Equipment in use at the Excelsior Press Museum
        Print Shop
                            Common Press - as used in the 13 Colonies

Ben Franklin's Horizontal

Platen Press

aka "The Common Press"

The Standard - 1600-1800

Ben Franklin, like nearly every American printer of his era, printed using a wooden "Common Press" which was the standard printing press used throughout the world until the advent of the steel toggle presses which became available - and quickly popular - around 1780.
"Ben Franklin's" Hand Press was of a standard design, an essentially all-wood, floor-standing press, much like those used in both America and in Europe from Gutenberg's time until the end of the 18th century.

This press, sometimes known as the "American Common Press", is actually the "English Common Press.

In fact, until Independence, when American Press Makers were legally allowed to build presses here, most presses used in the world came from Europe - specifically, England. In this case, Ben Franklin's press was very much like the press that would have been found in a 1750's Printing Office whether in London or Philadelphia.

When we queried press historian Bob Oldham about why these presses were shipped to the Colonies from England, instead of being made here, he explained that "For the first 150 years of the American colonies almost all goods had to be purchased in England, by English law -- the colonists were forbidden to make their own."

In other words, building presses in America was discouraged by the British government - something about import agreements... . It wasn't until The United States separated from England that Americans had the freedom to not only print what they wanted, but to build the presses to print them on...

The photo below shows a colonial printer operating the Common Press in use at The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston see:

Docent operating the Common Press at The
                Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston

The press in the photo below is the press that Ben Franklin is reputed to have used as a young printer in England in the 1730s. It is now in the collection of The Smithsonian Institution.

A complete report on this press can be found in The Common Press by Elizabeth Harris and Clinton Sisson - which includes the drawings used to reproduce a Common Press for a special display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Ben Franklin's Printing Press at the
                SmithsonianThe Common Press by Elizabeth
                Harris & Clinton Sisson

Here's a nice video of a Common Press being used at Colonial Williamsburg.

And here's a link to our own reproduction of Ben Franklin's Composing Stick

below: 1:10 scale Model of a wooden Common Press from our collection.
15th Century Wooden Common Press - Model15th Century Wooden Common Press - Model
This press has been available for many years - from many different makers - as a 1:10 all-wood scale model. Sometimes it is promoted as "Gutenberg's Press", "Ben Franklin's Press" or, here as a "15th Century Printing Press". They are all about the same, however, since not much was done in press design between 1450 and 1780.

The kit shown here comes complete with all parts - and diagrams to make your own Common Press.

Press built by Steve Pratt to replicate
                Gutenberg's pressThe press to the left is a full-scale, working reproduction of Johann Gutenberg's press from 1450. Press design did not change much by 1750.

This beautiful press was built by Steve Pratt of Pratt Wagon Works in Orem, Utah.

Before his death, Mr. Pratt built over forty various printing presses, some wood, some cast iron and steel.

Common Press built by Alan May
And here's a press built by Alan May in England in 2009. Alan May also built a replica of Gutenberg's press and was featured in a BBC documentary on the subject.

This 1700's - era Wooden Common Press is in regular use at the Tom Paine Press in England -

Video -

Note to reader: If you have any experience in use of such a Press - or know where one can be seen in operation, please let us know - or send us a link to your own site.

contact Alan if you can help.

For further information about North American Hand Presses, we recommend
Robert Oldham's Field Guide to North American Hand Presses,
available for $15 from or from our Fundraising Page

For more information on Common Press reproductions:


last updated 8/5 - 8/28/2014
contact Alan with Questions