As most people interested in the physical construction of books know, the history of bookbinding is largely unwritten and the majority of the evidence resides in the material books themselves. This is why book conservators try to preserve as much of the physical information as possible for future study, interpretation, aesthetic enjoyment, artifactual value, etc…. Although bindings are usually not dated, the bookblock usually is, which allows us to get a general idea when a book was made.
Bookbinding tools, however, are rarely dated and are often missing provenance. Identifying national styles is often based on connoisseurship and morphological characteristics rather than hard evidence. In many ways bookbinding tools are more difficult to research than a binding. Often the most information we have about a particular tool is the reminiscence of a current owner, something along the lines of, “well, I bought it from Binder Bob in the 90s, and that’s about all I know”. Tools often are given or sold between binders, and sometimes used for 100s of years.
It is important for conservators to document and understand the broader context of how books were made (the foundation of bibliography), including tools and equipment historically used to make the books, since book conservation is still closer to its craft origins than other specialities.
In order to understand a press more fully that I used while teaching at the Preservation Lab of the University of Cincinnati, I asked Tim Moore to make a replica or model of it. For a while it was on the back burner. As is sometimes the case, the making of a replica evolved into both of us thinking through ways to slightly tweak and improve it. Making a replica involves more time spent carefully looking than even making a drawing, giving time to think through many aspects of an object. A more selfish reason was that I simply really, really wanted a press like this for my own use!
At first I wondered if this press was altered in some way, especially the shape of the top edge. On further reflection, I don’t think so, considering the symmetrical distance between the handles and the top and sides. Yet it is impossible to be certain.
We decided to call it The Cincinnati Press. Some may rightly attribute this name to a lack of imagination on our part. At least it is better than yet another eponymous Peachey this or that.
All aspects of this press are carefully chosen, and contribute to its function: the handle placement, overall size, cheeks, handle design, and our addition of tying-up pins.
The extreme placement of the handles close to the top edge is likely the defining feature of this press. It allows for a lot of pressure right at the spine edge, and is perfect for smaller books, since the press is less likely to yawn. It also fits older books which are sometimes wedge shaped.
The replica press is 7.5 inches tall. This height positions the book spine close to your eyes, which is convenient when removing or applying linings if you have poor sight like I do. I prefer presses like this that support the book completely, rather than narrower profile ones. There are 12 inches between the screws, which according to my own thoroughly unscientific non-survey fits about 92.5% of books I usually work on.
The 1.25 inch thick cheeks (aka “five quarters” in the lumber world) resist deflection when tightening, The sharp radius at the top edge also adds strength just where you need it to clamp a book or textblock firmly. The press is heavy enough not to slide around on the workbench. It can be used to gently back a rounded textblock, if you use a froitture rather than a hammer.
The handles are smaller than usual for a press like this. Tim explained his thinking about the handles in an email, “I had never considered reducing the shoulder on the wooden screw this much but I like it. As you pointed out it adds strength (less leverage on the margin of the screw shoulder). I suppose there may be greater wear on the outside press surface (more psi of pressure) but it’s probably not significant with hard wood.” The original has a wider profile shoulder which is vulnerable to splitting. A thinner shoulder is also more comfortable to grasp.
One significant change from the original was the addition of tying up pins, which are very useful. Tim also rethought his usual style and angle. He writes, “I drilled the tying-up pin holes at 15 degrees. This was a shallow enough angle that I could get a good start with a brad point drill. I didn’t think the ‘Vee’ channels that I’ve been using would look so good on this press. I think this is probably the way to go in future, provided the 15 degree slant is sufficient. My thinking is trending simpler these days and the channels now seem superfluous.”
The few tests I have done seem to confirm that 15 degrees is more than enough to keep the tying-up cords in place, and the pins themselves do not get in the way when using the press for other purposes. They actually make tying and untying quicker, since the cords slip on and off more easily, rather than getting trapped in a steep angle.
As with all of Tim’s equipment, the Cincinnati Press is meticulously crafted and beautifully finished. The wood screws are the super smooth — you can almost spin them! — and I look forward to enjoying it for the rest of my career.
I think I will increase the diameter of the handles for my next one (!) to gain more torque when tightening. Tim considers this unnecessary, though, “I can’t decide whether increasing the diameter of the handle would actually increase the mechanical advantage. For instance most screwdrivers have rather small handles and there is some important relationship to hand size and grip that someone understands better than I. Many folks have smaller hands which might argue for smaller handles. Also, if you need the press really tight you can grab both ends of the screw with both hands for the final cinch.” For some reason when I am using any wood press, it seems more common that I grab the threaded portion to adjust it. Maybe we don’t need a handle, just a threaded rod?
It is by far the nicest finishing press I have.
I keep thinking about some broader questions, applicable to all tools, that reconstructing this press brought up. Can a particular piece of bookbinding equipment inform us as to the working procedures of binders? Could it affect how a particular book functions and looks? What would be the evidence for this? How can we better document provenance in the historic tools and equipment we use and collect?
In you would like more information about purchasing a Cincinnati Press, contact Tim Moore directly at: scobeymoore <AT> frontiernet <DOT> net
6 Replies to “The Cincinnati Press. A Perfect All-Around Tool”
I think the smaller the diameter of the handle, the faster you can rotate the screw (or you might say the more distance you can cover with the same hand-effort).
That is sublime!
True! I remember thinking about turning diameter in marching band.
I too find the tall-thin style of finishing press is one of my favorites. I somehow got the belief that this is a typically German style, though I can no longer remember how. I have measured drawings of three, have repaired two others, and have made four or five. I used the style to help design several other variants. Tim Moore used my measured drawings as the basis of one of his original line of presses, after Paper and Book Intensive at Penland in 1996.
These are often quite big presses. Fourteen or fifteen inches between screws seems typical, with cheeks 7-1/2″ to 8″ high. On the other hand, the cheeks are often thin, 1-1/4″ or 1-1/8″, skirting the danger of bowing if the cheeks are too thin (I” is too thin on a press this size, and is likely to take on a permanent bi-concave set.) The height of the cheeks allows the safe use of such thin wood.
The top edge is usually rounded right up to the center line, without the partial flats on the Cincinnati press, so that the end view is a full arch, even a slightly Gothic arch. I agree, though, that the Cincinnati example was originally made with a partially flat top: the patina looks consistent.
Frequently this style of press has two false handles on the side where the screws would protrude, with the screws completely housed inside the false handles. This gives a neat appearance, but it means that the screws are anti-functionally slender, perhaps under 7/8″ diameter and 5-1/2 turns per inch. Fragile and slow. A crew diameter of 1-1/8″ to 1-3/8″ with pitch of 3-1/2 t.p.i. to 4-1/2 t.p.i., is usual in pre-1960 finishing presses. Also, the false handles cannot actually be used as handles; I agree about the benefits of being able to open or close the press by actually grasping the screws as well as the (real) handles.
On the other hand, the slender screws allow a reasonably broad bearing surface. I disagree strongly about that wisdom of a narrow bearing surface at the base of the handle; my experience of repair has been that great damage is caused by and to a small bearing surface, especially if it has inadequate backup of wood in the handle behind it. I would say that the bearing surface at the base of the handle should be at least 3/16″ or 1/4″ wide, with the handle maintaining this diameter for at least 7/8″ away from the cheek. Narrow bearing surfaces will abrade deeply into the cheek, and this causes the key or peg to carry part of the pressure of closing the press, causing even greater hidden damage to the screw. It also seems to my eye that, despite the smaller leverage on a narrow bearing surface, the loss of strength is even greater; I have repaired (or had to replace) more screws where a thin bearing surface chipped out, than ones where a wide bearing surface chipped.
The common style of key or peg for these presses is a metal screw with a threadless end, screwed into the side edge of the press, with its head covered by a short wooden peg. The metal keys do incredible damage to the grooves in which they run, and the damage is both difficult and costly to repair. I’m glad to see that your press has the broad “girdle” form of key that is frequently seen on woodworkers’ bench screws. A wooden key is much better than a metal one: it will wear out sooner, but it is easily replaced, whereas the damage done by a metal key threatens the life of the press.
One more point: the high set of the handles is more than just a convenience when working on a small book, it is necessary for the proper function of the press on almost all books. With screws centered on the height of the press, any book that does not fill the press all the way to the bench will cause the press to rack outward when pressure is put on. This means that the book is held too lightly, and in the wrong place, at the fore-edge instead of near the spine. My rule of thumb is that the handles should not be centered more than 2″ below the top edge of the cheek, which means that any press more than 4″ high should have handles offset up. There is a little bit of wiggle-room on this, especially with thick-cheeked presses (since thick-cheeked presses with a long run of screw engaged with the cheek will resist racking far more than thin-cheeked presses). However, apart from tidy-mindedness, I can think of no actual reason to center the screws on the cheeks; so why do it?
As you say: “…making of a replica evolved into both of us thinking through ways to slightly tweak and improve it. Making a replica involves more time spent carefully looking than even making a drawing, giving time to think through many aspects of an object.” My own tweaks involved shrinking the press, to just 9-1/2″ between screws and 4-5/8″ high, 1-1/8″ thick cheeks, with screws set high. I flattened the top so that I can set books flat on it. I figure that 80% of the books I work on will fit into this press, and it takes up little room on my very crowded benchtop. I keep a full size traditional tall-thin press with 15″ between screws for the occasional oversize book, as well as half-a-dozen others in various styles just because I love them; but most of my work is done with a tall-thin press no bigger than necessary.
A lot to unpack here, Tom. Thanks!