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This Guy Built a Pedal-Powered Printing Press Because Computers Are Boring

Graphic designer Brian Trevaskiss says there's just something appealing about "the simplicity and honesty of black type on white paper."

by DJ Pangburn
Jun 17 2014, 3:35pm
Image: Brian Trevaskiss

As we near the start of the 2014 Tour de France, Brian Trevaskiss wants you to consider the bicycle, all the mechanical energy cyclists create, and how the two could be used to power machines. To demonstrate his point, Trevaskiss built the Pedal-Powered Printing Press, or PPPP, as he calls it. 

Around the same time that Macs came to the fore in print and publishing, Trevaskiss was training in graphic design. During that time, he acquired some familiarity with traditional printing techniques. After working on websites for around eight years, he felt the itch to print again in 2011. 

Trevaskiss's design might owe something to the eco-friendly ways of Ed Begley, Jr. (A Mighty WindBest In Show), who is known to power his toaster and computer with a stationary bike. But instead of powering his home, Trevaskiss is interested in bringing back the world of print with pedal power. 

"I missed print," he said. "The desire was there to learn more about hands-on print—letterpress, in particular. Something about the simplicity and honesty of black type on white paper really appeals to me, and I couldn't afford go out and buy an old press, so I built one."

The Pedal-Powered Printing Press in operation. Image: Brian Trevaskiss

Trevaskiss's first printing press was constructed out of scaffolding poles, decking leftovers, a metal box section, and a bottle jack. At the same time, he was getting more and more into cycling, commuting daily regardless of weather conditions, and riding on weekends when he could. So, fusing his two passions seemed like a natural progression. 

"I think I joked about building a pedal-powered printing press and the idea just stuck around," he said. "Printing and cycling had become my antidote to a modern screen-based life."

Aside from that motivation, it wasn't so much about being DIY or being sustainable as much as it was about the design and build challenge. For Trevaskiss, it was a chance to build something unique, and create a better printing press than the one he already had. 

Trevaskiss then pitched the idea to the Sheffield Culture Consortium. The group was organizing arts and culture commissions for the Yorkshire Festival, a 100-day celebration being held as part of the Tour de France's Grand Départ out of Leeds

"When I heard about the festival and the commissions, I saw the opportunity to take the idea of a pedal-powered printing press and make it a real thing," said Trevaskiss. "I've never submitted a request for funding for anything, so it was all a bit of guess work. I was pretty sure it was unique and thankfully they loved the idea."

A sketch of the Pedal-Powered Printing Press. Image: Brian Trevaskiss

A pedal-powered machine is a natural fit at anything Tour de France-related. But the enthusiasm might have also had something to do Sheffield's printmaking history.

"When I first started printing in Sheffield, I was researching traditional metal and wood typefaces and quickly discovered the Stephenson Blake foundry was from Sheffield and how huge it had been," said Trevaskiss. "In its day it was the biggest supplier of type in the UK, and they even set up a foundry in London to service the daily newspapers. They also created a typeface called Vogue for the magazine of the same name."

After the earning the commission, Trevaskiss set to work on designing and building PPPP. But he only had five weeks until the start of the festival on March 27th, so he knew he'd need help. 

Building the Pedal-Powered Printing Press. Image: Brian Trevaskiss

"Friends, keen cyclists, and product designers Click were my first port-of-call, and over beers we started to sketch out ideas," Trevaskiss said. "I wanted to use as many bike parts as possible, which is fine because bikes are so flexible and readily available."

"The main 'engine' as we called it is made from six bike bottom brackets, various chain rings, and a crank spider from a BMX," he added. "We spent a lot of time drawing and talking compound gear ratios."

The main challenge for Trevaskiss's team presented itself in the need to convert the rotary motion of pedaling into the reciprocating motion needed to create and release the letterpress printing pressure. They also wanted anybody to be able to print by the themselves, which would be impossible if the pedaling process became more difficult over time. 

"We wanted people to be able to pedal for a reasonable amount of time, we didn't want the experience to be over too quickly or take too long," he said. "We achieved it with different gears and chains, all from bikes."

Special tour-inspired print made on pedal-powered printing press. Image: Brian Trevaskiss

The design and build process taught Trevaskiss that there is a lot of cross-over in design disciplines, and that modes of thinking and problem solving are more important than specific skills. But when Trevaskiss began the design process, he never thought he'd see the design as a CAD drawing moving in three dimensions. "It goes to show that you can't get away from computers," he said.

Using the PPPP, Trevaskiss designed a special Tour-inspired print that commemmorates the Tour de France's Grand Départ in Yorkshire. Trevaskiss is making the prints available on both jaune and blank paper over at his Folksy page

"I suggested the press be showcased on the launch weekend, which they agreed to but also asked if I'd take it down to the finish line event on 6th July in Sheffield," he added. "So, the press will be printing for the whole of the Stage 2 race day—a hundred yards or so from the finish line."

As he wrote in a blog post, Sheffield cycling fans will be able to make their own unique prints using Stephenson Blake foundry type, thanks to Sheffield-based typography experts Dust. If current reaction is any indication, PPPP should be a big hit at the Grand Départ.

"A really great thing has been the reaction to the experience of printing on the press," he said. "I'd been so wrapped up in design and build, I hadn't really given that much thought, it was a nice surprise."

"It's when people get to try it out for themselves that it comes into its own," he added. "Print will never die completely, as it's very much about creating something with your own hands. It takes skill and, in this case, a bit of pedaling, too."

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