Samson Paper Press

The Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking in Atlanta has one of the largest — and oldest — papermaking presses I’ve ever seen. Look at the size of the top beam, which is about two feet square!

The entire museum is fantastic. It started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, consisting primarily of Dard Hunter’s papermaking books and artifacts. Then it moved to the Institute of Paper Chemistry in 1954, was added to over the years, and finally landed at Georgia Tech in 2003.

The “Samson Paper Press”, constructed in 1790, was used by Hodgkinson and Co. in Wookey Hole England until the early twentieth century, according to the label. I’m not sure if the name refers to this press in particular, or is a generic term for any massive press.

It has an iron thread which generates much more power than a wooden one, due to the reduction of friction. I’m starting to think that all images of early nineteenth century presses with a ball above the platen also have iron thread.  Samson has a ratchet wheel and pawl mechanism to prevent the platen from backing off when fully tightened.

The tommy bar, or press pin, is lying on the black plinth in front of the press and is about six feet long! Not visible is the iron renforcement on the end of the bar which fits into the four holed iron ball. I imagine Samson securely attached to the ceiling or wall, and three or four men working together to fully tighten it. The daylight is roughly 3.5 feet, which would be about the height of a typical post (a stack of the newly formed sheets and felts). Possibly a century of use might account for the deterioration on the lower wooden platen, or it may have been sunk into the earth under the floor. The uprights are iron faced on the two short sides. A few decades later, by the 1830’s, most presses were made completely or iron or steel, making Samson an interesting transitional press, incorporating both wood and iron.

Around the same time, the French papermaking press depicted in Diderot’s Encyclopédie appears to have wooden threads, but a similar iron ratchet mechanism to prevent it from backing off. I have a hard time believing a small wood pawl could withstand the compression.

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds),


Using a Modified 151 Spokeshave to Bevel Binder’s Board

Designer binders, conservators who replicate wooden boards with laminated museum board, and others sometimes have to create a bevel or chamfer in book board. Often this is accomplished by sanding, which is at best a very slow process, and at worst an easy way to create a disgusting amount of dust.  A downdraft table and PPE is recommended.

Beveled book boards were very common in the nineteenth century. Various contraptions were invented to do this, including a specialized board shear that cut at 45, rather than a 90 degrees, a jigged foot clamp and large chefs knife, and a machine that used a woodworkers jack plane running in a track. Large production shops sometimes had a board beveling machine with a rotary blade, but most of us are not so lucky.

As the video below illustrates, it is also possible to bevel binder’s board quite efficiently with a modified 151 spokeshave, a tool which is usually used to thin leather over large areas. Note how much I skew the spokeshave, and how it is in motion when I start the cut. Also listen to the sound: this is what a properly adjusted sharp blade sounds like. Even after spokeshaving, it may still may be necessary to refine the board edge a bit with some coarse sandpaper.

If you are laminating your own boards (de rigueur for high end work), it is a good idea to paste a few layers of colored paper to the level you intend to bevel, in order to judge how deep you are spokeshaving. Since binder’s board is quite abrasive, an A2 or PM-V11 blade is a necessity. And the blades do wear more quickly than when shaving leather. It would be smart to dedicate one blade just for board.


If You Desire Perfect Fitting Covers; or, the Joint Groove

The International Bookbinder, Vol. 2, No. 4 April 1901.  p. 14

This is an odd looking machine. The stand it is on resembles a typewriter or sewing machine table, which suggests to me it was used while the operator was seated. The foot clamp must open or close the jaws, which were also heated, if it is a gas line coming in from the back. The heat and pressure would soften the animal glue to define the cloth case on the bookblock. I’m not sure if 32 machines in use is impressive, or just a good start, or if any still exist. The cabinets under the table might contain different thickness of jaws for defining the joint groove.

The joint groove is the term Nicholas Pickwoad uses in his Language of Bindings dictionary of bookbinding terminology, and one that I especially like.  It is succinctly descriptive, yet comprehensible to users of older terminology (the French joint, the American groove) without attributing it to a specific nationality or time. It would sound odd to refer to a 17th century Dutch stiffboard parchment binding as having an “American groove”, for example. Reportedly a book based on the Language of Bindings website is forthcoming from Oak Knoll Press.

I recall from a college linguistics class that prescriptive language changes have a poor track record, since language tends to change transactionally and dictionaries usually record usage. Possibly it is different for a very small group of book people using specialized terminology. Will fuzzy language searches and the ease of sharing images negate some of the need for a very strict terminology?  Time will tell.