hand printing

We now begin the work of the printer, as opposed to that of the compositor. Two parts of this process require skill: one is inking, and the other is the makeready: the series of operations whereby the press is prepared to print.

1. You begin by positioning the forme on the bed of the press, approximately in the middle. It is then firmly wedged in place, using wooden quoins and furniture.

2. Next, tape a sheet of white paper (the tympan sheet) on to the tympan in order to protect it against the inked type.

3. Now remove the frisket, ink the type, and take an impression on the tympan sheet (for full details of how to do this, see below, under PRINTING). Don't worry if it's not a good impression; at the moment you're only concerned with positioning.

4. The next operation is easy to do, once you know how, hard to demonstrate, and impossible to describe in words. I will now attempt to describe it in words. What you're aiming to do is to find out exactly where the card on which you're going to print should be placed on the tympan, such that, if you were to print it, it would lie in the correct position and receive the printed image exactly where you want it to be (I said it was impossible to describe in words . . .).

So: the card is a rectangle: it has a long edge and a short edge. It doesn't matter which you start with, but let's say you want to align the long edge first. You already have an image printed on the tympan sheet. Place the card (which I will call 'the printing card': the old printers' term was 'a sheet of its own', but there are limits to my affection for archaic terminology) on top of the image you've just printed on the tympan sheet but with the top half of this image showing over the long edge of the card. The long edge should be parallel with the horizontal axis of the image (in other words . . . I can't think of any other words). Move the card from side to side in order to centre the image horizontally against the long edge of the card. Then draw a pencil line along the right hand short edge. Now repeat the process, but this time with the vertical alignment: so have the side of the image showing, square the card against the vertical alignment, and move it up and down until it is in the position you want it to be relative to the short edge; then draw a pencil line along the top long edge.

5. Now extend the two pencil lines until they cross, and then place the card so that its top right corner is on the crossing point of the two pencil lines and its short and long side but up against them; and, if you've followed (and understood, of course) these instructions, then the card should be where you want it: that is exactly where the type will impinge upon it in order to put the image in the right place when you print.


Tape the card in place, or get a trusted friend to hold it, and prepare the ducks' beaks. To make a duck's beak (henceforth: DB), cut three or four rectangles out of scrap card, about 6 x 3 cm., and three pieces of masking tape about 8 cm long. Place two of the rectangles on the bottom of the printing card (which is still being held by the trusted friend), so that a third of each is on top of the printing card and two thirds below; position the rectangles roughly at thirds along the long edge. Place the masking tape over the rectangles so that the side of the tape buts up against the long edge of the printing card. You have now created two DB's. Promptly create a third, along the short edge of the card (since you will be working the press with a complement of three, the DB should address itself to the near edge of the card: that is, to the edge nearest to the side where you would stand to work the press). If you need a fourth, make one and put it also along the horizontal edge of the card. You can now tell the trusted friend to remove the printing card, confident in the hope that any sheet of your card, if placed on the three DB's, will be in the printing position. One last point, however: when the card is removed the original image on the tympan sheet will be exposed. Check to make sure that none of the DB's are covering any of the image; if so, trim them carefully until they aren't.


Next, paper the frisket: take it off its hinges and paste paper over any holes there might be in it. Then take an impression on the frisket. Take it off its hinges and, using a sharp knife and a steel rule, cut round the printed image, leaving about 50 mm. to spare. Then put the frisket back on to the tympan and put a card on the ducks' beaks; take an impression on the card. Inspect it.


Ask yourself the following questions: is the image (a) straight? (b) in the right place? (c) the product of too light or too heavy pressure overall? (d) is the pressure too light and too heavy in different parts of the image?

If (a) or (b) return negative results, then correct the position of the ducks' beaks until they don't. If (c), then place sheets of card and/or paper on the tympan sheet on the ducks' beaks until the overall pressure is right.

If (d), you are now into the territory of the makeready proper. However, before you venture into this, make quite sure that the light and heavy patches are not in fact caused by uneven inking. If not, then what you do is to overlay, which means paste bits of paper, torn rather than cut to shape, and therefore without straight edges, over the tympan sheet to provide extra pressure on the places where there isn't enough. The Imperial press that we use is normally well-behaved and compliant, so you shouldn't need too much of this; if you do, then you can comfort yourselves with the reflection that you are learning the essential skill of hand printing.


The other problem that you are likely to meet is when you think you've got the pressure right but the image still looks rather scruffy and disreputable. This could well be caused by too much ink; if not, then it may well be because of poor quality ink. Clean the ink roller with clean rag and start again. But if you decide to thoroughly clean the ink roller, that is using solvent, do make sure that you get all the solvent off before you re-ink; if you don't, it can mix with the ink and have very bad effects on your printing.

Eventually you should get an image that satisfies you. When you do, you are ready to go into production; first, however, tape a clean sheet of paper over the makeready on the tympan sheet so that it won't offset on to the card on which you will be printing.


A hand press can be worked by one, two, or three people, and in normal practice was worked by two: the beater (who did the inking) and the puller (who ran in the carriage and pulled the bar, as well as placing the unprinted and removing and stacking the printed sheets). A third character, the fly-boy, was employed when the press was in a hurry ('on the fly'), and was a luxury; his job was to take over the placing and replacing of the sheets. You will have the benefit of this luxury. To print with two workers is to work at full press; with one, which takes more than twice as long and is likely to end up with black fingerprints on the printed sheets, at half press.


Pick up the ink roller and, turning it over so that it is no longer feet-downwards, roll it up and down the inking stone until you've picked up the right amount of ink. How do you know when this is? I don't know. It all depends. Experience. To begin with, roll it up and down three or four times, more if there's no ink on the roller already. less if the roller is well inked. Then roll the ink over the type. This too is a matter of experience. You could start by doing it to and fro twice top to bottom and again twice from side to side. The job of the inker included overseeing the heap, which meant that while he was waiting for the puller to take the impression, which takes marginally longer than re-inking the roller, he would have a look at the last sheet printed, to check for obvious errors, but mainly to see whether he was putting on the right amount of ink. This is the way you learn how to ink: by seeing your mistakes and adjusting accordingly.


When the type has been inked, wind down the frisket on to the tympan and the tympan on to the type, holding first the ear of the frisket and then both that and the side of the tympan that is adjacent to it. It's important to keep up a steady light pressure against the frisket as it comes down, so that it doesn't slide on its hinges towards you; if it does this, you may find, when you finally inspect the printed card, that it's missing a part of the far side of the image; this is known as frisket bite, and is caused by the frisket having moved and cut off part of the type from printing. Everyone gets frisket bite at some point in their careers as printers, and wonders for some time what on earth is causing it; you, having wondered for some time, will eventually remember these instructions, and then will remember for ever after to keep up the pressure against the frisket as you wind it down.

The left hand then moves to the rounce, and the right to the handle of the bar. Wind the rounce and run the carriage under the platen, but at the last moment do a back-pedalling action with the rounce so that the coffin doesn't bang up against the stop. If it does, you will slur the image. The left hand stays on the rounce while the right pulls the bar across to the nearside cheek of the press. This is known, oddly enough, as cheeking the bar. Some authorities think that for fine printing it's good to let the bar dwell, as they call it, against the cheek for a second or so, though I've never myself found it to make much difference. But then, I'm perhaps not good enough at printing for it to make that difference. Let the bar go back to the other cheek, riding it back so that it doesn't clang against the cheek, and wind the carriage out again, doing the same back-pedalling movement to stop it bumping against the other stop.

As the carriage comes out the right hand moves over to its position on the side of the tympan where the ear of the frisket meets it; as they become clear, unwind first the tympan then the frisket. There is a technique known as 'flying the frisket' which enables you to print rather faster. I will demonstrate this, if you remind me, since I can't describe it, but I recommend you do it at normal speed a large number of times before you attempt this, if at all: replacement hand presses are rather hard to come by nowadays.


Position yourself on the side of the press away from the puller, with a heap of clean card. Place the top one snugly against the ducks' beaks--cards are often ruined by bad placing--and then get your hands out of the way until the printed sheet comes back, at which point, when the frisket has been raised, you can take off the card and put it on the printed heap. The best way of avoiding set-off is to interleave the printed cards between the leaves of a telephone directory. This explains the otherwise strange presence of several telephone directories littering up the printing room. You might also point out, with whatever degree of tact you feel capable of, any deficiencies of the inking, frisket bite, slurred impressions, or whatever. Even the most tedious tasks have their compensations.

If for some reason you have to dispense with the services of the fly person, then the two heaps of printed and unprinted paper are placed on a small bench consisting of an upturned type case (empty!) on top of a small stool. This is placed on the near side of the press and at the frisket end, so that it is convenient for the puller to pick up and put down the card; this person then takes over the functions of the fly person. Note that the duck's beak on the near side of the card is repositioned on to its far side.

And that, in a sense, is it. Or so you might think. You have to back up the card, or, as the old printers called it, work the reiteration, but that consists simply of repeating the appropriate steps in the above instructions, until you can go on your way, tired and ink-stained but triumphant, carrying a pile of authentically hand-crafted Christmas cards. End of problem, you might well think.

Not so. There remains the distribution of type and the tidying up of the printing room. This gets a whole section to itself.