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

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.