What is Hand Copperplate Printing?

By Channing Lefebvre

Hand copperplate printing has not changed for centuries. No essential difference will be found between modern presses and those found in old illustrations. The principle is quite simple: The printing plate on which the sheet of paper is laid is run under pressure between two large cylinders of equal size, the printing plate resting upon a solid iron plate and a felt blanket being placed on the paper in order to cushion it. The pressure between the cylinders can be adjusted. The press is operated by hand with the aid of a large star wheel or fly wheel.

The plate is warmed before inking. Ink is applied copiously with a pad so that the recesses in the plate are filled. Superfluous ink is removed with a second pad, with soft spoiled sheets of paper and finally with the palm of the hand. The printer can vary this procedure, as he thinks fit. He can wipe the plate vigorously so that only a soft ink tone remains; he can also wipe some of the ink out of the recesses so that a connective tone is obtained. Typical of all intaglio prints is a filmy plate tone, which connects all the elements of the picture together. The plate (with beveled edges), being impressed in the soft damp paper under pressure results in the image area of the plate being pressed absolutely smooth. The height of the ink being raised on the paper depends on the depth of the engraved line in the plate. This is often apparent to the naked eye and can certainly be seen under a magnifying glass or felt by running the finger lightly over the line. Sometimes in prints of other kinds the edge of the plate is subsequently pressed into the paper in order to fake a copperplate print from the hand press. However, the connoisseur will not be deceived; he looks to see whether the plate edge, the picture and tone all come from the same printing plate.

Lithographic zinc plates are sometimes also printed in a copperplate hand press; but the edge, which is not usually beveled, and the dipped comers do not produce a pleasing imprint in the paper. It is not the plate edge that is typical of a litho print but the mark left on the paper where pressure was first applied by the scraper of the hand litho press. Even genuine lithographs sometimes have a considerable amount of ink along the edge, especially when, as in the case of Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist lithographs up to the very edge of the stone. The round edge of the stone is impressed into the paper during the printing operation.

Channing Lefebvre has worked in the Blumberg engraving department for 26 years and is the Senior Engraving Press Operator. He has been a practicing printmaker for 41 years.

Source: A Handbook of Graphic Reproduction Processes. Felix Brunner, 2nd edition, 1964, Arthur Niggli, Switzerland.