Warning: contains long, explicit discussion of printing press modding!
Some time ago I decided that I wanted a Real Press (TM). There are some lovely products out there. Unfortunately ‘out there’ includes the price. So I saved, and waited. And waited…
Two people came to my rescue. The first was Charles Morgan. He’s well-known on the Baren mailing list for sound technical advice. He mailed me plans for a hydraulic press — basically a wood and angle-iron frame, a wood platen, and a bottle jack to impart pressure. Here is a link.
Then my brother, an engineer, saw the plans and suggested making the frame and platen from steel. He designed the basic frame and the box structure for the platen, and e-mailed the plans to a friendly steel fabrication company. They make such large structures that the press could be created from their offcuts. A month or so later they sent it to me, dolled up in a cheery blue marine paint. And what a beauty it was!
The whole ensemble, frame and platen, came to around 60kg (~120lbs). No light-weight! My brother had designed a robust ‘push-up’ press, where the jack raises the platen and presses it against a top plate. I was a little nervous of putting my hands in the press in case the heavy box-shaped platen should slip off the jack head and crush fingers.
I decided to remove the platen, up-end the frame, and try for a chunky example of Charles’s ‘push-down’ pattern. So I drew rough plans for a thick plywood platen, a top structure to hold the bungee ropes in place, and a socket of some sort to keep the jack central.
The wooden bits
The plans refined themselves as I went. The platen first: two layers of 18mm (3/4″) plywood, cut to fit between the uprights, with pad-eyes screwed and glued in to hold the bungee ropes. I used resin glue — supposed to be stronger than the wood itself — to join the two layers of ply.
To decide where to put the pad-eyes, I had to first design the superstructure. In the end I settled on yet another sheet of ply, slotted into the top of the frame. It has rope-guides made from lengths of quadrant-section wood glued together, sanded smooth at the joins, mitred and fixed to the plate. A hole either side of the guide would give me a smooth run for the bungee cord at the top of the press — this should help prevent fraying. Everything was carefully sanded smooth just in case. Now I knew where the cord would run, I could fix the pad-eyes to the platen below. Easy!
Then I took a heavy piece of scrap flooring wood to use for a jack-head socket. It would need clamping to the top plate of the press. I bodged the whole thing with scraps of MDF, some M6 bolts and wing-nuts. A wide-bore hole underneath made an adequate socket.
The eagle-eyed reader will notice that all these pieces are removable. Should I decide to improve a part, I just remove it from the frame and build afresh. The frame itself hasn’t been touched since I turned it upside-down.
I bought a few different bungee cord fittings to see which was best. Straight ‘octopus’ ropes — the ones you secure a tarpaulin with — can be dodgy. If they work loose you risk a metal hook flailing at your face. After seeing pictures of eye surgery following such accidents, I chickened out and made cord loops with plastic connectors. Even if these break there won’t be a metal hook zinging around! You can adjust the plastic connectors without removing the cord. And there’s another bonus. The black cord and matt black connectors look way cooler.
Finishing took a few more days. I glued thin plates of MDF above and below the platen to protect the ply from denting under pressure.
Then it was varnish time. Three brushes’ worth! Method: dip least-ruined brush in tin. Apply varnish. Pick brush hairs out from sticky goo. Cuss and repeat.
All that remained was waiting for a couple of weeks until I was in a tidy mood to clean a sackful of sawdust and cuttings from the floor, dust every surface in the garage, and cough myself raw when the dust-mask clogged up.
Since then I spent a few more weeks racking my brains for the next woodblock design. Funny how ideas always flourish when I have other things to do, and evaporate the instant I’m free.
Every arrival needs a moniker. Some choices, however obvious, might offend. So ‘Compact-A-Pet’ and ‘I Can’t Believe I Had Fingers’ were out. I fell back on the classics and chose the much gentler ‘Blue Meanie’.
In the end I used a couple of old blocks — the mushroom and the beetle from earlier posts — and tried them out. They both printed a treat. The beetle filled in a little because of shallow gouge-cuts and tons of pressure.
How is the press to use? Easy! The jack fits and stays put. A dozen or so cranks are enough to bring the platen down onto the print sandwich. Another couple of cranks and you can hear the compression creaks. (At least I assume that is what’s going on, as nothing seems to bend). Then you hit the release valve on the jack and the bungee cords pull everything back off the sandwich.
All my previous attempts at printing have been very blotchy — partly from trying to ink and press slightly uneven blocks, partly through my own sloppiness.
I used the same Lawrence ‘GB’ washable oil-based ink and cheapish paper as before. But the results from the press were far cleaner than anything I’d achieved to date. The ink transferred far more evenly. Now I have to work out an acceptable compromise between quantity of ink applied, pressure, thickness of packing (with felt the paper embosses like crazy under this load!), choice of paper, and so on.
I don’t care if it takes a lot of practice get the mix right. The press is a versatile tool and a joy to use. One day I’ll be its match.