An example of a letterpress print using carved wooden letters, with just enough pressure to get a clear print.

Mind your platens and friskets!

A few days earlier there had been an email inviting us the chance to attend a talk and demo by master printer Chris Bacon, as part of Northern Print’s ‘Letterpress – a lasting impression’ project (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I booked my place as soon as I saw the email because I was aware that Chris was very knowledgeable on the subject.

As soon as I stepped in the gallery and saw the table of books, formes and other intriguing things, I anticipated an interesting morning. It was a half day of intense concentration. Chris hadn’t been talking for long before, one by one, people started fishing notebooks or sketchbooks and pens from their bags to take some notes. It was a perfect mix of practical advice, technical information, history of printing, and some anecdotes.

Chris had served a traditional sort of apprenticeship to learn traditional printing skills, becoming a Freeman of the City of London and a member of The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, all for the sake of printing letterpress. He quoted a couple of the Rules for the Conduct of Life (pictured above) which he was given as an apprentice. This guide dates back to the early 18th century (continuing to be printed and given to Freemen of London ever since) and has the full title Some Rules for the Conduct of Life: To which are added, a few Cautions, for the use of such Freemen of London as take Apprentices.

He told us something about the printing of some of the original Thomas Bewick wood engravings as a special edition (see links below), and how cleaning the blocks revealed details in the background that people hadn’t noticed before. This was fascinating. I could have sat through a morning of discussion just about the finer points of Thomas Bewick’s work.*

Chris recommended some books about the technical aspects of letterpress, and showed us some original catalogues, for example, of printing inks. When he mentioned that the inks used today for letterpress are designed for lithography rather than letterpress, I had to ask what the difference is. Pigment: the letterpress inks had a higher density of pigment. It hadn’t occurred to me that the high speed mechanised presses had also required special inks because the speed created heat.

I was relieved to hear that we don’t really need to learn the names of all the different kinds of spacers in the type. These names are important when working in a moveable type print shop when one needs to communicate with others about precisely what one requires quickly. I can understand why it was a seven-year apprenticeship.

Chris explained that our Albion press’s tympan (a frame with paper stretched over it that goes over the plate and paper) had been missing a piece and he’d got us a replacement and re-covered the tympan. We went downstairs where he put the tympan back on the press, and ascertained that we lacked a frisket. The frisket attaches to the tympan, but from the few illustrations I’ve seen, it looks as if it would be more of a nuisance than a help to have a frisket and one then needs another bit to hold the frisket up. The fact that it has been missing for a long time indicates that previous printers possibly left it off because it was a nuisance and it got lost.

The master printer proceeded to carry out some maintenance to the 19th century press and to show us how to adjust it and what needed oiling. There were bits to adjust that we had never realised moved! It was clear to Chris that our press had not been oiled for years – but I don’t think anybody even knew the parts for oiling existed. He showed us how to put card in the now 2-part tympan to help get the pressure right for a print, and using a make-ready (piece of paper) to raise one area of the plate or a letter or group of letters.

I feel I could do with another day at least of learning how to get a decent print using the Albion press. It’s not easy. This was the press on which my first substantial letterpress piece was printed – and that was not easy to print. I have to admit that I have hesitated to use this press because it’s tricky to set up but hopefully I will understand a little more now of how to get a good print with it.

It was a morning densely packed with information. I hope we have another opportunity to learn a bit from Chris Bacon. People with his level of knowledge about printmaking are uncommon these days – and we should treasure them while we have them.

Pauline Holt, ‘Pressing matters,’ Tynedale Life, 21st April 2016.

Caring for Bewick’s blocks, National Trust website.

* I had become a Thomas Bewick fan as a child when I first came across his engravings of birds. It didn’t occur to me when I first arrived at Newcastle to study for a degree that I was in the city where Bewick had worked. It was years before I discovered that one of our lecturers was a member of the Bewick Society.

Years after that, I found out that my line manager was a member when the subject was raised of creating a digitised resource online about some of Thomas Bewick’s work. At the time, I was leading a bigger project to digitise images in Newcastle Libraries’ special collections and was glancing longingly at their Bewick material (it was outside the remit of my project). Seeing some original Bewick blocks just increased my admiration. The fineness of the work is astonishing and I enjoy his keen observations of the world around him.

 

 

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