Printing Ink is a composition formed of two articles, namely, varnish and colouring matter.
The Rev. William Beloe, treating of early printed books in his Anecdotes of Literature, &c., says, —
“It must have been immediately obvious that common writing ink, from its want of substance and viscosity, could by no means answer the purpose. But it must excite surprise, and indeed admiration, to perceive how soon the greatest perfection was attained in this particular. So very soon indeed, and so effectually, that very nearly at the same period books were printed at Mentz, at Rome, and at Venice, which may almost defy the competition of succeeding artists. — The Psalter of Fust and Guttenburg, at Mentz, the Lactantius of Sweynheym and Pannartz, at the Subiaco Monastery, and the Pliny of Jenson, at Venice, may be adduced as specimens of extraordinary beauty, with regard to the quality of the ink; not perhaps surpassed, or, if at all, in a very small degree, by the productions of Bodoni at Parma, or the most perfect examples of the London Presses. It is observable that this excellence of the ink is particularly apparent in all the early books printed upon vellum, and in Germany.”
This is strictly true, for the ink has, after a lapse of four hundred years, preserved its beautiful blackness, as I have myself witnessed, particularly in the large Bible printed by Faust and SchoefFer, and generally known as the Mentz Bible without Date; but in the seventeenth century the quality had materially retrograded, and it was not till the latter part of the eighteenth century that it began to recover its character, when two or three of our most celebrated printers set about improving the ink of commerce for some very expensive splendid works, but the ingredients which they used they kept a profound secret.
As I believe that I am the only person who has written a practical work on the subject, I will give an extract from the preface of my work on Printing Ink, which will show the state in which this article was at that time.
“The process of making printing ink has never yet been treated of fully by any practical man, either printer or manufacturer, so that this work will come before the public on a subject as new as it is important.
“This assertion may perhaps appear to require some modification, as the following pages will present to the reader many receipts for making printing ink, by preceding authors; but when it is known that this subject is only treated of incidentally by some, and that others of them were not professionally printers, and therefore could scarcely be expected to know what was the desideratum, much less to attain it, we shall have little cause to wonder that all have failed. That they have failed, admits of no question: a long experience in the art of printing in all its branches enables and obliges me to say, that ink made from any one of these receipts could not be used in any printing office in the metropolis.
“Moxon, who wrote the first practical work on printing, gives a detailed method of preparing printing ink after the Dutch manner, which he highly praises; yet this ink would be deemed worthless at present, and although as good as the succeeding ones, he is never quoted on this subject; yet when types are treated of, his name appears in every subsequent work on printing. I believe few printers know his book, the title of which is, “Mechanick. Exercises: or, the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing. By Joseph Moxon, Member of the Royal Society, and Hydrographer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty.” 2 vols. 4to. 1677, and which has served as the foundation of subsequent works on printing.
“M. le Breton, printer to the King of France, is the next author on this subject. He wrote the article on Printing in the French Encyclopedic, of which the method of making printing ink forms a part. He is continually quoted by succeeding writers, yet his ink would not rank higher than Moxon's in a printing office.
“J. B. Papillon, a celebrated French engraver on wood, published a treatise on that subject, in which he gave a detailed account of making printing ink, which would not be in greater estimation than Moxon's and Breton's.
“Lewis, in his Philosophical Commerce of Arts, relates the results of many experiments on boiling oil, which are of little practical use, and gives the process of making ink from Breton.
“Nicholson, in his Dictionary of Chemistry, gives some passages which purport nothing, and then proceeds to a loose description of the process from Lewis.
“The Messrs. Aikin, in their Dictionary of Chemistry, give a short vague article on the subject, quoting Lewis as their authority.
“Rees's Cyclopaedia contains an article on the subject from Lewis.
“The Printer's Manual, a French work, published in 1817, gives an account of the process, founded on Breton's formula.
“The Encyclopaedia Britannica is the only work to my knowledge which has broken through the trammels of obsolete authorities, and given a receipt by which a printing ink might be made that could be used; but the editor candidly acknowledges that the article produced would be of an inferior quality. It is, however, the only real approximation to the knowledge of making an ink that could be worked with; and yet it is deficient in specifying the qualities of the different materials, and also of their due proportions, so that it would not produce a clean working ink, nor an ink of a good colour.
“The information given in the book is not theoretical, but deduced from my own practice; and there is not an article mentioned in the whole treatise but what I have repeatedly employed, nor a receipt given but what has undergone the strictest ordeal — that of being used in the regular way of business. The fine black ink has been pronounced by some of our first printers unrivalled; and the ink for general purposes has been allowed, by the most competent judges, to be fully equal to the high priced inks of the principal manufacturers.
“I have used them myself, and also superintended their use by others to the extent of thousands of impressions printed consecutively, without having found occasion to wash or clean the form or engraving, and this in producing fine work. I am, through this experience, enabled to assert, that I do not think it possible that inks could be produced that would work cleaner or more freely, produce finer impressions, and retain their freshness of colour without imparting stain to the paper, than the inks, both black and coloured, the receipts of which I have published in this work.
“The Society for the Encouragement of Arts showed their sense of my success in this pursuit, by awarding to me their large medal, and a sum of money, for my imitation of drawings printed from engravings on wood with inks of my own preparing; and by an invitation to furnish them with a paper on the preparation of printing ink.
“Knowledge of such a subject as this on which I am treating, must, to possess any value, be practical, not theoretical: without being so, there would not exist a possibility of accurately knowing the imperfections existing in the inks, of estimating the errors and deficiencies, and, least of all, of providing a remedy. Thirty-six years practice in the metropolis, with some previous ones in the country, spent in executing the most common as well as the most splendid works, may perhaps entitle me to feel competency to my undertaking, and encourage the belief of it in others.
“To printers generally, I feel that this work will be of great service, judging from the absolute want of Information on the subject, a want that I have experienced in a very high degree during my practice. It will enable every printer to prepare a good ink himself, and to have it always of an uniform quality; — it will enable him to prepare the finest ink without any risk or danger; — it will enable him to prepare coloured ink of any hue at half an hour's notice, that will work as clean as black ink, when any fancy work is required; — it will enable him to print bankers' cheques, &c. with a changeable ink, to prevent fraudulent alterations: — it is in fact opening a door to the extension of the powers of the printing press which has hitherto been closed and sealed.”
This was written in 1832, and contains as faithful an account of the state of knowledge as could be acquired at that time on this subject; for the few manufacturers of the article then existing most scrupulously guarded the secret of its preparation, and no really fine ink could be purchased. The publication of my work on Decorative Printing, and of this work on Printing Ink, has effected a great revolution in the art; for previously, it was impossible, even in the metropolis, to have any thing printed in a superior way except with black ink, whereas now, there is hardly a printer who would not feel ashamed to avow that he could not execute work in any colour whatever in the same style of workmanship as with black ink. For the method of preparing the different inks, both black and of every colour, with the ingredients and their proportions, I must refer, the reader to the book itself.
By the Act 6 G. 4. c. 111., the Customs Duty on the importation of ink for printers is 1l. ls. the cwt.