When first starting out with bookbinding there are a few pieces of equipment which are hard to live without and difficult to obtain, especially on a budget. You can make do, but it’s frustrating. One of these is a nipping press.
I was about 20 when I took my first bookbinding lesson as a broke student. But I was eager and while I used bricks and board for pressing I’d take any opportunity to wander through antique shops hoping to find a press at a reasonable price. Out of the blue my parents bought me a steel press with a 10×12 inch platen. It cost them $200 – a huge amount of money for me and them. I was shocked, but also extremely pleased.
Over the years, when using this press, I would often wonder why it had been made for bookbinding but had so little daylight between the bed and platen. I knew people who had standing presses, and these made sense. I must have said this outload somewhere because one day someone pointed out that my press was never meant for bookbinding, it was a copy press, designed to make copies of letters.
In the 18th century people were getting fed up with hand writing duplicates of letters and someone invented a copying process where you would sandwich a freshly written ink letter with a damp piece of copy paper and press the two together to make a copy. Some systems required using a mirror to read the copy while newer systems used thin transparent tissue which the copy would show through. Systems were even devised to store all the copies.
In the 19th century someone had the idea of making the copies into pre-bound books. This required extra pressure, but this was possible thanks to new steel presses. The letters to be copied would be interleaved between the damp tissue copy pages and oiled water proof papers placed either side of the sandwich. The writing had to be fresh and done with specially designed copy ink, and the paper was also designed specifically for the process. Every office would have had a press for letterpress copying. This also explains why they are so common. Not that everyone was binding their own books 100 years ago, they just wanted to keep copies of their letters.
Having said they are common; they can be difficult to obtain when you want one. It’s a matter of waiting for the right moment. The other frustrating thing is many people feel they are decorative and worth significant money for this reason. Some people are sure they are extremely rare. And other people can recognize desperation when they see it I the eyes of a new bookbinder.
How much should you expect to pay for a press? When thinking about this you have to convince yourself they are not rare. You can pass one up and another will come along before you know it. Don’t overpay in desperation. Let your local bookbinding organisation know you are in the market and a lot of people with bookbinding contacts will be keeping an eye out for you.
This is my guidance to new bookbinders in Australia. Don’t buy broken presses as they are almost impossible to fix. They can’t be welded, whatever the seller tells you. If you want to buy a press with a big crack or broken handle, it must be cheap – $50 or less. A good starter press with a small 10×12 inch platen you should expect to pay between $150 and $250, with $150 for an ugly repainted (often painted over thick rust and almost certainly described as beautifully restored) and $250 for original Japanning (black finish) and maybe nice brass. A more useful size is 10×15 inches and I think $200 to $350 is a fair price. The larger versions can be ornate, and you would expect to pay a premium, $50 maximum in my opinion, for the eye candy. Anything “restored” with a rust converting paint such as Kill Rust should be on the low end. These paints make it more difficult to do a proper restoration on than if they’d just been left rusty. It’s like sticky tape for book repair.
Copy presses were made up to as large as 17×22 inches and these are desirable, but also very heavy – way too much for one person. True bookbinding nipping presses and standing presses have limited appeal as ornamental object and are simply inconvenient because of their weight. This conveniently holds the price down. I think $500 is the upper end for an oversized copy press. Beyond that you are better off waiting for a true nipping press, which has a lot more daylight, to become available. This will happen more often than you would expect if you watch the right places.
A couple of years ago I saw a Gumtree listing for a copy press that looked to have original black Japanning. I’ve sort of wanted an original finish press and made an offer on it which was accepted and seemed too good to be true. On arriving there was a mini drama going on. The house had been burgled overnight and the seller was at the police station. But the father was there, and he showed me the press. Of course, it was too good to be true, it wasn’t original finish, it was Rustoleum. But otherwise it was in good shape and it was larger than I expect with a 10×15 inch platen. I bought it anyway.
For a while I’d been watch an Italian bloke do amazing tool restorations. At the time I was inspired by him to give electrolysis rust removal a try. He also uses a metallic paint that produces a hammered look finish. I wanted to try both out on this press.
I was sure the lion cast into the base would help me identify the manufacturer. But according to Before Photocopying, which has an image of a base that looks identical except is quality C instead of B, “it is one of a group of presses that have a common look but were made by different manufacturers”. This is in the section on English copying presses.
I think I put about 8 hours over 4 days into this press. Now I have my electrolysis system worked out I could do it in 6 hours. I like the green hammered metal paint look but it bothers me that traditionally it would have more likely been black Japanning. Tool restorers usually use black engine paint as a replacement for Japanning. I use it regularly and it is a good substitute. I had not intended to keep this press, but it grew on me and I use it almost daily now.
Black Beard Projects (aka Gader)
The bible on copy presses and the process is:
Before Photocopying : The Art & History of Mechanical Copying, 1780-1938 : A book in two parts by Barbara Rhodes & William Wells Streeter, Oak Knoll Press, 1999
The paint I used is Hammerite Direct to Rust metal paint, dark green with a hammered finish. I did not paint it direct to rust.
The web is full of pages on electrolysis rust removal. I mostly used this one.
The condition of the press when I bought it. The uniform dark colour should have let me know it wasn’t original paint. The nut about the handle is almost always grass, and often the cover over the split collar connecting the screw to the platen.
My first concern was undoing the large nuts under the base. I spayed these with WD-40 a number of times a day over a few days. I also used an exact fitting socket with a large breaker bar and gave them a few quick sharp hits. If this hadn’t loosened them, I would have applied some heat with a blow torch. I was very concerned about damaging the threads.
I did try using wire brushes and under the base did clean up fairly well. However, I could not remove the treated rust surface.
I completely disassembled the press and suspended each piece in an electrolysis bath for about 12 hours using a 20 amp 13 volt power supply. I had to do this in 2 batches.
After coming out of the electrolysis bath the metal is susceptible to flash rusting. It is important to dry it very quickly and get a coat of paint on it. I used a heat gun to dry the metal quickly. I used a black engine paint for under the base as it is easier to work with than the Hammerite paint. I put a coating of furniture wax on the base and underneath of the platen, both of which didn’t get painted.
The Hammerite paint runs easily and takes a while to dry between coats. Light coats are much better than thick coats which will cause running and tears.
The handle is stopped from rotating on the threaded shaft with a shaft key. The large brass nut on the top holds the handle firmly in place but does not stop the handle rotating on the shaft. The shaft key was absolutely flush with the handle and had to be drilled out. It was important to find a well fitted replacement to stop any give which would cause damage to the handle in the future.
I polished the brass pieces to a dull finish and coated with polyurethane to stop them oxidising again.
Assembly is fairly straight forward, except you have to put the platen in place before installing the pillars and yoke. So apart it came after I took this photo.
I had never intended to keep this press. I now use it daily as it sits between my 2 main working areas.