A Copy Press in Use? Or a Prop?

A still from Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole”

Many — most? — bookbinders use a letterpress copy press for quick and light pressing needs, often called a “nip”. These presses were originally used in offices, for duplicating letters and other memoranda. Intriguingly, there are alternative uses for them.

They often have little daylight, which is the distance between the platens when fully open, and the thread pitch allows them to speedily move up and down. Because of this, they don’t generate a ton of pressure. Rhodes and Streeter have written a wonderfully comprehensive book about them.(1)

But apart from some advertising (and possibly some photos?), we don’t really know a lot about how these were used and installed in an office. They are often quite ornate, since they were presumably on display.

This is why the still from Wilder’s movie (which is a great and relevant movie to our current time, btw) interests me.  It makes a lot of sense to mount it on top of a safe, since they are both extremely heavy and there is a lot of torque when twisting the wheel. And the height of the tightening wheel looks to be a very comfortable chest height.  But is it a reflection of actual placement or just a prop?


1. Barbara Rhodes and William Wells Streeter. Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying 1780 – 1938 (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press and Northampton, Massachusetts: Heraldry Bindery, 1999)

Ron Lieberman sent an image of a gorgeous press stand he has.


One of the book presses at THE FAMILY ALBUM

The Cincinnati Press. A Perfect All-Around Tool

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!


The Cincinnati Finishing Press from the Preservation Lab of the University of Cincinnati.

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 Cincinnati Press. I haven’t driven the key home so it is slightly proud on the end, and haven’t put in the retaining pin in.
Handle placement

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 Cincinnati Press, end view. Note the radius at the top which adds considerable pressing strength when combined with the thick and ridged cheeks.
Handle Design

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.


The Cincinnati  Press. Detail of the tying-up pins and Tim’s careful selection of wood..
Tying-up pins

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

Reflections on Five Essential Bookbinding Tools. Broken Chocolate and Shards of Glass: A Brief History of the Olfa Knife.

Over the past eighteen posts, a number of bookbinders and conservators responded to the question, “What are the five most essential bookbinding tools, and why?

The responses were interesting for a number of reasons: how the authors interpreted the question, their actual choices, and their reasoning. Some took a desert island approach, some took the “what would I grab if my studio was on fire” approach, some based their decision on frequency of use, some discussed intricacies of their handmade tools, and some recorded provenance of heirloom tools they were gifted.

I discovered new tools myself (especially thanks for the splinter forceps Jim and your beautiful curved needles Allessandro!) and was pleased that my A2 paring knife and delrin folder were frequently mentioned.

Two ancient tools, a bone folder and a needle, topped the most cited list. John C. Whittaker, in the book “Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools” speculates that Homo hablis likely used bone tools around 2 million years ago to make arrowheads and other stone tools. The needle dates to around 50,000 years ago.

The third most commonly mentioned tool is a relative baby. Yoshino Okada invented the Olfa snap-off blade knife in 1956. He lived through the occupation of Japan by the United States in WW2, and later remembered American GIs giving him chocolate bars which could be broken into pieces.  Working for a printing company, he grew tired of not having a sharp knife always at hand. Inspiration struck when he was looking at the sharp shards of a broken glass, the memory of the chocolate resurfaced, and the concept for a snap-off blade was born. At least according to official company lore.

The Olfa name has become generic for any snap-off blade. Like other brands that have become generic — Google, Popsicle, Xerox, Kleenex, Bubble Wrap, Dumpster — it is a sign of outsized influence and dominance in a market. Once a brand name reaches such market penetration, even if it is trademarked, it is no longer enforceable. Most bookbinders and conservators, myself included, use an Olfa daily.

An early Olfa knife. https://www.olfa.co.jp/en/birth_of_ofla_cutter/index.html

The image above is one of the earliest extant Olfa knives. The genius of the snap-off blade design is that the breaking score line does not extend into the blade bevel, so that when it breaks it naturally forms a sharp cutting tip. The Olfa Silver is a direct decedent of this early handle design. The blade lock was not yet invented, nor the blade breaking end piece. Yet it is a clever piece of bent sheet metal engineering.

The original Olfa design was not patented, hence the plethora knockoffs that persist to today. I’d guess the reason it wasn’t is the same reason a number of new inventions are never patented today: patents now are comparatively expensive, around $13,000. It is a huge leap of faith for a novice inventor secure one, and then have additional expense to deal with infringements. At that time, Okada had no idea if his knife would be a success or not.

Once the Olfa company was established, it patented a number of later inventions. The most well known of these is a rotary cutter still extensively used by fabric crafters.

An early 20th c. wallpaper cutter in my collection. Although the blade can roll, it is used locked in stationary position. Rotating it allows new cutting edges to be exposed.

Of course, everything has antecedents. I have a rotary wallpaper knife in my collection from the early 20th century, though I think it is used with the blade locked and not rolling. It is unmarked and not patented, beautifully made and the entire knife balances precisely on one finger. Rolling cigar cutters, pizza cutters, pie crimpers all have a similar morphology and predate the rolling Olfa.

The company was originally named “Olha”which in Japanese “Ol” means to break, and “Ha” means blade. There was some confusion in French, so the name was changed to Olfa. The yellow color scheme was introduced in 1967, and intended to reference both safety and the familiarity, with the yellow evoking the warmth of an egg yolk color. Even some of the knock-offs use a similar color.

A number of the Olfa style knives I use. Using a variety of handle shapes is much less tiring on your hands if you have a lot of cutting.

I’m a bit of an Olfa collector, and the newest handle, and one of the nicest IMHO, it the the PA-2, which stores and automatically loads five complete blades in the handle, which is more than enough for onsite work or an extended workshop. The thickness is just a bit more than the Model 300. It has a amazingly smooth action, and so far has resisted blade pull out even in thick and dense materials. The blade support at the tip is beefier than other models.

Limited edition all black PA-2. Purchased from Japan. Kireina!

Some object, not unreasonably, that using an Olfa is wasteful since the blade is not resharpened, but discarded. It that bothers you, genuine Olfa blade steel is good quality, and can be stropped back into shape once it starts to dull.

Pay attention to what you eat and break!