Media & Techniques

Building a Bottle Jack Press (Ep. 345)

Josh Chrosniak returns to the show today to discuss how he built a printmaking press in his classroom. Using an automotive bottle jack, and following videos, resources, and instructions, he created a machine that can be used for a variety of printmaking processes. In this episode, he tells Tim how it was built, everything he uses it for, and encourages teachers to build one themselves.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Back in September, AOEU writer Josh Chrosniak published an article about how you can build your own printmaking press using a bottle jack, like one of those automotive jacks you used to lift a car, and some pretty simple materials. And I haven’t built one yet, but I have been thinking about the idea ever since that article was published. So I invited Josh back on the show today to talk us through the process of building that press, how he uses it, and some of the benefits that come along with making your own printmaking press. So if you are printmaking yourself or if you teach printmaking, I think you’ll be intrigued by this process, the idea of making a press and hopefully just this whole conversation. So let me bring on Josh and we can get it all started now.

Josh Chrosniak is back on the show today. Josh, how are you?

Josh: I’m doing well, Tim. How are you?

Tim: I am well. Good to have you back. We had a great episode last time about Eerie artists right around Halloween. And now I want to talk about the bottle jack press that you wrote an entire article about. Yeah, a couple months ago actually, but I thought it was a really good one. But I think to start the conversation, we should probably just go with the basic baseline just so everyone knows. What is a bottle jack and how does one use a bottle jack to create a printmaking press?

Josh: So it’s pretty unique, but a bottle jack is actually an automotive tool and it’s primarily used to lift cars. And the bottle jack, it differs from a floor jack model where the bottle jack is more vertical in shape. So it’s shaped more like a bottle, which is where it gets its name from. And the floor jack model is more horizontal and it has a lower profile.

So the bottle jack to be used as a press, the press itself has a few basic parts and it’s obviously got the bottle jack, which is one part. A slotted steel frame, a bottom board. And then it’s got a top board also called the platinum board. And that’s all made out of wood. And tension can be put onto the press either using springs or bungee cords. And in short, what happens is the bottle jack lowers the top board into the bottom board. So the bottom board is stationary, doesn’t move. So then when you use the jack, it lowers that top board and it presses. So that pressure is what creates a print. And so this is in comparison to a roller or what we might call an etching press, which uses rollers or wheels to make the print.

Tim: And I guess we should say, since this is an audio medium and we’re talking to a bunch of art teachers who are usually visual, if you can’t picture this press or need to see what it looks like, in the show notes, we will have a link to Josh’s article about this. So if you want to pause here real quick, bring that article up so you can see what he is talking about, feel free to do that if that’ll help you kind of visualize through the rest of our conversation here. But Josh, I guess I was just curious about how you got the idea to build your own one of these. Where did you see the bottle jack press or where did the inspiration come from?

Josh: Yeah, so that’s a good question. I can’t take credit for coming up with this idea on my own, but I got this idea about 10 years ago and 10 years ago I was a long term sub in the same district I graduated high school. So this really all kind of came full circle. Long story short, I had my first year teaching and I got laid off. I was first year in a charter school and got laid off. So my second year I ended up subbing. Well, I ended up long terming, like I said, in my alma mater. And the benefit of that was I got to work with my high school art teacher and he’s a really great guy and he actually really inspired me to become an art teacher and an artist, pushed me really hard and provided a lot of special opportunities and just a really, really wonderful teacher. So truly inspirational.

So it really was a pleasure to come back in long term with him. And so during that long term experience, he actually showed me this press that… And he built it and he was showing it to me and I thought it was incredible. And he was always building stuff and doing stuff like that and always showing us cool things. So I really admired it. I never forgot about it and wanted to build one as soon as I saw it. But time went on and I just always made prints by hand and that’s just kind of what I always did. In the back of my head, I always was like, oh, I should build that press, I should build that press.

So finally 10 years later, I said enough was enough. And last winter break I just decided to embark on this journey and finally made the bottle jack press. So I changed some things that my former art teacher, the way that he did it, if you look in the article, I hyperlinked the plans that he used, the plans that he used were from Charles Morgan. And so I was able to find those. And I also used a video from Zygote Press on YouTube and just kind of piecemealing some things together and changing the design to suit my needs. Voila, the press was born.

Tim: Very nice, very nice. Now I was looking at the pictures, I looked at those. I think you said the Charles Morgan plans and just looking at all of that, I was looking at… And I’m kind of handy, not great with anything, but after I was looking at all that, my thought was this is maybe not that difficult to build. So do you think that I’m right about that? Is it doable for most people who, if you at least know how to use power tools, do you think they can put this press together?

Josh: It’s definitely doable. And I don’t want anyone to shy away from building this because maybe you don’t feel as comfortable with tools. It’s definitely doable. Maybe you even have a friend who’s a little bit more comfortable with power tools that you can seek advice from or that can lend a hand on this project. But yeah, totally doable. Now I will say that I am a little bit biased because when I was a kid I did grow up around handyman. My father was very handy, both my grandfathers were extremely handy.

So I started off as the flashlight holder for many years for them until I could use tools on my own. And so just in my personal life, I love tools, I love fixing things. So putting stuff together does tend to come easy to me. But I do think that as art teachers or artists, we have an advantage because we are very visual and we are hands on learners. So I definitely think between the video, the Charles Morgan plans, the article, the pictures in the article, it’s got the supply list. I think that between those three resources, you’re going to be able to knock this out no problem.

Tim: Okay, okay. I appreciate the vote of confidence. So I like this. So I do want to dive in a little bit more on I guess just how the press is used, what it’s used for. So can you speak to that just a little bit? What kind of printmaking does this work the best with and can you just share a little bit about, I guess the operation of the press, how it is used?

Josh: So the press can handle small prints, so these would be dry points on plexiglass and making the assumption that it can also do a dry point on zinc or copper plate. I’ve never tried it. I prefer to work with plexi because it’s cheaper and it’s a lot easier to work with.

Tim: Well, and I think most teachers who are teaching printmaking are probably using plexiglass too. I mean, just for budgetary reasons, that’s the way to go.

Josh: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that’s the avenue to take for sure. Save yourself little money and just use the plexi. It’s probably all going to work the same anyways. But it can also handle linol cuts. But the linoleum for the press has to be the firmer linoleum. It’s got to be that old school battleship gray or the golden cut will also work, but not that softer, easy cut. Easy cut will just blob out. It’ll stretch and-

Tim: The press is too powerful and it just kind of smashes it.

Josh: Yeah, that easy cut’s like a marshmallow in there and then your design will be done.

Tim: Okay, fair, fair.

Josh: But as far as operation of the press goes, it’s pretty straightforward. And again, don’t be intimidated because using an automotive tool. Bottle jack presses are very simple to use. They come with instructions and if you buy one, let’s say at a thrift store because you’re trying to save even more money, totally fine. There’s plenty of videos in our internet age on YouTube that you can look up to use to learn how to use one of these things.

But basically, depending on your print, you’ve got your ink block and you’re going to place your ink block on the bottom board of the press. So that’s the board that doesn’t move. And then you’ll put your paper on top. I always recommend doing a piece of butcher paper and that’ll work for lino cut. If you’re going to do an etching, I definitely recommend putting a folded towel on top of the butcher paper if you’re going to do an etching on plexi, just because you don’t want your paper to rip. But anyway, so you got your setup, your layers for your setup. Use the jack as directed. So basically you’ll close a small bleeder valve and you’ll pump it and you’re just going to pump the jack until you can’t pump it anymore. You want to be careful not to over pump the jack or a catastrophic failure can occur. And this did happen to me after the first couple days of me using it. I was totally over pumping and the top header piece just totally cracked.

In my defense though, I did discover that it had a rotten spot, like a knot in it, because it was scrap what I had around the garage. So I just don’t think I picked a good piece. Fixed it and haven’t had any problems since. And that was almost a year ago now.

Tim: Okay, good to know. So I guess my follow up question to that was just how easy was it for you to get started and to learn. You make it sound easy, is it actually easy to learn? Is it something students can do or would you say this is a teacher only thing?

Josh: So it’s easy to learn. I think like anything, there’s a learning curve. And again, depending on how comfortable you are using tools, a bottle jack press. But once you learn those basics, you’re going to be good. I would say at the K through five level, if you’re going to build this press, I would keep it as teacher demonstration or teacher-led only. Definitely the adult being the only one using that, showing the kids or pressing things for them. But I think grades six through 12, the kids could handle using this press on their own. And in fact, just going back to my former high school art teacher, he was doing this in high school with high schoolers, so they were using the press all by themselves.

Tim: Okay, sounds good. So I guess the follow up to that, now we’re just going one after another.

Josh: It’s all good.

Tim: As you’re using this press, have you been able to expand what you’re doing in the classroom as far as printmaking? Or is this just something that’s kind of new and novel that you’re trying to do on your own?

Josh: Yeah, so it’s definitely something that I’ve done on my own to start. So again, I probably had a little over a year and I have yet to bring this into my classroom to actually show my kids physically. I teach grades one through three, but last year when I was building it, I was teaching grades three through five and I was just showing the kids pictures of the press and the build and they did think that it was really, really cool. So I definitely want to try to bring it in, just even demonstrate to the kids that this is out there, expand their horizons a little bit. Hopefully, like I said, in the near future if we’re doing a printmaking lesson, I could bring it in and show them. And I think that’d be the way to go if anyone built that press and want to do the same thing.

Tim: Nice. Good advice. And then I guess final question, just any final thoughts or final words of advice for anybody who likes this idea, is intrigued by this idea, and is maybe thinking about making a bottle jack press?

Josh: So don’t get discouraged about building it. Again, just going back to if you’re not handy or if you’re not comfortable with tools, just follow the videos, look at the pictures, check out the instructions, and just take your time. Enjoy that building process. I think it’s important because we’re always teaching the kids, but then in this experience now you can be the student and you can put yourself in that learner mindset, which I think is always important. Trying something new, making a mistake. It’s totally fine to have those bumps along the road, but this is definitely an amazing alternative to the expensive roller presses out there. You can save a lot of money. It’ll do the same exact thing for a fraction of the cost.

And if you are really worried about making cuts on some of that plywood or those two-by-fours, a lot of those big box hardware stores, if you tell them what size you need, they’ll cut it for you. And I think that that just will save you oodles and noodles of time right there if that’s a route that you wanted to go in. So just dive in, start building, get those hands dirty.

Tim: Yeah, love it, love it. So Josh, thank you. It was great to have you back on the show. I appreciate you walking us through this super creative idea. And yeah, just thought it was really inventive. I thought it’s great opportunity for you to come tell everybody a little bit more about it and I appreciate you doing so.

Josh: Yeah, thank you so much, Tim. I appreciate it.

Tim: Thank you to Josh for sharing the idea for building a bottle jack press and honestly giving me the confidence I need to actually build it. I mean, I own a saw and a drill, I have some scrap wood, so I’m most of the way there. I probably just need a trip to the hardware store and pick up a few of those things. And I’m actually looking up the price of a bottle jack right now. It’s literally 30 bucks. All right. This is so doable. So if you are feeling the same, okay, if you’re feeling like you might want to build one, we will make sure we link in the show notes to Josh’s article, the plans and the video he discussed. And I think anything else you need will be linked in his article.

We also have a couple of other great pro packs on printmaking and not necessarily with a bottle jack press. Just lots of other forms, but I promise they are great and I will make sure I link to those as well in the show notes in case we want to explore anything further if you just feel like printmaking, but don’t want to build your own press, which I understand. But if you do end up building one, let me know. We would love to see pictures and obviously any prints that come from it.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening and we will talk to you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.