Introduction: DIY Letterpress - Adana3D
This manual letterpress, as the name can suggest, was inspired by UK’s famous manufacturer Adana. I wanted to link the tradition of manual printing with current technologies. The machine is built with concrete, nuts and bolts. Furthermore, the cliché is designed on a computer and printed with modern 3D printers, hence the name.
You can find an extended version of this Instructable in pdf following this link: Adana3D
The initial concept was quite simple: analyze Gutenberg’s press, scale it down and build it with wood. My first thought went to this primitive press mainly because it is structurally simple: you have a big press, operated by a lever, that squeezes a big sheet of paper on a matrix, previously inked with some sort of rollers.
This design could be simply achieved with a metal frame and a bottle press. But it wasn’t really interesting in my perspective, as it relied on a massively produced hydraulic press, one that you can buy for cheap online. Not a very big challenge, huh?
The great idea came after I visited the Typographical Museum in Lodi, a lovely town just south-west from Milan. They have an impressing array of letterpresses, platen machinery and other really interesting presses.
Analyzing the compact platen letterpresses, I realised that would be a good design to consider. They are reasonably small and lightweight machines, very easy to operate and maintain. Moreover, some of them were used during the Second World Wars by Italian partisans to print anti-fascist propaganda.
I just couldn’t resist to the romantic charm of the story.
As reference I used the glorious British Adana 8x5, a letterpress sold from the late Fifties. I wanted to link the ancient tradition of hand printing with modern technologies, so I decided to use 3D printing. Hence, the name Adana3D.
I started to sketch a lot on random pieces of paper, trying to figure out the best possible configuration of all the elements. Even if there were basically three pieces -matrix, platen, pressing mechanism-, this step took me a huge amount of time.
Eventually, I decided to break the machine in three sections, one that would absorb the blows and be the housing of the matrix, a central part constituted by the platen and its mechanism and a third part, the block that would support the mechanism.
Step 1: 3D Modeling and Flattening
Once all the ideas were on paper, I started the 3D modeling. The two blocks were modelled in Autodesk’s 3DS Max, then processed in a special software called Pepakura Designer. This one is a pretty neat piece of code, as it allows you to import .obj files and to flatten them on a single or multiple pieces of paper. By doing so I was able to print out all the faces of the polygons and to create some paper mock ups, to see if the proportions were ok and if everything was behaving the way I expected. As always, a couple of details had to be changed (i.e. the slot running through the second block was too shallow), but nothing major.
Step 2: Concrete - Pain and Bliss
Then I started some research on the materials I was going to use. As I said previously, the initial concept was to print every part with a 3D printer. After a quick research, I understood that the whole project would be slightly above 1600 Euros (around 3000 USD), nothing that I could afford. So I rewinded my mind and focused on bringing down the price of the final press.
I thought that wood could be a pretty good and cheap alternative. Unfortunately, after a couple of days I had to give up this idea: the big manufacturers weren’t able to cut such small chunks of wood, while the carpenters thought for some reason that I was plain crazy.
For a brief moment I considered using epoxy resin, but when I realized that the exothermic reaction which occurs when you mix the chemicals would probably melt the mould, I decided to give cement a shot.
It was the first time I was working with this material, so I made some research: concrete is an artificially engineered material made from a mixture of portland cement, aggregates (such as sand or gravel) and water. It is the most commonly used construction material in the world. When water is added to portland cement, the silicates combine with the water, rapidly at first. The process slows down but never completely stops if there is moisture present. If concrete sets in one day, it will be more than four times as hard after a week, six times as hard in a month, and more than eight times as hard after five years.
Before adding water, portland cement is usually mixed with aggregates, typically sand and gravel, to make concrete for walls, floors, pillars, roadways or sidewalks. Ratios in the construction industry vary from 1:2:3 (cement:sand:gravel) to 1:2:4 to 1:3:5.
As the cement dehydrates it hardens, holding the aggregates together, including any steel reinforcing. The concrete should be kept damp for several days (small items for as long as a week) as most of the curing/hardening takes place then.
Luckily, concrete has great strength in compression, but little tensile strength. If your project needs to have thin and long shapes made of concrete, you should consider adding steel wire and mesh to reinforce the structure, particularly in unsupported spans. Even alkali-resistant glass fibres are sometimes added for tensile strength, substituting for steel rebar.
In the first 24 hours most shrinkage cracks occur, which is why polypropylene fibres can be added to the original mix. Glass fibers serve the same purpose. They prevent these cracks from becoming too large.
Concrete has also a downside: as it is highly alkaline, so it is easy to get chemical burns on you. Especially if, like me, while you are adding water to the portland cement, you decide to stir the mixture with your bare hands, because it looks like like clay.
Actually, even its texture feels like clay.
Anyway, if you are foolish enough to stir the compound barehanded, remember that it will burn your skin.
Heads up: the only way to counter the alkaline nature of concrete is to pour vinegar on the affected area (because of its acid nature, it acts like the perfect enemy of cement).
By any means, avoid all contact with your skin wearing proper safety equipment.
And also, vinegar burns like hell.
Step 3: Moulds, Bolts and Leaks
Using the templates I printed before, I finally made some moulds with styrofoam. I chose this high density material because it offers a nice, non-sticky surface for the portland cement, is quite affordable (circa 4 Euros per square meter in my local hardware store) and is very easy to cut, even with a sharp cutter.
Remember, cutters, exacto knives, heated saws an almost all sharp equipment is dangerous. Use it at your own risk and please use your brain and some kind of protection. Try not to dismember yourself.
After the moulds were assembled with some hot glue, the process of making the two main supports was quite fast forward: I poured the concrete, stuck some bolts in it so it would be easy to attach the blocks on the base and waited overnight for the compound to cure.
Alas, I made a mistake and used only a little hot glue (mainly because I ran out of it in the middle of the second mould), that resulted in a bursted out mould.
Somewhat I managed to fix the mistake, but the rear block doesn’t look as good as the front one.
Pro tip: mix as little water as you can with the cement powder, as the final compound will shrink according to the amount of water you pour in it. I don’t have the perfect recipe, I proceeded with some trial and error. The final material should be thick and semi-solid, circa the same consistency of caramel. Yum.
Step 4: Hammering the Night Away
Next, I started focusing on the platen. Initially I was planning on attaching it directly to the front block through a metal pivot. Analyzing better the situation, I realised that this idea would incur into some serious problems, mainly because, as I was using cement, the pivot had to be submerged into the block while the compound was poured, resulting in a non rotating pivot. Pretty useless. I briefly caressed the idea of using some ball bearings to enable the mechanical rotation, but the high price of such small-sized bearings and my lack of knowledge in soldering drove me off.
I settled on something less flashy, following the K.I.S.S. principle (not the band, the acronym means “Keep it Simple, Stupid”): a couple of black hinges from the local hardware store and the trick was done.
For the flat part, the one that will ram onto the matrix, for a matter of simplicity and workability, I used L-shaped metal profiles, cut down to the proper length and bolted tight. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the access to clamps and a drill press, so everything hat to be done with a Dremel, sand paper and a lot of time.
Actually, the first time I built this part I made badly my calculations and the platen was some centimeters too short. The second time I got it right and also managed to fit in a third hinge that would help me attaching this part to the articulated joint I was planning for the next phase.
Step 5: Joint Operations
NOT that kind of joint, you silly mind.
Next in my schedule was the central junction and the mechanism that would make the letterpress, well, a letterpress.
The frame is made of four steel bars bolted together, steel rods as reinforcement and handles, a couple of long screws and loose bits.
There was quite a bit of drilling, assembling, cursing, disassembling, cutting, sanding, reassembling. You know, the standard procedure.
Again, please operate in a safe environment, trying to reduce possible injuries. Don’t cut metal nearby any socket or power source, as it may blow up. Don’t be like me.
Step 6: Working the Matrix
Finally, I had to worry about the matrix.
I wanted to print one of my piece of poetry –if they can be even called
poetry– so the selection process was quite simple. Unfortunately, as the matrix is only 9x11cm, I simply couldn’t squeeze in a lot of text. So, instead, I went for a short quote from Graham Greene, “Heresy is only another word for freedom of thought”.
Quick tips: write/draw/do whatever you want on a vector software, as Adobe Illustrator, then vertically mirror the expanded letters and export the file in .svg (Scalable Vector Graphic, is a non-proprietary format that can be imported in whichever 3D application).
In 3DS Max, or virtually every other 3D application, import the .svg and extrude the profile on the vertical axis. I recommend an extrusion of 2/3mm, as a bigger extrusion wouldn't affect the matrix. You know, you have to save money and time on the 3D printer.
3D printers work with .stl files (short for Stereolitography), so export the file in that format. Don't worry about textures and materials, as they are not supported in this format.
Finally you can print!
For the printing process and prep I went to the guys of Fablab Milano, that was right next door my University. How convenient.
There I learned that to print in 3D you really should have the normals flipped in your .stl file. And that geek is good!
Once all was done, it was time to print something, the old way.
Step 7: Live, Print, Repeat
Once the 3D printing is finished, it's time to glue the matrix to the support, spread some ink on it with a rubber scraper, press the lever and have fun!
Any kind of feedback is highly appreciated! Feel free to contact me for anything.