An Ornate 17th Century Bookbinding Press

Bookbinder’s Stretcher [sic]. Possibly French, Walnut, 1670-1700. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This is the most ornate finishing (?) press I’ve ever seen, as well as being one of the earliest dated ones. It is inaccurately described by the V&A as a book stretcher in the catalog, because in the early images (above and below) the tightening nuts were on the wrong side of the cheek. Usually tightening nuts like these are found on German or Netherlandish presses.

It would be nice to have a book stretcher on occasion, though.  Need to turn an octavo into a quarto?  No problem!  But was this really a book press, or a press intended for some other purpose? The 29 inch long cheeks are very, very thin in profile, and I imagine would deflect quite a bit even with just hand tightening.

Bookbinder’s Stretcher [sic]. Possibly French, Walnut, 1670-1700. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A later image shows the press assembled correctly, but it is still described as a book stretcher. Almost every non-functional inch of this remarkable press is covered with relief carvings. The tightening nuts are especially elegant.  It is made from walnut, a wood traditionally used for press boards in 18th century France.

Bookbinder’s Stretcher [sic] assembled correctly. Possibly French, Walnut, 1670-1700. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Many 17th century and earlier European woodworking tools, like planes, are encrusted with carving. Hand tools have became minimally decorated since the 20th century, all form deriving from efficient manufacture and use. The decorative deep carving must have taken a lot of extra time. Did the maker or consumer provide the agency? Was this a presentation piece, not intended to be used?  It seems to show very little wear, atypical of most presses. Or did the maker just want to make a beautiful tool? Do beautiful tools inspire binders to make beautiful books?


Hats off to the V&A has a very progressive large image use policy.  You can download them instantly, share them widely, and even use them for publication. There are almost 750,000 searchable images on the V&A site. Let’s hope all institutions free their images.

V&A large image use form. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


5 Replies to “An Ornate 17th Century Bookbinding Press”

  1. Is it possible this is not a finishing press but a gadget to hold a book with a hidden painted edge spread (or stretched) so that the image can be displayed? It seems a little too frail for finishing and the decorative carving would be a liability in a bindery, collecting all kinds of dirt and mess. Much more suitable for a gentleman’s library.

  2. Good point. A foreedge painting clamp makes more sense.

    A quick google search shows many variations, though most have a larger and heavier base. It seems the carving might damage the endleaves of the book?? It is about the right time: foreedge painting apparently started mid 17th century.

  3. It’s bigger, therefore sturdier, than it looks, despite the slender proportions. The cheeks are 3-1/4″ “wide” (what I would call tall), well within the range of modern finishing presses, and the length is 29 ” overall, with what I measure on the drawing as 15″ between screws. The screws look a bit heavy, but again well within modern range, especially for German and Scandinavian presses.

    Ornate carving on workshop tools— The carving is no more elaborate than that on many woodworking planes, which would lead much rougher lives if actually used. And while some of the planes are so pristine as to suggest that they lived their lives on display shelves, other do seem to show marks of significant use. I think that the notion that objects for use should lack decoration is a very modern, indeed perhaps a Bauhausian, notion.

    If the press were dedicated for foreedge painting, I would expect one of the broad exterior sides to be flat; but neither is. This expectation may be just bias on my part, since none of the sides are plain; but I offer it for what it is worth. Again for what it is worth, on the cheeks the bearing surfaces for the nuts are smooth, as they functionally should be.

    An easily overlooked, but highly suggestive, detail is the small flat places on the narrow sides of the cheeks, lining up with the screws. The photos are a bit hard to interpret, but these look like they may be shallow grooves across the width of the plane, filled with wood or perhaps metal plaques which are screwed dinto place. Or perhaps these are just grooves with screwholes. It made me wonder whether this might have been a press-on-legs, with the legs or leg frame attached at the flat areas.

    All in all I see nothing inconsistent with this press being a bookbinder’s press, especially a Germanic one. However, I also see nothing that suggests that it was used specifically for bookbinding. And we know that exactly similar presses were used in other trades, starting with the early (17th century) freestanding form of vise shown in the manuals of Moxon and Feliben.

  4. I think that there might actually be a reason behind the nuts on the other side. When I first glanced at the photo, my immediate thought was that it’s a sewing frame. Given that this sort of woodwork would’ve been particularly labour-intensive as this is before stuff like power-tools and tool-grade steel, it would make sense that if the press would be constructed in a utilitarian manner where it can be modified to function as a sewing frame. Just tie the cords up on it, slip the sewing keys under it, crank the nuts to tension the cords, you basically have a sewing frame. No need for separate equipment. Granted, that’s just my speculation on the matter.

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