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Fine Presswork

This is the technical term for presswork of superior quality; it is in some measure indefinite, for, as presswork is paid a certain price for a given number, and the price advances according to the time and care bestowed on it, that for which the lowest price is paid is termed common work, and after the price has advanced about one half in addition, it is styled fine work; although it may advance gradually to six times the lowest price, or more, it is still called fine work.

In aiming at excellence in printing, it will be found that Presswork deserves particular consideration, as a part on which the beauty of a book so much depends.

It will be necessary, in the first instance, to endeavour to define more particularly what is meant by the term Fine Presswork, for except this be understood, we shall come to no satisfactory conclusion, as workmen vary in their opinions respecting it, and frequently produce sheets of different shades of colour in the same volume, when it is done at different presses, and all under the name of the finest work; and when the same person either actually prints the whole, or superintends it, the work will be executed according to his criterion, without any fixed rule whereby to decide; thus one man shall produce the finest work, according to his opinion, of a pale grey colour, while another will produce it so black and surcharged with colour, that if the ink be not of a very good quality, it will not only smear, but the paper at the edges of the letters, nay, even the whole page, will be tinged with the oil which separates from the colouring matter of the ink, to the entire destruction of all beauty of workmanship.

Fine Presswork is the art of printing perfect impressions from the surface of engravings in relief.

By obtaining perfect impressions, I would be understood that the subject transferred to paper should be an impression from the surface and the surface only of the engraved lines, of such a tone as to produce all the effect of which the subject is capable, without either superfluity or deficiency of colour.

Having thus defined my meaning of the term Fine Presswork, I shall speak of the means by which it is to be produced, which may be of use to those who have not had opportunities of printing splendid books.

The press ought to be in the best condition, otherwise there will be no certainty of the impression being equal, except with great trouble and loss of time. The joints of the tympan should not have any play; if they have, it will affect the register, which being out disfigures the appearance of the book; it also causes a great risk of producing slurs and doubles: the most certain way of having them without play is to construct them on centres, so that if they should work a little loose, they can at any time, with the greatest ease, be tightened by means of the screws on which the centres are formed.

The parchments on the tympans should be thin, and of a uniform thickness, and stretched on the tympans so as not to be flaccid. It is said that the French printers in their finest works used silk on the tympans, on account of its thinness, its smoothness, and uniformity.

The face of the platen ought to be a true plane, and parallel to the press stone, or table. It will be found in practice that an iron platen is superior to a wooden one for producing a sharp clear impression, where fine work is wanted; for, by discarding woollen blankets, the pressure must be increased to obtain this effect, which indents wood, and then requires so many overlays to make a uniform impression, that they produce nearly the same effect as blankets, and it becomes necessary to new face the surface frequently, which is inconvenient and expensive: the iron platen is not subject to this inconvenience; but it is more liable to injure the types, as it will not yield; and should there be any inequality on the surface of the form, owing to it not being well planed down, or to any extraneous matter being upon it or under it, the types must give way, and be destroyed. Generally speaking, the iron platen wears the types more than a wooden one.

The head of the press should be so justified as to produce what is termed a soaking pull; that is, the form should begin to feel the pressure of the platen when about two thirds down; then, when the bar is pulled home, or what is technically called cheeked, which I would always recommend to be done in good work, as it keeps the pull regular and uniform, the power slowly increases, and the paper has time to be pressed gradually on the types, which causes it to receive the ink on all its parts, and produces a clear impression.

This justifying the head relates to wooden presses, where the head and the winter are allowed some play which is filled up with pieces of scaleboard, called cards, cut to the size of the mortises in the cheeks, and inserted in them upon the tenons of the head, and under the tenons of the winter, allowing the pull to have some elasticity. For my own part, I would have the winter lie solid, and the spring be confined to the head. See Winter.

In the iron presses constructed on the late Earl Stanhope's principle, where increased power is produced by means of a compound lever applied to the screw, and where there is no elasticity in the pull, this effect is produced in a greater degree than in a press of the common construction; for, as the platen descends on the form, the power increases considerably, but the motion is slower; thus the effect of the soaking pull is preserved, with a considerable addition of power, owing to the combined action of the screw and the compound lever.

In Ruthven's press, where the platen is suspended from the head, and brought over the form by means of small wheels with grooves in their edges running on the ribs, the pull is regulated by screws on the locking pieces, and also through the springs by which it rests on the ribs, that bring it nearer to, or remove it from the form.

In Clymer's Columbian Press, where the power is obtained by a compound lever, the pull is regulated by a screw that connects the bar with the lever, and additionally by thin plates of iron placed upon the top of the platen under the bottom of the spindle. It is also regulated in the same way, in the Albion press, as originally constructed by R. W. Cope.

In Sherwin and Cope's Imperial Press the pull is justified by a wedge above the head of the spindle or bolt in the front, which has a screw attached to it with a projecting head, by which the pull is adjusted to the greatest nicety, with ease and facility. Mr. Hopkinson has adopted the same plan in the Albion press since it came under his management on the death of Mr. Cope.

The advantage of having a good press will be unavailing for the production of fine work, if the types are much worn; for it will be found impossible to produce a sharp clear impression if the perfect shape of the letter and the fine lines are rounded and worn away by much use, as, in consequence of this roundness of the letter from wear, it will be necessary to use much blanket in the tympan to bring up the shape of the whole letter, which will produce a gross and indelicate impression of more than the surface.

I have been told that Didot, of Paris, in his most splendid works, never printed more than three sheets from the same fount of letter, when it was sent to the melting pot, and replaced by a new fount.

The colour of the ink must depend on the taste or fancy of the master printer; — but no, I am mistaken, for, unless he prepares his own ink, he is obliged to use that only which is manufactured for general use; and there is little if any choice in purchasing this article, when it is wanted of a superior quality. Leaving the particular shade or tone out of the question, I will state my opinion as to what the qualities of black printing ink ought to be for fine work.

  • Intenseness of colour.
  • Impalpability.
  • Covering the surface perfectly of the type or engraving.
  • Quitting the surface of the type or engraving, when the paper is pressed on it, and adhering to the paper.
  • Not smearing after it is printed.
  • Retaining its first appearance without any change.

Ink ought to be reduced to an impalpable smoothness, either in a mill or on a stone with a mullar; and this is essentially necessary, as the process gives it the next quality — of completely covering the surface of the type, or the lines of the engraving, and that with the smallest quantity; and, with proper care in printing, presents to the eye an impression, in which the edges of the lines are smooth and perfect, and the surface of the impression on the paper is completely covered with ink, without any superfluity; which constitute the perfection of presswork with types.

Another property required in ink is, that it shall not only cover the surface of the lines on the paper printed, but that it shall also quit the face of the type or engraving, and leave it quite clean when the paper is impressed on it, and attach itself to the paper, so as to give a perfect impression of the subject represented, without the colour of the paper appearing through the ink; and that this property, of quitting the type or engraving, and becoming attached to the paper, shall continue the same through any number of impressions, without any accumulation of ink on the surface printed from.

After having obtained these results, and when the printing is as perfect as it can be made by workmanship, still something more is requisite, viz. that the ink shall not smear on being slightly rubbed; and that it shall retain its colour and appearance, without the oil in the ink spreading at the edges, or tinging the paper — in short, that it shall continue unchanged for any length of time, thus preserving and continuing the beauty of the work.

The balls should be in good condition, otherwise the pressman may exert his skill in vain, with a great loss of time and waste of paper, without the intended effect They are made smaller and stuffed tighter with wool than those used for common work, which enables the pressman to distribute the strong ink that is used with more facility; they also cover the surface with ink better than if they were softer, and are easier for the workman; for large soft balls, used with ink made very strong with varnish and colour, would be almost unmanageable.

The quality of the paper is of great consequence in fine printing, but it is frequently overlooked by the printer's employers, who are too apt to pay more attention to a showy appearance and a low price, than to quality.

The best paper for receiving an impression, as I have observed in the article Engravings on Wood, is India paper; but as that which comes to England is thin, it is not used for bookwork, neither would it be durable, as it wants toughness to enable it to sustain much wear.

The next best paper for printing is French plate paper, which is superior to English plate paper, as the latter has a good deal of gypsum in its composition, which causes it to be very uncertain in the wetting; for having given it a sufficient quantity of water, judging from appearances and by comparison, and expecting to have it in good condition, the pressman shall find it, when wanted for use, nearly dry, and harsh, and the water, unequally diffused; it has then to be wetted again, and particular attention must be paid to the turning and pressing of it, before it is in a proper, state for printing on. I attribute this effect to the gypsum, which has had its water of crystallization driven off by fire in preparing it, and the water which it takes up in wetting crystallizes to supply its place. I do not say that all English plate paper is affected in this manner by water, but I have repeatedly experienced it in practice; and in the second wetting, if great care be not taken, the gypsum being already saturated, it will imbibe too much water, which will squeeze out in printing, and prevent the paper from taking the ink uniformly, so as to spoil the impression.

The best English paper for printing on is that which is made of fine linen rags, and moderately sized, without the use of acids in bleaching, and without being adulterated with cotton rags: this paper takes water kindly, is easily got into good condition, receives a good impression, is durable, preserves its colour, and does not act upon the ink.

Messrs. J. Dickinson and Co. have made great improvements in the quality of paper, and manufacture one kind which is admirably adapted for printing, being made by a peculiar process which gives it a particular affinity for the ink. They have also introduced improvements in the manufacture which have superseded the use of French paper with us, and have also nearly done so with the Chinese or India paper.

Having thus spoken of what I mean by fine presswork, and of the materials by which it is to be produced, I shall now proceed to describe the process; for when a printing office is provided with materials of the best quality, and the master of it is desirous of producing superior workmanship, there is something more required — he must resolve to lay in a fund of patience, as well as to submit to a great and continued expense of materials, or else he will never excel.

A good pressman will, as a matter of course, be well acquainted with the whole of the usual routine of presswork; in addition to which, to form his judgment, he should make himself acquainted with the most splendid books, and study them as patterns of workmanship.

In making ready it must be evident, that when a clear sharp impression is wanted, the pressure should be on the surface only, without penetrating into the interstices; of course the tympan ought not to be very soft, neither should any woollen blanket be used: the most perfect impression will be obtained when fine thick paper alone is used in the tympans, and even of this article I would not recommend many thicknesses.

After an impression is printed, the pressman examines if it be uniform throughout; if it be, which is very rarely the case, he goes on with the work; if not, he proceeds to overlay, in order to produce regularity of pressure, and of colour, over the whole form.

To effect this object, he takes thin smooth paper, and wherever the impression is weak he pastes a bit of it, of the size and shape of the imperfect part, on the tympan sheet, and proceeds in the same manner with every part that is imperfect; he then pulls another impression to examine the effect of his overlays, and continues to add to them where wanted, till the pressure of the platen is the same in every part, and the impression is uniformly of one shade of colour.

If the impression come off too strong in parts, or at the edges or corners of the pages, or on the head lines, it will be necessary to cut away the tympan sheet in those parts, and, if that does not ease the pressure sufficiently, to cut away the same parts from one or more of the sheets that are within the tympans.

It is generally preferable to overlay on a sheet of stout smooth paper inside the tympan, and particularly where the same press does the whole or great part of a work: this sheet is cut to fit the interior of the tympan, so as not to slip about, and has overlays pasted on it where wanted, to bring up the impression till it is very nearly equal; in all succeeding sheets it saves the pressman a great deal of time, as he will be certain that when he pulls a sheet of another form of the same work it will be nearly right, and he will only have to place thin overlays on occasional parts to make the impression perfect, with very little trouble. On the same principle, where this method is not adopted, preserving and using the same tympan sheet with its overlays, will be more expeditious than having to repeat the operation with every form.

Where short pages occur in a form, the bottoms of them and the edges of the adjoining pages will print too hard, and not prove a clear impression; it will therefore be necessary to have bearers to protect them, which are generally of double pica reglet pasted. on the frisket, so as to bear on some part of the furniture or chase; but high bearers, made to the height of the types, are better, when they can be placed so that the balls do not touch them during the process of beating: in such a case they are liable to tear the frisket, from their closely adhering to it by their inky surface and the pressure. They may be placed where the regular foot of the page would have been had it been a full one, to prevent those hard edges which would otherwise be produced. This principle will hold good in all cases of short pages, blank pages, and the edges of wood cuts; but where it happens that some of the edges, or a particular page of a full form, come off too hard, and where there is not room to place a high bearer, then a piece of double pica reglet pasted on the frisket in the usual way will answer the purpose.

It is not necessary that these bearers should be placed close to the part requiring to be eased; they will produce the same effect if placed at a distance, keeping the direction, so that they take a good bearing on the platen, avoiding the frame of the frisket and the points; in using reglet as low bearers, I would recommend that the flat side of the furniture should be turned uppermost to receive the pressure of the bearers, provided they do not bear upon the chase.

When a high bearer does not ease the pull sufficiently on particular parts, its effect may be increased by pasting slips of stout paper on it, as overlays or underlays, and a bearer of reglet may be amended in a similar manner.

It happens occasionally that the tympan causes the paper to touch the form partially on being turned down, and occasions slurs, and this may occur from the parchment being slack or the paper being thin and soft. To prevent this inconvenience it is customary to roll up a piece of paper, similar to bookbinders headbands, and paste it on the frisket adjoining the part; this roll of paper takes a slight bearing on the furniture, and is a remedy. Many pressmen prefer pieces of cork cut to about the thickness of double pica, and pasted on the frisket.

It is neither customary nor advisable to fly the frisket in the best work, and more particularly when large heavy paper is used; it is a convenience in such cases to have a button screwed on the off side of the frame of the tympan, to confine the frisket flat to the tympan; it keeps the paper in its place, assists it in rising from the face of the form, to which it adheres owing to the strength of the ink; it helps to prevent slurring, and the paper from slipping, which occasions waste when it happens: altogether the button is of consequence in preventing accidents in the impression.

In working the white paper, instead of pins stuck into the tympan, to prevent the paper slipping, a duck's bill is frequently used: it is pasted to the tympan at the bottom of the tympan sheet, and the tongue projects in front of it, indeed the tympan sheet appears to rest in it. The bottom of each sheet is placed behind this tongue, which supports it while turning down the tympan. See Duck's Bill.

In proceeding with the work the balls should be well cleaned, that no dirt or extraneous matter may be on their surface. They should not be too moist, which would prevent the ink distributing equally on them, and would also prevent it lying equally on the surface of the types or engraving; nor should they be too dry, as in that case they will not dispose of the ink so smoothly as to produce a fine impression; neither will they retain particles of dirt on their surface, but part with them to the form, which will cause picks. The moisture ought to be just so much as to make the pelt or composition soft, when the ink will distribute kindly and equally, which will be perceived by their lugging; they will also part with it to the form equally where they touch, so that the impression will be sharp and clear.

The ink ought to be rubbed out thin and regular on the ink block, so that in taking ink it shall at the very first be diffused tolerably smooth on the surface of the balls, which causes a greater probability of producing good impressions. It is likewise advisable to keep rubbing the ink out on the block with the brayer, as also to be almost constantly distributing the balls; the consequent friction produces a small degree of warmth, which is of advantage, particularly in cold weather.

As uniformity of colour is requisite for beauty in printing, I would recommend that the pressman should take ink for every impression where the form is large; this I am aware will be thought too troublesome, but I am decidedly of opinion that it is advantageous in producing regularity of colour: it is unpleasant to the eye to see in a splendid book two pages that face each other, the one of a full black, rather surcharged with ink, the other rather deficient in quantity and of a grey colour; yet this must happen when, as is frequently the case, three or four sheets are printed with one taking of ink.

Beating for fine work should not by any means be slighted. The form ought to be gone over two or three times, not with heavy thumps, but slowly and regularly with a firm hand, just raising the balls each time completely clear of the types, and advancing but a little way, so that in fact each part will be beat five or six times over, or more; the face of the type will then be completely covered with ink: but the pressman should be careful not to beat too far over the edges of the pages, nor, if the margin be wide, to let the balls scrape against the edges of another page, as in both cases ink or extraneous matter will be scraped from the balls, and accumulate about the types at the extremities, and thus cause picks and rough lines.

In splendid books, and particularly where the paper is large and heavy and the type large, set-off sheets are used to interleave the whole impression while working, and are continued in it till the printed paper is taken down from the poles, when they are removed by the warehouseman. These set-off sheets are put in when the white paper is working, and moved from one heap to the other during the working of the reiteration. They prevent the ink from setting off from one sheet to another while they are newly printed, which it would otherwise do from the weight of the paper, and also from fine printing being usually worked of a full colour.

For the uniformity of impression I would advise that the pull should be adjusted in the first instance so as to cause a proper degree of pressure on the form to produce a good impression when the bar is pulled home, and then invariably to cheek the bar, and allow it to rest in that position during a short pause; this is easily done in the Stanhope, the Ruthven, the Columbian, and Sherwin and Cope's presses, as the increased power is obtained by a compound lever, which is generally so adjusted as that the lever shall come a small portion beyond the centre of the circle it partially describes when the bar is pulled home, and as it has then reached a point beyond its maximum power, it is easily retained in this position to rest on the pull: the same observation applies to all other presses having, what is usually termed, the increased power, which is the application of a compound lever to a press on the common construction; but in a one pull wooden press, instead of this application, which I must acknowledge I never knew to answer well when applied to these presses, I would recommend when fine work is doing a simple contrivance that I adopted in two presses, which answered the purpose uncommonly well, and enabled the pressmen to rest on the pull uniformly, without too much effort to keep the bar to the cheek, which with a heavy form and a large platen becomes very fatiguing to continue through a number of impressions, if not impossible, with the unaided exertion of the arm. See Catch of the Bar.

It will thus be perceived, that to produce presswork of a highly superior character, great expense and much time are required; and that it is requisite to have a good press, and that press to be in good condition; to have new types, or types the faces of which are not rounded by wear; to have good balls, and those balls in good condition; the ink should be strong, of a full black colour, the oil well boiled, to prevent it separating from the colouring matter and tinging the paper, and it should be ground so fine as to be impalpable; the paper should be of the best quality, made of linen rags, and not bleached by means of an acid which has a tendency to decompose the ink; the beating should be carefully and well done, not in a hurried manner, the face of the type should be completely covered with ink, without any superfluity, so as to produce a full colour; and the pull should be so regulated as to have a slow and great pressure, and to pause at its maximum in order to fix the ink firmly upon the paper; these particulars observed, with paper only in the tympans, perfect impressions of the face of the type only will be obtained in the most superior manner, and a splendid book will thus be produced in the best style of printing.

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