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Wooden press

More About Printing Presses

A German called Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century. It was wooden with a simple mechanism, inspired by the presses used to squeeze the juice out of grapes (and the oil out of olives) which used corkscrew-style drives.

After a couple of hundred years, an Englishman called Charles Stanhope had the bright idea of making printing presses out of cast iron, which was stronger and required less force from the printer to make a good impression.

There are lots of different kinds of letterpress printing presses (often just called letterpresses) around today. Some are big enough to fill a small room, some are small and light enough to be picked up with one hand. Although some presses require the printer to apply the ink to the type with a hand roller, most of the popular models are self inking.

Treadle Platen Inking System

This treadle platen is self inking:

  • The rollers transfer the ink down from the ink disc at the top and spread a thin coat over the surface of the type.
  • When you press the treadle (foot pedal) down, the rollers move up onto the ink disc again – out of the way – and the paper presses against the inky type.
  • As the handle goes back up, the rollers bring a new coat of ink down onto the type, ready to print the next sheet of paper.
  • The ink disc automatically turns a little bit each time you press the handle down. This helps to keep the ink evenly spread.

English-made Adanas are perhaps the most popular presses for amatuers in the UK today, although the company hasn't made any new ones since the 1990s. The design of the most common (the Adana Eight-Five) emulates earlier American printing presses. Lots of printing press designs were ‘pirated’ during the 18th and 19th centuries as manufacturers ‘borrowed’ designs from other countries. It worked both ways; American companies took ideas from British companies too.

Under Construction. More to follow...

The Briar Press, a popular American website for letterpress printers, has an online museum filled with all kinds of printing presses.

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