How to Make an Herb Press from Salvaged Materials
If you are interested in making an herb press, chances are you already know the powerful healing qualities of both plants and fungi. In fact, many of our common pharmaceuticals are derived from plants. There are degrees, however, to how much of a given plant’s medicinal properties are available through basic digestion.
The process of tincturing, for example, uses a liquid or menstruum derived from either alcohol or glycerin to extract and concentrate these medicinal properties, which can be readily taken up and put to use by the body. Compare this process to making cold-brew coffee, for example. Cold-brew requires steeping coffee grounds in water overnight. The final product is a highly concentrated batch of caffeine and other compounds in liquid form that can either be diluted or taken straight depending on desired potency.
Tinctures are only one technique for making plant medicine. Herbs can be used both internally and topically to address a spectrum of health complications. In addition to tinctures, I enjoy making salves that soothe cuts, burns, rashes, and abrasions. In a healthcare system that prioritizes expensive quick-fixes like pharmaceuticals and invasive surgeries, discovering the inherent medicine found in common, abundant plants can literally be a life-saver.
The Herb Press
After researching various models of herb presses, I settled on the C-clamp method with modifications. The main reason I chose the C-clamp is because I can use the clamp as an actual clamp in other projects when I am not making tinctures or concentrates. This adds versatility to my tools and avoids the dreaded uni-tasker that a conventional herb press implies. I am not running an herb business, so I am not getting a lot of use out of this machine. It suits my needs for the amount of tincture I make.
The ultimate value of going to the “trouble” of making your own herb press (or anything homemade) is to create something personal and functional that takes from the waste-stream, encourages resourcefulness, and reunites the invaluable teamwork of your hands and brain. You are encouraged to develop any modifications to this model with the resources available to you at any given time.
Starting from the top and working clockwise to the center:
- Paint-strainer Bag – Originally used to strain paint. It has elastic around the opening to hang on a bucket. It is now used to strain the liquid from the plant material. It keeps the plant material neatly contained and can be rinsed and reused repeatedly unlike cheesecloth.
- Metal Pitcher – This contains the strained liquid and feeds into the next vessel. It is fitted with a barbed spigot that connects to the feeder tube and gaskets to create a water-tight seal. The spout feature is helpful for pouring out the remaining liquid that does not pass through the tubing. Note: I try to avoid using plastics, as these caustic liquids encourage leaching. Stainless steel or glass is the way to go whenever possible when dealing with food or drinks.
- Steamer Tray – Originally used to steam vegetables, the collapsible flaps were removed (can be used for another art project) leaving only the base with legs to keep it off the bottom of the pitcher.
- 8” C-clamp – The mechanism that provides the force to extract the liquid from the plant material.
- Tubing – Connects to the barbed spigot that transports the liquid to the receiving vessel.
- Metal Bowl – Used to expand the surface area of the C-clamp, distributing the weight of the pressing feature evenly over the plant material.
The Clamp Stand
There are models using the C-clamp as hand-held, but this gives you a little more freedom in handling. The press can be tightened to a degree and left to sit for a minute, extracting the liquid somewhat, and then tightened further to extract the remaining liquid.
For this prototype, I modified small wooden cutting boards to fit around the C-clamp. These are a dime a dozen at the local Goodwill. I purchased small brackets to reinforce the nails and glue that initially fastened the boards together. I painted the wood and brackets for aesthetic purposes with used paint found at my local Habitat for Humanity Restore. This is an opportunity for you to get creative and design a clamp stand out of whatever materials you have nearby.
Assembling and Using the Press
- Connect the tube to the spigot and insert the tube into the receiving vessel (a 16 oz bottle in this example)
- Insert the steamer tray
- Secure the mesh bag to the pitcher
- Pour any free liquid (menstruum not in need of pressing) through the strainer and allow it to pass into the receiving vessel
- After all of the free liquid is poured, begin transferring the plant material into the mesh bag. Depending on the size of your batch, you may want to do this a little at a time.
- Synch the bag with twine and place on top of the steamer tray
- Center the metal bowl on top of the bag
- Begin tightening the clamp until it meets the metal bowl. Make sure the bowl is still centered.
- Tighten incrementally. Depending on the quality of your metal, you may not want to stress it too much. In this prototype, the metal pitcher and bowl came out distorted as a result of the pressure from the clamp.
- Continue the above steps until all of the plant material is pressed. Reposition the bag of plant material one or two times to be thorough.
The Finished Product
In this example, I strained a batch of master tonic*. The result is the strained plant material, or marc, and the concentrated liquid. For master tonic, I can use the marc in cooking. When making tinctures, discard the marc into the compost bin. The liquid was conveniently transferred into these bottles and ready to consume and potentially distribute.
*Master tonic is a pickled drink made using: apple cider vinegar, white onion, ginger, garlic, horseradish, and dried cayenne pepper. Steeped for three weeks much like a tincture, master tonic is used as a preventative/reactionary cold and flu remedy, containing anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.
Permaculture ethics and principles applied:
Various Permaculture Ethics and Principles were in mind while building this press and making plant medicine.
Earth Care – We are at a critical point in human existence when our production of waste can no longer be hidden. It is bursting at the seems! Conspicuous consumption of non-durable goods is at an all-time high. Therefore, taking from the waste-stream and giving something a second life is a step in the right direction. If you look hard enough you can likely source up to 100% used materials for any given project.
People Care – Making preventative medicines from plants available to the community without a hyper-reliance on over-priced doctors and pharmaceuticals.
Fair Share – Many of the plants used in herbal medicine grow in abundance and are commonly referred to as “weeds”. There is plenty to go around…if we let them grow.
Observe and Interact – Take notice of how a particular herb positively affects your body. For example, a tincture made from chamomile or hops will have a noticeable calming and sedative effect.
Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback – Too much of a good thing also applies here. Tinctures should be used in moderation and on rotation. Pay attention to side-effects and negative reactions. Further, some herbs do not play well together, also known as antagonists.
Catch and Store Energy – Tinctures have a relatively long shelf-life. The medicinal properties in the extracts are preserved in a liquid state, always available to help keep your body functioning properly.
Obtain a Yield – The finished product of making tincture yields healthful benefits. You can also obtain a yield by bartering your extracts with friends and family or create a small business.
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – By way of the sun, plants and their medicinal qualities are an abundant resource if allowed to grow freely.
Produce No Waste – Taking from the waste-stream ensures that we are not relying on any new materials to build this herb press. It is possible. The marc can be discarded into the compost, creating organic matter for more plants. The cycle continues.
Design from Patterns to Details – Features from other models, and basic mechanics, were used to fit the materials available locally.
Use Small and Slow Solutions – This press is fully manual and made by hand. No industrial machines were necessary. Further, this press is personalized to fit my needs, which keeps my operation small and manageable.
Use and Value Diversity – There are countless plants available in which to derive medicines.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – Rather than going out and buying a factory-made herb press, I found various materials that no longer had value to the original owner and repurposed them to create something unique.
After spending time in academia, Mike set out to grow both plants and people in the alternative agriculture scene, eventually teaching Permaculture and designing edible landscapes. Mike is currently trying his hand (and patience) at wood working and other crafty endeavors through Small Axe Woodworks.