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.

Background

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.

Size

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.

Cheeks

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.

Conclusion

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

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

 

A Copy Press With Two Threads

Mark Anderson, Furniture Conservator at the WInterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, is fixing up a copy press for their Book Conservation Lab.  At first glance, it is a large but typical press, though with a nice hand-wheel with spokes extending beyond the rim, useful for extra leverage or pretending to be a captain steering a ship.

Copy press usually have a steep thread pitch, which is great to move up and down rapidly, but they generate a lot of friction when tightening, therefore can’t generate as much pressure as a real book press. This is compounded by a common tendency of not attaching them to the bench. There is a reason almost all presses — like the one below — have four holes cast into the base, in order to screw into the bench! I guess that by having to hold a press with one hand, and tighten it with the other, the total compressional force is reduced by 25% or more.

Large copy press. Photo: Mark Anderson

Once Mark took apart the press to clean it, he noticed an unusual aspect: the central screw had two different screw pitches and diameters on it. Apparently the finer thread is internally threaded into the larger one, though it is currently frozen.

Two different thread pitches and diameters. Photo: Mark Anderson.

A similar style of screw is mentioned in the 1843 Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine. There  may be earlier examples. Even today, external threads are sometimes referred to as male, and internal threads as female. In a surprisingly contemporary note, the writer in 1843 recommends that this coarse language should be abolished.

Source: The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine, Volume 2, p. 204.

Although Mark’s example is inoperable at the moment, presumably the larger external coarse thread raises and lowers the platen quickly, and at the same time the internal thread moves more slowly, due to the finer pitch. But when the press firmly tightened, the smaller internal thread kicks in to apply more pressure. Fast operation and lots of pressure would be ideal for a copy or book press.

Source: The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine, Volume 2, p. 204.

For this to work, the finer thread needs to be affixed to the platen, as in the image from The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine. In the press Mark is working on, it looks like it spins in the top of the platen, like most copy presses. An alternative explanation might be that the finer threads were left over from a different project, or cut wrong? But if this mechanism works as advertised, why wasn’t this a more popular mechanism for copy and book presses? Hopefully he can get the screw unfrozen and we can find out.