occassions seeing where someone had gone so far as to pour concrete, molton lead and other such materials into the hollow cylinders to add more weight to them. Even this did not work ideally.

The standard cylinder proof presses such as Vandercooks, Pocos, Showcards, etc. etc. have their cyclinders on tracks or are mounted is such a way that does not allow the cylinder to rise over the form and therefore forces the much greater “squeeze” between the
cylinder and the form.

It takes A LOT of pressure to get a decent impression if there is a good amount of surface area on a form.

Foolproof….. your experience and mine seem to be quite different. My home-made proof press prints a quite nice impression on all but heavy textured papers, in spite of it’s free-floating-roller. My roller weighs a little over 100lbs, which seems more than adequate.

You are correct that it takes a lot of pressure to print a large area of type. Using a platen press, which presses the entire forme at once, it takes about 20,000 pounds of total force to print a 12x18 area on a paper such as Crane Letra. (harder papers do take more) However, it is not total force that we need to be concerned with, but rather force per square inch. With a platen press, that translates into 92lbs per square inch…. assuming a 100% print area. Since we know that we seldom print a totally full chase, let’s drop the area to 50%…. and thus the actual pressure used is closer to 180lbs per square inch of actual printed area.

Now…. consider a cylinder press. It does not press on the entire form at once. Instead it only presses a tiny stripe the width of the forme at any given moment. My press, measured using a printed stripe on piece of glass, presses down on an area of only 1/10” x 12” …. or 1.2 square inches. Now my cylinder weighs 100lbs, and I add ~50lbs of body weight when I roll it…. so it is pressing down with 150lbs total force. If you divide that by the area, you’ll see that it presses down with 125 psi on a full width forme, or 250lbs with a chase that is 50% filled. This is more than adequate to print most smooth papers…. and more than that put down by the wooden hand-presses of yesteryear.

Mathematically, and in actual practice, it works just fine. My routine woodcuts range in size from 6x9 to 9x12, with ink areas up to 80%, and I don’t have problems related to inadequate pressure.

Does this mean that I am claiming that the free-cylinder proof press to be superior to platen presses or Vandercooks? No….. of course not. What I AM saying is that the design is capable of printing excellent type, woodcut and lino prints. It is a viable press type, and should not be so quickly dismissed.

I did not mean to dismiss the ‘floating cylinder” press design, but only point out that in my experience it has proved inadequate for obtaining a good impression of a good-sized solid area, especially on textured stock.

I am delighted to hear that you are getting good results. Your use of smooth paper certainly facilitates getting a better impression.

I am in total agreement about the advantages a cylinder press has over a platen exactly because of the amount if pressure they produce because it is only applied to the surface area directly under where the cylinder contacts as it passes over the form.

My experience and background with this type of press (I have one by the way) comes from the position of trying to produce large broadsheets, incorporating wood type, often on textured stock, and the amount of pressure needed for those projects under those circumstances has come up short because of inadequate pressure.

Any presses that people can build themselves, and get satisfactory results, are to be highly recomended. We need to get more and more people involved in letterpress and not offer roadblocks. I just wanted to add a caveate about the capabilities of this design.

I do agree with the limitations of the design when used with hard and/or textured stock…. but since most of my work is done on Thai Mulberry or Japanese Kozo paper, it’s not an issue for me.

I also feel that a press that a person can build for themselves is important…. especially for printmakers. Etching presses are very expensive these days, and most artists can’t afford them, nor can they afford the machining work required to build one. The idea was to build something that anyone could make and get good prints within it’s limitations.