Putting the Pressure On @ VABC

Virginia Arts of the Book Center

“Wow! Look at that giant printer!” These were the words of a student visiting the VABC in the nineties. It was the first time I noticed that the identity of the printing press was slipping away. The student was pointing to the huge cast-iron Washington press which Rare Books School had loaned to the VABC. When I explained that printers are people, the student corrected me as well, reminding me of the machines beginning to appear in every home next to the desktop computer…the digital printer.

The Washington press had been the perfect tool for explaining the essential principle of relief printing—pressure. You pull the handle—hard—to apply pressure. The giant machine is just a mechanism for converting your muscle power into compressive force to push the paper into the raised and inked surface of the plate, block, or type.  Students could pull the handle and watch the platen move and see the resulting impression.

Contrary to conventional knowledge, Gutenberg did not “invent” the printing press. The screw press had been in use since classical times…most commonly for the pressing of fruits for wines, ciders, and oils. It is very likely that the screw press had even been used to print woodblocks before Gutenberg’s time. [Gutenberg was almost certainly the first European to discover the advantages of movable type—an invention which made it possible to print entire books from a single drawer of cast metal—one signature at a time.]

Today, the Rare Book School’s Washington Press lives on the second floor of the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library where it is used for the occasional printing demo. The VABC’s presses are much more modern. Our principal presses are a cylinder press (a Vandercook Universal One proof press), a platen press (a Chandler and Price clamshell), and an etching press which uses a mechanism similar to the mangle on an old wringer washing machine. With these few machines we successfully continue the traditions of relief printing for the creation of the printed word and image.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution ignited the  imaginations of the handyman inventors of America, dozens of patents appeared for new machines which used various techniques for using pressure to put ink on paper. They replaced the screw with various combinations of levers, joints, and toggles which provided so much pressure that even the new cast iron frames could be cracked by excessive use. With the invention of the rotary press and the application of the steam engine the days of the hand-operated press came to an end. But today artists and fine printers are are still discovering the joys of working by hand in community printing shops, and hand operated presses are back. The incredibly inventive DIY youngsters of the web generation have conceived of and shared plans for new versions of hand operated relief printing presses using common house hold tools such as the ubiquitous car jack.

My first introduction to one of these new DIY presses came through an introduction to the retired English professor, Paul Loukides. Paul has taught creative writing and film studies at Albion College in Michigan for 38 years, but in retirement he began exploring other artistic directions by taking classes in drawing and ceramics. Moving to Charlottesville, he continued to nurture these interests in classes at our community college. While creating a gift for a grandchild, he discovered the fantastical and bizarre creatures lurking the fringes of his own imagination. Printmaking and ceramics turned out to be the perfect medium for putting his sketches of these beasts into forms which he could share with others, and today he shares his menagerie with the public through his Etsy shop, WheeledFishStudio.

The lack of access to a printing press (Paul had not yet discovered the VABC!) inspired him to build his own. Reading about the newly designed DIY presses in the web, he was enough to put him in motion. Paul began experimenting, building several versions of these presses from two by fours and then plywood and making his own improvements. Paul succeeded in building an easy to use yet powerful press for very little cost. He is now using this press to populate our world with his colorful bestiary buddies.

The VABC is thrilled that Paul has offered to demonstrate how he prints with his homemade press. He will also provide instructions and tips on how you can make your own version!. Join us at the VABC on Saturday afternoon April 21 at 1:00 p.m. for some terrific play with this printing press.

At 74, Paul is living proof of George Bernard Shaw’s adage, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old…”


The Tufts Press designed by Otis Tufts around 1831. It was a close copy of another press using an acorn frame, but is a good example of some of the unusual press designs American mechanics were creating in the early nineteenth century. Very few of these presses were actually built, but the one used as a model for this wood engraving is still in use in Newport, Rhode Island in the 1990s. A wheeled fish imagined by Paul Loukides and created on his homemade press. Paul's creatures appear in ceramic form as well. This garden guardian is available from his Etsy shop, WheeledFishStudio. Another of the amazing creatures Paul has discovered between platen and paper on his homemade press. Paul's homemade press. He will demonstrate this press at the VABC on Saturday afternoon, April 21.

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