I swear Jill has an eagle-eye sort of super power to spot a book press a mile away in the deepest darkest corner of any antique shop we wander. We've lucked out and have found all but one of our book presses at antique shops for a fair to low price; way better than what we see on eBay or even online auctions. When you're out and about in antique shops, keep an eye out for those little cast iron beauties. Book presses aren't just for book binders. If you're a serious book collector building a library or a book seller it would be a good idea to have one or two small book presses in your office or shop.
How do I know if the book press I found is usable? There are certain areas of a book press you should examine real quick before buying: First, are the uprights firmly attached to the base? And if not, will simply tightening a bolt be enough to fix the problem? Second, does the wheel or handle freely spin? (If it is stiff but the screw looks to be in good shape, it may only need an application of grease to make it function smoothly.) Third, is the platen (top plate that moves up and down) well attached to the vertical screw? Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, is there any corrosion to the base plate or the underside of the platen? (If these are in fairly good shape with some small defects the press can still be used by adding pieces of MDF board, and never allowing the damaged metal to come in contact with the book.)
Now that I've found a good book press, how do I know I'm using it correctly? There are few circumstances a collector will find having a book press to be very useful. For instance, when a collector has purchased a "new" book, particularly if that book comes to him from an area with a very different climate, it can be good to allow the book to become acclimatized to its new home under light pressure in the press for a week or two. While it would be optimal for every library or book shop to maintain perfect temperature and humidity, that is unrealistic and so you'll see books adjust or change between seasonal changes. Sometime vellum will buckle with the slightest change in temperature and humidity, and while leather bindings need to breathe, they can also display signs of cockling, and these circumstances also would be remedied with a small book press. If you do leave your book in the press for a long period of time (longer than a week), make sure to take the book out occasionally to ensure additional damage isn't happening.
Applying pressure: Pay close attention to pressure! The book should be placed squarely centered in the press and the platen should be lowered until it presses firmly on the book, but you should not have to crank the wheel or handles. It is better to use lighter pressure over longer periods of time than heavier pressure for less time. If you can see the spine of the book buckling, you have applied too much pressure. If your particular book has a very wide spine, with shoulders that protrude above the level of the boards (cover), sandwich the book between two pieces of MDF with the edges of the MDF coming up to, but not over the protruding shoulders before placing the book sandwich in the press (see above photo for example).
(*If your book shows more damage than simple warping or cockling brought on by temperature and humidity changes, seek advise from a practicing rare book conservationist to discuss possible and proper repair and restoration.)
A collector or book seller generally won't need to worry about what is called "daylight" in book presses, unless their books are extremely thick and over sized. Daylight is the maximum distance between the platen and the press bed when it is fully opened. You can use other book weights for over sized books to avoid purchasing expensive large book presses with a lot of daylight. When shopping for your book press 3" of daylight is sufficient for most needs.
You may notice book binders and restorers have multiple book presses with varied amounts of daylight. Book binders need these kinds of presses simply due to production purposes. A lot of daylight allows the binder to place multiple books in the press at once.
Something to note about small book presses: Nipping Press vs. Letter-press. What are commonly called book presses are technically termed nipping presses. In a nipping press all the vertical pressure is applied by the turning of a screw. Many people substitute letter-presses for nipping presses. These letter-presses are also known as copying presses, as they were once very common in 19th Century business offices and can sometimes be easier to find. The letter-press uses the vertical screw to set the platen (top plate) to a desired height, and then a lever is engaged to apply the actual pressure (reference definition HERE). A general Google search for a "copy press" can be frustrating, as there is a common held belief, even among the book trade, that small book presses were all actually copy presses. A true copy press or letter-press will always have a lever. Letter-presses can be effectively used by collectors, but care must be taken when engaging the lever not to inadvertently apply far more pressure than is needed.
A word is here needed about linen presses. Book presses are almost exclusively made of cast iron. Large wooden presses are actually linen presses. These presses are common as statement pieces in the decor of book shops and collector libraries, as they are stunningly beautiful, but they were designed to flatten on polish linen fabric (see more about linen presses HERE).
If you don't want to search antique shops, eBay, or deal with auctions to find a book press for your library or book shop we recommend purchasing one from Bindery Tools, LLC (link HERE). The presses listed there between $260 - $500 are a perfect size for the avid book collector and antiquarian book seller. Also, even if you never use it, wouldn't a book press look great in your library or shop! Yes! The answer is yes!
General info for your library or shop: An optimal environment for collectible books, ephemera, and fine art is a controlled environment. Temperature should be kept between 68 - 72 degrees. Humidity should be kept between 30% - 50%. Check out our article about proper care of leather books HERE. Additionally check out our article about how to condition your leather bindings HERE.