Introduction: Making a Document Press to Protect Your Genealogical Treasures

Several years ago I embarked on a family genealogy project and began collecting all manner of family history memorabilia, like photos, diplomas, certificates, deeds and other legal papers, birth and death certificates and so on. In general, if you have gone to the trouble of collecting them with the intent to pass them on to those who follow after you to continue your research, the items need to be stored in acid-free document protectors and, perhaps more importantly, kept flat.

Items that are letter or legal sized are not much of an issue, office supply houses are delighted to supply you with as many 3 hole binders as you need and are willing to pay for.

But larger items such as pictures, diplomas and certificates tend to be odd sizes and almost without exception are too large for normal binders. You “can” use a flat cardboard box (like a department store box for a coat) for storage, but these boxes, while large, are generally not all that rugged and your documents could “slosh around” in the box and could be damaged.

So, I hatched a plan to build what I call a “document press”. I decided that something measuring about 20” x 24” to store what I had, but you can make it whatever size or shape best fits your particular requirements.

Step 1: The Back and Front

Mine is made of two pieces of “better grade” ¼” plywood although 3/8” would be stiffer, less likely to warp and would, therefore, be better, but also heavier to carry.

Step 2: Adding a Carrying Handle

The back was cut with a tab at the middle of the long side. I made that into a handle by cutting an opening, gluing 2 additional thicknesses of plywood on (one front and one back) and sanding the handle smooth. I gave the front and back panels a couple of coats of polyethylene varnish, sanding between coats and then waxed them to prevent items from sticking.

Step 3: Adding the Stiffening Ribs

As soon as I cut out and drilled the front and back, I started to think about squeezing something between them. I realized that the ¼” thick material was going to flex and would require something to help keep it flat. I notched and added two ¾” square cross-section dowel rods to the back. They are glued and screwed to the plywood using short, flat-head screw from the inside. Having ribs on the front would probably have been a good idea but I intended to add a logo and the ribs would have been in the way.

Step 4: Adding the Clamping Bolts

I notched the ends of the braces and pressed in four 1/4x20 by 2-1/2 inch carriage bolts. My thought was that this length would be a good “starting point” and at any time in the future I could replace them with something longer to allow for additional storage. Here is a detail of one of the corners showing the carriage bolt.

However, after I started to use the press, I quickly realized that these bolts would probably be long enough for my purposes because, when you accumulate enough of it, memorabilia can get very heavy and the press is now about a heavy as I really want to carry around. So, when and if I need additional storage capacity, I’m just going to build a second press.

Step 5: Making the Lock-down Knobs

I made my lock-down knobs by turning down some square stock, drilling a center hole to clear the bolt and adding a T-nut. You could just a well use a piece of large diameter dowel. They could even be square, but if you choose that option, I’d at least knock the corners and other sharp edges off.

I put the nuts on the end towards the panel because I wanted to eliminate the possibility that the raw end of the bolts would stick out and scratch your hand or a piece of furniture. I also intentionally made them long to cover the bare threads.

If you look carefully, you will see that the T-nut is actually on the “wrong end” of the knob because as you tighten it down, the T-nut really “wants” to pull out. To prevent that, I used some epoxy to lock it in place. I also drop a washer under the knob so that I don’t scuff up the front panel by spinning the knobs on and off.

I varnished the Lock-down knobs, too.

Step 6: Filling Your Document Press

Here’s a photo of the completed document press without the cover, but with some of the documents in place.

Step 7: Making Sure Nothing Slips Out

Once I had filled the press, I immediately discovered that the acid-free document protectors are very slippery. Despite being tightly clamped down, the contents almost "oozed out" onto the floor the first time I picked the press up and tried to walk across the room.

To prevent this slippage, I wrapped a piece of rubberized shelf-liner around the bottom side of the document stack to grip the documents more tightly. Be advised! I do not recommend this if your documents are not in protective plastic covers. The rubber liner will probably stick to the top and bottom documents. If you were to store them, especially for a long time, the shelf-liner could stick, mark or otherwise damage the document.

Step 8: Decorating Your Document Press

You can leave the press just as it is or you can really get creative and personalize your document press. Paint it or just let yourself go! As an unabashedly proud woodcarver, I couldn’t help myself and went for a carved 3D logo for the front.

If you’d like to try your hand at making your own family tree, here is a .JPG of a “name-less” family tree. Just drop it into PowerPoint (or the layout package of your choice) and add your family name. Then print it out the size you want and carve away or, if you are not a carver, just turn it into a sticker for the front cover.