Home Built “Letterpress” - Video

I’ve learned a lot from this site, but never posted, so I figured I’d share the result of all my research. I would love to buy a real press, but I decided to try to build my own on the cheap. (Why yes, I am printing wedding invitations, how did you guess?)

Anyways, I spent half the day today making a video explaining what I built and how I use it, and the other half printing off cards. I uploaded the video to YouTube here:
I would be really curious to see what the Briarpress community has to say.

I’m considering making some improvements or even redesigning it entirely to more closely resemble some of the tabletop press designs. If I could find a decent tabletop press around here I’d certainly just buy one, but I’d rather spend my time fiddling with a homebrew solution than hunting for obscure machinery — just sort of the way I am.

Hand inking sucks. Working on the floor sucks. Other than that this has really been a pretty fun experiment!


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you’re an inspiration for any “indy” “diy” printer!

All the best in your new married life my friend. You would have done well in the Gutenberg years.

NOTE: not sure if you can fix this or not, but when you send people to your video on YouTube, you’re taking them away from the Briar site altogether.

You might consider using good quality birch or maple veneered plywood for your floor base, it might bend less than particle board. Otherwise, I think your design and methodology is brilliant!

Where are you located? Check the various recent postings on Briar, lots of presses listed, you might find something close to you. Alternatively, eBay for small tabletop platens like Kelseys, etc.

Good luck!

Hm. Doesn’t appear I can use html to make the window pop out. Sorry. Depending on your browser you can just hold shift or command to open in a new window/tab.

Anyways, I actually did end up breaking the base and the end of the night last night. I used particle board because it gave me the nicest, flattest surface for the platen and bed, but yea, I think I am going to use either a hardwood layer beneath the particle board or “ribs” of 2x4s or such when I fix it.

I’m actually 2hrs south of the SF Bay area, so you would think a press wouldn’t be that hard to find, but all my cursory searches turned up nothing. If anyone knows of one in this part of the world I’d be open to suggestions!

There is a gorgeous press (I think C&P) sitting in the front window of a lithographic studio on the other end of town. Whenever I drive by it looks like they’re closed, so I’ve never bothered to stop. Maybe I should just drool on their window for hours on end until they offer to let me play with it ;)

good luck with the drooling routine!

You are located in one of the most prolific areas for letterpress equipment being sold right now. Keep searching here on briarpress.org and eBay, there’s lots out there, you just need to rent a truck and do a bit of a road trip!

Meanwhile, you could be the envy of the whole town if you were to acquire this press:
A Vandercook #4 in Sacramento, that’s about as convenient as you could ask for, but you’ll have to mortgage your first born to get into that!

On a cheaper note:
2 tabletop platens here, shipping could not run you much more than $75 for a small press of this size.

if you were to hit the road:

this sounds like a low price, if you’re 2 hours south of the Bay, this must be a few hours from you

when you win the next lottery:

here is the press you might like and can afford? Very reasonable for a press with motor, etc.

While you ponder your next move, visit this site and drool a bit more:
I would say one of THE best sites for everything Vandercook and much much more, all sort of listings of other cylinder press brands as well, photos, links, a great resource.

A fellow as resourceful as yourself (as per your video) will certainly find something shortly.

Cheers and good luck!

Ah, those would all be great. Unfortunately I live in an apartment and will actually be moving back to the east coast in a few months, so something like a pilot is the absolute max I can fit into my life.

I’ve actually been working a good chunk of the day today on a new design, more along the lines of the Excelsior or the Adana. I really want to find a way to incorporate rollers because I feel like hand inking was the source of most of my problems this time around. I’m actually thinking of ordering some new rollers from NAGraphic and building a press around them!

This is probably where Gutenberg started too, so more power to you, but since I am lazy and prefer not to reinvent the wheel and enjoy reaping the benefits of others many hours of research, trial and error, I would make it a point to purchase a real press. Johan did all the work for you!

You may be on to something though, alot of people are looking for new presses. If you can perfect a simple style and partner with the right people to produce it, it will sell.

But you should be able to find old equipment fairly easily. Start with visiting the oldest printer you can find. He will know where and who has the old equipment. It doesn’t matter what part of the country you are in, old letterpress equipment is everywhere. If I had taken all the equipment offered to me over the past 10 years, my shop would look like Don Blacks (google this guy) wherehouse. Even though I have been able to save presses from the scrapyard, I have missed more than I like to think about. You see, most old timers dont think their equipment is worth anything, so you have to find them, they are not looking for you. Current letterpress shops wont want to sell so quickly, letterpress is their livelyhoods.

A followup on my “drooling routine” — I was in the area today and stopped by the print shop with the press in the window. Chandler & Price Old Style. Pristine condition. Proudly displayed with a few cases of type and other miscellaneous printing equipment. So I step inside the shop to see if I can strike up a conversation and must have inadvertently gone in the back entrance to the printing area itself. There’s just one kid working in there, so I mention that I was looking at the press in the window and started asking if they still actively do letterpress when I spotted three gorgeous Heidelberg Windmills behind him. The guy must have thought I was nuts admiring the machines. I said something about how I thought they were really cool and he said “you wouldn’t say that if you had to run them.”

But anyways, he said his dad owns the shop and had already left for the day, but I’m going to stop in again later this week to see if I can catch him. I figure at least I can make some conversation and maybe even score some leftover inks or something like that. I figure anyone willing to maintain presses like he does is sure to welcome a nosey punk like me for some conversation.

While I commend your effort. There are other ways to create an invitation at a price you can afford. Please keep looking for a press! A table top press will take up less room and provide consistency! You will also shave hours off of your work schedule.

Just to give you a hint of timeframe. I timed my larger 10” x 15” C&P with a 3/4 HP motor. The size of the belt will let me do 100 impressions in 5 minutes all hand fed. I can run a 225 piece one color set up start to finish in a little more than an hour including make ready and clean up once the plates are made. With my foot powered 8” x 10” C&P, unless I am trying to get an aerobic workout, I run that one quite a bit slower about half as fast. I don’t have a tabletop platen press but if the time involved is much like the showcard press I have I can still pull an 18” x 24” in about 20 - 40 seconds and that is with hand inking a large form.

Don’t get discouraged in your search. The majority of my studio took over 3 years to finally acquire. I spent a full year and a half after I found the last bunch of equipment waiting for the time to bring it home. My schedule and the person who had it available just kept missing.

I too commend your researches and efforts, but must take a very minor exception to your inferrence that a hand-built press is not a “real press”. I’ve been using home-made and hand-built presses for many years now, and the finished result is just as “real” as that produced on a factory made press. The truth is that most of the printers prior to the mid-1800’s made their own presses…. including J.Q. Adams, one of our founding fathers.

Building a press is actually quite easy. I’m currently using a 12x18 proof press that I built myself….. and it looks to be far easier to use than the one in the video. It’s described in one of the earlier posts here, and discussed in detail…. both pros and cons. If you are in need of a good, workable press that won’t set you back hundreds of dollars, go read them. You might find what you are looking for.

Thanks for being an inspiration…my boyfriend and I decided to build one of our own. We’ve finished some designs and are starting to build it this weekend hopefully in time to make some programs for his parent’s 25th wedding anniversary.

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E-Square….. that design will certainly work. It reminds me of a hydraulic version of an old hand-press. If you use good materials, it’ll work fine.

I would like to make a suggestion: You should make the base twice as long as the platen. This will give you a shelf to place your block/type for inking…. which can then be slid under the platen for printing. It’ll make your life easier. Attached is a pic of a handpress so you can see what I’m talking about.

Building a press is quite unlike using a factory made machine. It gives one a real, intimate understanding of the mechanics involved, and a unique connection with the finished work. It’s also a lot less expensive.

One word of caution though: The world is full of well-meaning but uninformed nay-sayers who’ll always be telling you what won’t work. Don’t listen to them. Most of them have never tried to build a press, so they really don’t know what it takes. After 40 years, and several presses of various kinds, I STILL hear comments about why THIS won’t work…. or why THAT is not as good….. even though my actual experience says otherwise.

Just keep in mind that your press will have limitations. ALL presses have limitations, even the factory made machines. The real key is to learn what those limitations are, and how to get the best work from what you have to work with.

Good luck. I look foreward to seeing pics of your finished press!

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Just an idea, and I don’t know if it would help or not. Rather than using other boards on the bottom, what about screwing or bolting the bottom to some pipes to prevent the bending?


I suspect you’ve seen the following two links, but these are some other people who have built presses more similar to the one you’ve described:

“Mossworks” (click “Bottle Jack Press”

The reason I modified my design to use a giant lever was speed. The instructables version involves way too much hand cranking. Even if my process was slow, this would have been a lot slower still. I like the bottle jack idea but decided not to go that route as well because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near consistent pressure since there’s no way to “feel” the pressure and you can’t really mechanically calibrate it either. I suspect it would be about the same speed as mine, particularly if you took winking cat’s advice and made the base slide out, otherwise you’ll need to open the platen up really high every time to get your hand in there (this is why I wanted a design where the platen would swing wide open). You’ll probably also want to come up with some decent way of getting the paper in there consistently. The instructables page has a decent solution, I think.

Other thoughts — you’re saying you want to print programs, which to me implies decently large paper size and a pretty fair amount of text/graphics. The larger area you try to press all at once, the worse your results will be, particularly if you’re looking for any sort of impression into the paper. My 3x5 cards have almost no discernible impression. You’ll probably get more force from the bottle jack than my lever design, but there’s a good reason that machines for printing in larger formats are iron and steel behemoths with spinning flywheels.

I’m not sure if you’re planning on using pipes and fittings like I did, but there is a small square of pipe on the top of your design — which is impossible to do with T-fittings. So unless you’re welding, that’s going to be a challenge. I’m also concerned about being able to get everything as nice and square as you’ll need using boards and pipes. They are certainly not precise building materials! Just be sure you leave time for experimenting and revising your design as necessary.

Good luck!


(Also, I just mailed out my save-the-date cards monday, so now I’m back to press building. I put V2 on hold while I spent the weekend gluing cards together. Pretty excited about that)

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GGehrke- I must congratulate you for a job-well-done. Not only have you built your own press, you’ve also inspired others to do the same. Good work. Hopefully, more people will discover that they can print without having to spend bundles of money on presses.

Somewhere in my warehouse/junk storage area, I’ve got a wooden 3x5 lever press built from Popular Science plans in the 1950’s. It’s a parallel-arm type mechanism, and actually puts down a decent impression. You can tell though that when first built it didn’t have enough pressure…. since the lever has been lengthened to over 3ft long!

“parallel-arm type mechanism”?

Grant- “A parallel arm mechanism is a simple mechanical linkage consisting of two or more pivoted arms, parallel to each other, that control the motion of a third member perpendicular to the others. ” I just love engineering books…. they can take the simplest concept and confuse it beyond recognition. The most commmon parallel arm devices are the A-frames of a car suspension…. and the arms on a drafting table lamp.

In a simple lever-style press, the platen must either follow an arc or be pivoted so that it can bear down squarely onto the type and paper. In a parallel arm mechanisn, there is a second “control arm” arranged so that the platen always stays parallel to the base, and only goes up and down…. thus minimizing the possibility of slurring the image.

Interesting. That’s what I was going to build for my second press, and for exactly those reasons, but I had never seen any others that used the same sort of design. I am stealing my design for V2 from the Excelsior instead, but now I’m second guessing it a bit. Maybe for V3 ;)


Grant- the Excellsior press action is a “Toggle Link” mechanism. It has one very good advantage: As the platen gets closer to the type bed, the lever ratio get higher and higher. Theoretically, it goes to infinite right when it reaches maximum travel. The platen still follows an arc, but the added pressure more than makes up for it.

A link mechanism that I’ve looked at several times (but never built) is the one used on the Lee Reloading Press. It uses a toggle mechanism combined with a ram. with such a set-up, you get almost infinite leverage ratio at the top of the stroke, combined with perfectly straight motion. It would make a GREAT small press. If I wanted to build a deep-impression machine, this is the motion i’d use. Attached is a pic of one so you can see what I’m talking about.

Good luck on V2…. please post pictures along the way. It’s good to see other press-builder’s work.

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An interesting mechanism to impart straight motion with tremendous power is that found on an ordinary kitchen french-fry slicer. Affixing wooden plates to cover the dicing grates, I used such device as embossing press for an ongoing business card set-up which took too long, for the number required, to lockup on a platen. The tool produced a great job, having surprising accuracy and ease of movement. The slicer never was returned to its intended application. Perhaps a bit complicated to easily reproduce with simple hand tools, the motion is nonetheless ideally suited for letterpress use.

Thanks for all the comment. Im just an innocent bystander to my boyfriend who is building this…he’s an engineer, so I trust him, but I will forward your comments to him. He’s built part of the press already and I will post pictures as soon as he gets them to me!

As for the programs (for Grant), we’re not printing whole pages, just his parent’s initals on the front cover. I submitted pretty simple details for a photopolymer plate to Boxcar…so we’ll see how they turn out!


It’s done!

Ive done a couple samples…and a few adjustments need to be made. Will let you know how the final product turns out…I am looking into purchasing a C&P or Craftsman Imperial… just keeping an eye out, but this should do for now.


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I designed a proofing press using 6” steel pipe and drawer guides.
You can see it here: