No one knows what the first printing press looked like. There are no illustrations, plans or specific descriptions of the machine used by Johannes Gutenberg or the other early printers in Europe in the second half of the 15th century that would help one to reconstruct a faithful replica of the printing press. What survives from that period are the products of the press – the printed materials.
The invention of printing with moveable type was a revolution. Books that for centuries were completely handwritten, a laborious and time-consuming task, were now suddenly much quicker to produce in large quantities. This helped the spread of knowledge and ideas in new formats and at a speed like nothing seen before. In the end, this revolution helped the shaping of a new mentality and therefore a new time period in Europe, the Renaissance.
The motivation behind the project
My ambition to have a wooden printing press has many years of maturation. It was an idea that lived on that corner of the brain, where it pops-up from time to time, only to be silenced again by all the other ideas, current projects, works, and basically the daily life business that kept whispering "one day...".
The day came in early September 2019, when I was challenged to have a Printing Press running for a living history event that should take place in summer 2020. "Now it's the time", I thought, and so it was. Although I have some experience with woodworking, I knew from the beginning that I don't have the knowledge, tools, or even space for working on such an ambitious project. Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to know the right people who could help me with it, or better yet, could actually do it, in my circle of close friends. It was easy to convince Ben Woldring, a skilled woodworker/blacksmith, to embrace the project.
After lots of reading and thinking, the gathering of information, museum visits, and more reading, the first drawings and plans were made in December 2019 and thereafter discussed with Ben. The woodwork started in early 2020, and it was finalized at the beginning of June (with a long hiatus in March/April due to the pandemic situation).
Note that there are no extant presses from the 15th-century, no images or descriptions of the machine that Gutenberg used, so this reconstruction is based on later drawings, and the studies made by historians over the years, with special attention on the brilliant work developed by Allan May.
La Grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes
Mathias Huss, Lyon, 1499
(British Library IB/41735)
Detail of a drawing by Albrecht Dürer, 1511
Musée Bonnat, Bayonne (N1 1288)
Grand danse macabre
Printing presses in the early period of printing can be divided into two groups: “one-pull press” and “two-pull press”, the latter being developed around 1470. The main difference between the two types is the possibility of printing 1 or 2 pages of text. When printing with a wooden press, there is a limit on the pressure allowed by the wooden spindle, and the size of the platen (the flat wood block that applies the pressure to the type in order to make an impression). With a one-pull press, this means that only one page of a large volume like the 42-line Gutenberg’s Bible can be printed at a time. In this case, each folio – consisting of 4 pages – would have to make a visit to the press four times. On a two-pull press, the press bed (where the type is set) can be moved forward beyond the platen and have a second impression, thus making the printing of a folio quicker and less prone to mistakes.
Our press ended up more like a hybrid. It is built as a one-pull press, with no rails on the back for supporting the type bed, but the carriage can, if necessary, be pushed backward enough to allow 2 prints, the feet are strong enough to support the weight in either form of assembly. This was decided for various reasons: it's a rather small press, made for an easy disassembling and transportation; it’s intended to print smaller works (broadsides, booklets); it can be adapted later, if necessary, to a proper two-pull press.
Four different kinds of wood were used on the building of this Press: ash for the bar, beech for the platen, hornbeam for the spindle, and oak for all the other parts.
The most challenging part of this project was definitely the making of the spindle and nut. The spindle was carved from a solid piece of hornbeam hardwood. To carve the nut, a temporary nut box was built, with pegs to guide the spindle, while on its tip a special blade was installed to carve the nut. Check the video to see how this worked out.
In total, the Press weights 151 kg and all elements can be disassembled for easier transportation. Once assembled, the press is held together by pegs in the winter and nut.
On the coffin, a marble stone is installed to provide the flat, strong surface were the moveable type is set up for printing.