Each fall, we host a cider-pressing event. Crates overflow with crimson-striped, emerald-speckled, golden-laced apples. But the center of attention is not the 2,000 pounds of apples. Stealing the show is a wooden, handcrafted cider press that looks as if it has been transported through history, custom built in 1998 by local woodcrafter Andrew Campbell. Friends and neighbors eagerly gather to help squeeze out the rich, juicy apple cider that will be frozen or fermented for the winter to come. The tradition simply would not be possible without our cider press, around which we create memories and cultivate deeper relationships as one season turns to the next.
A pressing matter
Before explaining the materials, tools, or step-by-step instructions, it is necessary to understand the basic process of the cider press.
Apples are fed into a hopper and pushed into the grinder with a wooden push stick. A set of pulleys powered by a small electric motor drives the grinder, which pulverizes the apples into a mash. The apple mash flows from the grinder box to a wooden barrel. When the barrel is full, it is slid forward underneath the presser. Downward force is applied by turning an acme rod that runs through the presser plate. The pressure is held constant until the juice stops flowing. Conveniently, this is the same amount of time it takes for the grinder to fill the second barrel, and the process continues.
A cider press can be constructed in various ways. The following is a description of this particular do-it-yourself model. Materials can be exchanged for similar items you may have on hand to create a comparable result. There are four main parts of the cider press: grinder, frame, presser and electric motor. Tools for the project include an electric saw, driver, drill, hammer and measuring tape. The design requires a familiarity with tools, some building know-how, and the need for some pre-fabricated pieces.
The first step is to find a drum for the grinder. This may sound difficult, but you will be surprised at what you can come up with. Our 3-1⁄2-inch diameter drum is from an old Xerox copier. Any metal cylinder with a shaft that rides on bearings will do. Insert screws into the drum in a spiraling pattern, between 1⁄4 and 1⁄2 inch apart, to create teeth to grind the apples. Leave 1⁄2-inch headspace on the cylinder.
The grinder head is then mounted at the bottom of a V-shaped box (the hopper) large enough to hold approximately a gallon of apples. Make the plywood box as wide as the length of your grinder head. Our dimensions are 16-3⁄4-by-13-1⁄2-by-12 inches, with a 4-1⁄2-inch opening at the bottom. The hopper is mounted onto a frame and is easily removable for cleaning and oiling.
Remember to make a wooden push stick that can direct the apples into the grinder while keeping your fingers intact. Ours is made out of two scrap pieces of wood in a T shape. The end in contact with the apples is a bit narrower than the hopper, and the handle is a little taller. When you make yours, take into account the size of the hopper.
The frame should be sturdy enough to withstand the heavy vibrating, pushing and pressing. Size the width of the frame to house the hopper between the posts. The dimensions for our frame are 25-by-20-by-38 inches. We used 3-by-3-inch pieces of Douglas fir for the legs and 2-1⁄2-by-4-1⁄2-inch pieces for the horizontal components that support the pan and presser barrels. The front legs of the frame need to be 11⁄2 inches taller so the juice can flow from the pan to a collection bucket. Do not attempt to create this flow angle by tilting the pan platform, which would cause misalignment with the pressing screw.
Size the lower platform to leave enough room for the barrels to sit on top of the stainless steel tray. Size the tray to fit snugly between the width of the legs, and make sure it’s long enough to extend 5 inches beyond the platform on the side the cider will drain. This allows for the collection bucket. Incorporate 2-inch sidewalls on the tray, except for the drain side; the dimensions of our draining tray are 14-1⁄2 inches wide by 30 inches long. If you are not handy with a welder to weld the corners and seams, it’s best to outsource this item.
To extract the juice, you need to apply pressure to the mash. One method uses a large Acme thread (24 inches long by 1-1⁄4 inch in diameter) attached to an 18-inch T-bar handle. The nut for the threaded rod is welded to a metal plate securely mounted to the top of the frame. The Acme thread presses downward on a metal receiving disk in the center of a 12-inch-diameter wooden lid that sits, unattached, on the mash.
At the heart of the pressing system are two identical presser barrels that can be moved through the assembly-line-like system. To make one barrel, form two 12-inch diameter hoops out of 1-inch aluminum strapping. Line the inside of the hoops with 1-1⁄4-by-13-inch oak strips that have two outer corners slightly beveled, and space 1⁄8-inch apart to allow the juice to flow through. Screw strips in place. Note that the barrels do not need bottoms. The stainless steel tray acts as a bottom while pressing, and afterwards the compacted mash is easily removed by shaking the barrel.
To grind large quantities of apples, an electric motor is best. Age has worn off the horsepower and rpm information on our motor, but it is approximately 1⁄2 hp. The 1-3⁄4-inch pulley on the motor and a 13-inch pulley on the grinder provide a suitable rpm. The motor is attached to the frame on a hinged plate, so the weight of the motor adds enough tension to the pulley belt to engage when running the press. This allows for easy belt dismantling when the press is not in use and for maximum torque on the grinder to be no greater than the weight of the motor. In other words, if something gets lodged into the grinder, the motor begins to hinge upward until the pulley slips.
A switch attached to an extension cord is all that is needed to power the motor. Be sure the switch and connections are in a watertight box and conduit. After getting a small zap from our machine this fall, water-proofing the electrical components was overdue.
Several commercial cider press models are available and many of them are single-barrel, hand-crank versions, though these can be pricey. Having two barrels and an electric motor allows you to process large quantities with ease. Not to mention, the conversations surrounding making your own press are priceless.
You now have the framework to build a successful cider press machine. May you spark a new harvesting tradition, discovering the delight in sharing an afternoon with your closest friends and family, elbow-deep in apples, slurping down amber-flecked cider fresh from your press.
Lyndsay and Jordan Mynatt live in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Read more about their homesteading projects of brewing beer, raising sheep, baking, foraging, gardening and other DIY projects on their website, A Faithful Journey.