Bookbinding Tools II: twin-screw presses, part one

We’re going to wander quite a bit on this one, hovering in the late 17th century before zooming forward to the time of Cheetos and laptops. Don’t worry; we’ll be back before dinner.

Not long ago, writing in the pages of Popular Woodworking magazine, Christopher Schwarz set the sawdust-besotted multitudes (myself among them) on a quest to build what he termed a “Moxon vise”, so-called because it was depicted prominently in the works of 17th century publisher Joseph Moxon. (Of course, Moxon more-or-less plagiarized his engravings from French author André Félebien, but that’s not Chris’s fault, and anyway, that’s another post.)

Moxon’s mysteriously-mounted vise.

In Moxon’s version (above), the twin-screw vises were smallish and mounted by mysterious means on the front edge of the bench. In Félebien, they are huge and hanging up on the wall, looming over the workbench, where the French joiner no doubt worked in fear of the lurking presses falling on him.

The screw presses of Nosferatu by André Félebien

In one of his articles (if I could find it, I’d link to it), Schwarz specifically noted that these twin-screw vises were already well known to bookbinders. In fact, I think that might have been why Moxon moved them down from the wall when he made so few other changes to the drawings he cribbed from the Frenchman.

Moxon wasn’t a cabinetmaker or joiner; he was a bookman. And in his world, those vises would have been smaller, and down on the bench or the floor where they were useful for handwork. Seemed only logical to him.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the woodworkers who were tasked with building them for the bookbinders took one look at what the binders were asking for and said “Right, I’ll have one of those too!” It’s entirely possible the binders were the ones casting covetous eyes on the joiners’ presses.

Schwarz would probably wave an ancient Roman relic in my face which was personally blessed by Pope Boniface VIII, which he personally sat on and I’d have to admit defeat.

In all seriousness, I don’t really want to mock the “sawdust-besotted masses”, because I am quite enthusiastically among them. This is my “Moxon Vise” (below) and a damned handy doodad it is too for gripping long boards or pinning a wide-board in place for cutting dovetails.

Mine is relatively dainty and low-tech compared to some, but just ridiculously handy to have around.

finishing press

So this is one of those projects I’ve done before, though it doesn’t look anything like the presses you see in the period examples in Jost Amman. Which means that I’m making it harder on the next go around and giving myself something new to worry about.

The next press design we discuss will be less Moxon and more Amman and I won’t have Chris Schwarz to guide me this time.

“We can guess, which is what most people do. Or we can build a bunch of workbenches from woods in varying degrees of wetness and observe the results through several years. This second path is much more difficult than sitting naked in the dark at your computer keyboard – fingers covered in the dust of Cheetos – and pontificating online. But it’s the path I took.”

— Christopher Schwarz

(Scott quietly cleans the Cheeto dust off his hands and goes back to work)

More later,

~ Scott

Works referenced:

Mechanick exercises: or, The doctrine of handy-works ; applied to the arts of Smithing, joinery, carpentry, turning, and bricklayery. by Joseph Moxon, published between 1677 and 1684, 1703 edition, care of the HathiTrust digital library, digitized by the University of Michigan


Principles of architecture, sculpture, painting, and other arts that depend on it (Des principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, et des autres arts qui en dépendent) by  André Félibien, 1676, digitized by Bibliothèque nationale de France


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