Posted by Phil on January 24, 2017

When our family moved from my husband's hometown in Tucson, USA, to our current home in Ashhurst, New Zealand, Phil just about went into root shock. No matter how hard we searched, there was no way we could buy preservative-free tortillas.

The obvious response was to switch to slow food and make our own. At first, we purchased flour. Later we started growing our own heritage corn. Even once we've harvested our corn, however, we're still several steps away from our meal.

Among other things, making corn tortillas requires flattening balls of masa (a dough made from nixtamalised corn) to form round tortillas. Masa is sticky enough that rolling it out isn't very effective. It's possible to buy cast iron tortilla presses but, true to form, Phil decided to make us a wooden one instead. We've used it for over a dozen years now. This year, Phil replaced the handle for the first time.

Below, you'll find some instructions for making a press like ours, which has a 28 cm square pressing area. You can adjust the dimensions to make the press smaller or larger. I don't recommend going too much larger, though, as a larger ball of masa will be harder to flatten.

In parts of the design there is also some latitude to change the relative dimensions of the materials you use. I've tried to indicate where this might be. One obvious place is that the height of the pressing surfaces need not be exactly 2.5 cm, so if you have a slab of wood of a different thickness, you may just want to work with what you've got. Here and elsewhere, however, one adjustment requires others.

For all measurements, I indicate width (w), length (l), and height (h). These dimensions are relative to the finished press, rather than to the piece that you're cutting, so you should always align one (w) in the same direction as another (w). For moving parts (the pressing surfaces and the handle), the alignments refer to the closed tortilla press with the handle resting horizontally over the upper pressing surface.

Making the pressing surfaces

  1. Cut two pieces of untreated timber to 28 cm (w) x 28 cm (l) x 2.5 cm (h) each. Hardwood is preferable, but a stout slab of macrocarpa will work.
  2. Use glue and wood screws to add a wooden bar along one edge of one pressing surface, 28 cm (w) x 3.5 cm (l) x 2.5 cm (h). This will be the upper pressing surface.
  3. Cut a smaller, thin piece of wood: ours is 6.5 cm (w) x 2.5 cm (l) x 0.75 cm (h). Glue and nail this to the centre of the wooden bar added in Step 2. The handle will press directly only on this piece.
  4. Join the lower and upper pressing services with two sturdy hinges, ensuring that the wooden bar on the upper surface is opposite to the hinges.


The handle and holder

The handle and holder need to be fashioned from hardwood, such as walnut, ash or oak.

  1. Cut a handle 1.5 cm (w) x 41 cm (l) x 3 cm (h).
  2. For the holder, cut two outer pieces of wood, 1.5 cm (w) x 3 cm (l) x 16.5 cm (h). Cut one inner piece, 1.5 cm (w) x 3 cm (l) x 13.5 cm (h). Align these three pieces so that they are even at the bottom, with a gap in the middle top. Glue these together, clamping them until the glue dries.
  3. Bolt the handle into the gap in its holder, but first trim or sand the wood, if necessary, to ensure the handle can move freely from upright to horizontal. Our handle is rounded off where it moves in the holder to make the action smoother. A wide bolt longer than 8 cm can be cut to size once the washer and nut are secured.


The base

This platform must extend beyond one edge of the lower pressing surface so that a gap in the base fits the handle holder. The other edges of the base may be adjusted marginally to available materials.

  1. Cut two pieces of wood for the outer sides of the base, 9.5 cm (w) x 30 cm (l) x 3 cm (h).
  2. Cut one inner piece, 4.5 cm (w) x 19 cm (l) x 3 cm (h). The width of this inner piece needs to equal the width of the handle holder. Its length is variable.
  3. Arrange the base pieces and the handle holder so that one edge of the holder is flush with the two outer pieces of the base, and the opposite edge is flush with the inner piece of the base.
  4. Complete the assembly by gluing and clamping, and by adding the bolt described in Step 5. Depending on available drill lengths, it may be easier to drill before gluing. Drilling post-gluing will make alignment easier.
  5. Pass a long bolt through the first outer piece of the base, through the handle holder, and then through the second outer piece of base. A bolt longer than 27 cm can be cut to size.


Final assembly

  1. Place the pressing surface on the base so that it sits against the handle holder with the hinges opposite. Ensure that the hinged surfaces open easily.
  2. Glue the pressing surface to the base. Clamp.

That's it! You now have your own tortilla press. Enchiladas, anyone?