The Minion Press is almost ready…

I know it has been a bit silent on the blog lately. But that doesn’t mean that I have been sitting still. On the contrary, my days have been so filled that there was no time left for writing.

One of the weekend projects is the “Minion Press”. It’s just something on the side, one of my own fascinations that I just had to chase. A recreation of an historical printing press.

At first I wanted to make reconstruction of the original press Johann von Gutenberg used for his first prints in 1450. But as no original survives, it is all interpretation based on iconography and studying other sources. Besides for my purpose it needs to be transportable, preferably by one man using a lorry. While the early presses presented in engravings by Albrecht Dürer are very monolithic in nature, later “common press” models can be taken apart.

The oldest surviving printing press is in the Plantin Moretus museum in Antwerp. An old printers workshop, virtually unchanged since the 16th century. Almost like a time capsule.

Unfortunately I have no time to visit Antwerp and ask the museum for permission to measure their presses. But like always the Encyclopedie by Diderot is there to save the day.

In this monumental work all the ins and outs of the printing process are described. And even better; they provide scaled drawings of the pressed used.

For projects like these Sandra and I have the rule that it should cost as little as possible. The reason is simple: otherwise we would go broke on our hobbies. But a nice side-effect of this condition is that we have to become very creative. It often leads us to use discarded and secondhand materials, doing our own recycling. After a while it gives a whole different outlook on life as well as garbage. We try to keep our environmental footprint as small as possible. And one way to do this is to give a new life to old materials.

Pallet Projects

A friend of mine provides me with beech wood pallets. I know in some woodworking circles this source of materials is frowned and looked down upon. But as I said before, the material in itself doesn’t make a project superior or inferior. It’s the idiot handling the tools and applying the materials that does. Isn’t there a saying that only a bad craftsman blames his tools? And what to think of materials? Sometimes a material isn’t suitable for a project. Like using plaster of Paris, glass or clay to make an anvil… Yes, it is possible to make one, but it won’t last for long. Is this the fault of the material? Or the fool choosing to make a porcelain, glass of gypsum anvil in the first place?

For this project the beechwood  pallets are good enough. It isn’t fine woodworking, it’s more like making a workbench or barn. A tool, nothing fancy. The old presses are made of materials that were good enough for the purpose. Withstand the pressure and don’t fall apart. But they were not chosen for their looks or “rustic appearance”. No, they just had a task to fulfill, nothing more, nothing less.

Up to the task

I selected the pieces that were up to their task. The less crooked, warped and cracked, the better. But some were put in and left
under tension deliberately, using a ‘defect’ as an advantage. Using
existing stock also has another advantage. You don’t have to cut down new trees for it. To me it makes no sense to fell, cut up, dry and transport new trees and at the same time throw away suitable materials. Especially not in a time when deforestation is a big environmental problem, causing all sorts of ecological and social problems. Apart from the financial costs (yes, making unnecessary garbage fuels the economy, I know) the ecological impact is huge. And it always appalls me to see people who – often with a bible in their hands – say we have to be ‘stewards’ or ‘curators’ of creation, and at the same time do everything in their power to rob that same earth of all its resources, only for their own fun and profit. Where is the responsibility in that? Or is that responsibility only meant for others, not when it serves our own interests? Can anybody please elaborate on this and enlighten me about the rationale behind that? 

Historic vs. Hysteric

One other thing that was quite clear in this project was that it had to be functional first, and it wasn’t forbidden to use (hidden) screws and modern materials. It’s great to make the face of your tympan from vellum, but when you are transporting the press regularly, it might be more useful to use vinyl. I know some re-enactment purists will cringe in their seats right now. Well, when these people want me to change it, they are welcome to sponsor a vellum tympan anytime it tears in transport… Or make their own version off course…

Another compromises are that I will use polymer and linoleum plates for printing instead of movable lead type. The reason? Well imagine a set of movable type getting knocked over while we are assembling the press at an event. And it’s also a way to keep te weight down (and it’s easier to clean, at the end of the day you just rinse them off). It will however be possible to use traditional lead on this press.

Also (other than my normal approach) I used a lot of machines in the process. There is simply no sense in smoothing and squaring these rough planks with hand tools. I like to use woodworking as a workout, but you can stretch too far… So a hand held electric planer and belt-sander with #40 to smoothen the beams. The saw table to dimension and square, and a router for the edges. Not historic, I know, but I want it to be ready and printing as soon as possible.


I wanted the press to have a natural wood finish. To show people it was really made of wood, and there is no shame in being honest about its origin. It must look like it was old, but not use paint. Easy to clean, but no matter when it gets dented or stained. The best option was an antique wax. A few weeks ago I saw that the “Kruidvat” (a chain of druggist shops) had their own brand antique wax on sale for € 3,99 per jar. Well, why not give it a try? After some testing the quality proved to be far better than I expected, drying quick and hard. So the whole press is covered in the cheapest antique wax I could find…

Some other parts are scavenged from the most unlikely sources. The metal rods to lower the platten and for the axle of the print bed transportation system were the struts of an old dining table. Its crank started its life on the nose wheel of a tender.

With a little help of my friends

The project is almost completed. Most parts are ready and all that needs to be done is to cover them with a coat of wax and assemble the whole lot. Soon I hope to make the first test print. It will be used at the shop to make labels for my instruments.

But I also hope to take it on the road and use it at reenactment events. I hope to get some of my friends enthusiastic to come along and operate the press.  To give children the possibility to make their own “first edition” and learn people about the first big media revolution.

Printing was the start of our technological and intellectual advancement. And while the technology may look crude and simple, its impact is still visible today.


This entry was posted in History, Printing press, Projects, Re-enactment, Research, Think different, Thoughts, Tools, Uncategorized, Woodworking, Workshop and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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