Freedom of The Press: The Renaissance of a French Laying Press

(Guest Blog By Jim Oliver

French Laying Press by Jim Oliver


As a young boy I was always taking things apart so I could find out how they worked and sometimes I even managed to put them back together again. Years later, as a carpenter/joiner and furniture maker, I am still curious how things are put together, and a chance encounter with a piece of bookbinder’s equipment kick-started a whole new project. This happened because my then wife, Nicky Oliver (now award-winning binder and owner of Black Fox Bindery) was a part-time student of Mark Cockram at Studio 5 in Barnes, London, and sometimes I used to meet her there.

On one such occasion in 2008, I saw up close, for the first time, a grand old trade-binders laying press. For those not familiar with these, they are essentially a mechanical vice-type device that sits on top of a stand (a bit like an open-topped table) and are used for several processes in the hand-binding of books. This particular example was in the French style, which meant it had three parallel cheeks: the outer two held rigid by two steel bars between them, and a middle cheek which moved along the two bars by way of a central screw-thread and hand-wheel. I was fascinated by this curious apparatus and, as is often the case when seeing something new that I don’t immediately understand, I kept looking at it from all angles until I knew exactly how it was made; on more than one occasion I have been asked to get out from underneath museum exhibits I am examining. After a bit of research, I discovered that there is a niche market for fine, hand-crafted laying presses, so I took a drawing to an engineer I knew to see if he could make a short run of all the metal components. He was very helpful, especially when I had to go back and change things as the design progressed. Shortly, armed with a box of the shiny new steel parts, I began work on a prototype.

The prototype functioned well, though very quickly I was working on improvements to the design. Because I was basing the design on what had been old trade equipment, the first few I made were absolute monsters. This was also due to the fact that I used some planks of beautiful re-claimed teak that had followed me around for some years just waiting for the right project. I didn’t find out until later that most bookbinders have little use – or indeed space – for a press with cheeks 15cm square and almost a metre long. After attending (and selling) at a couple of the Society of Bookbinders conferences and going along to several binding exhibitions and prize givings, I soon realized that the majority of books I was seeing were under A4 in size and that I should downsize the presses accordingly. It was then that I settled with the current model that measures about 65cm (25½”) wide with 38cm (15″) between the bars. This is still much wider than most binders need, but going much narrower while keeping a good working height led to stability issues. I also talked to quite a few binders about the different processes and, though I have yet to actually bind a book, I now have a pretty comprehensive understanding of every process for which the press and its many accessories are intended.

I always start with the actual press part first as it’s the most difficult to get right due to all the moving parts and alignment issues; and because the dimensions of the cheeks determine the dimensions of the tub (stand), it makes sense to start there. I use oak for my presses as it has beautiful grain features and the word itself is synonymous with ‘strong’ and ‘reliable’. For the cheeks I laminate oak and mahogany-type woods as a laminated beam with opposing grains is far stronger and more stable than a one-piece construction. This also makes for a nice contrast between the two different woods on the laminated cheeks; the yellow gold of oiled oak and the reddish rusty brown of mahogany or sapele complement each other very well.

Historically the tub was half a barrel to collect the trimmings, hence the name. This influenced the later designs, with the press sitting within an oversized tub. For my updated design I mounted the press on top of the tub using locating dowels which reduced the overall size. Also the tub now features four lockable casters, meaning the press can be moved easily around a workshop and locked into a steady working position in seconds. The tub is also made from solid oak with good deep mortice-and-tenon joints and hand-cut oak dowels, and then finished off with some attractive corner detailing.

All presses come with a plough, sanding boards, steel-edged backing boards and a handy bench top which is secured by the press itself to become another solid work surface when the press is not in use.The sanding boards and backing boards are located into the cheeks by stainless steel dowels and calibrated so that they meet together perfectly and stay there, allowing you to have one hand on your text-block and the other hand on the hand-wheel – a much easier operation than with traditional backing boards. I am happy to credit Mark Cockram for the locating dowels idea.

I was pleased to receive Arthur’s commission for a press; although it was based on previous models I’d made, Arthur’s press was designed specially to suit him, with an increased working height of 93cm. What made it particularly special to me was the fact that it was the first build since I had re-located to the north of Portugal and I hadn’t even built proper work benches by then, so I did a fair bit of it on my hands and knees. Also, it was press no.13 – thirteen completed builds since the chance meeting with that trade press those years ago. Things have moved on a bit since then; work benches have been built and press no. 14 got sent out. I’ve also been developing a smaller, bench-top press called ‘The Pygmy’ for those with no room for a full size model: it will fit under a small bench, in the back of a Smart car, and still hold a book up to A4 size.


Biography: Upon finishing his education, Jim Oliver went straight into mixed farming, becoming an experienced stockman and learning to talk to the animals. The animals advised him to learn to play an instrument and to go and see some of the world. Many years after learning to play (and build) guitars and seeing some of the world, he returned to the city of his birth and, after qualifying as a carpenter and welder, set up Olive and Oak with a view to create original, handmade and – hopefully – beautiful pieces of furniture and other work in wood. Olive and Oak welcomes all commissions –  large and small – and is slowly building a gallery with stock examples which will be available to view and buy. Olive and Oak is now located in the beautiful evergreen North of Portugal and ships worldwide.


Jim Oliver, 16th February 2017

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