Printing techniques have come a long way since the days of Chinese woodblock printing. Over many centuries, these ever-evolving technologies have made it possible for us to share knowledge, create art and express ourselves all over the world. Here we celebrate the provenance and progress of some of these processes, many of which are today considered an art form…
You’ve probably heard of Gutenberg’s press, invented in 1436 by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany. It isn’t commonly known however that the history of the movable printing press dates all the way back to 1041 and the work of Bi Sheng, a Han Chinese printer from China. These essential early methods of printing text used raised characters made from wood blocks and later metal (developed in Korea in 1234) which were arranged to make up the desired text in a page-shaped block known as a forme. Once the text was set out and the forme was covered in ink, paper could be laid out and pressed on top, then repeated, to print numerous identical copies of the same page.
The process of etching is a little bit like creating a batik print and was especially popular in the 17th century. Today etching is still used as an artistic technique. To create a design, the printer or artist uses a metal sheet covered in wax. They must then scrape away the wax from areas where marks are required. With the design scratched into the wax, the metal sheet is dipped into an acid bath known as a mordant. This process burns away the parts of the metal which have been exposed by the creator’s scratches, leaving the rest of the sheet untouched. To complete the process, the sheet known as a printing plate is cleaned, covered in ink and wiped, leaving ink only in the hollows burned away by the acid. Finally, the plate is put in a high pressure printing press to transfer the finished design onto paper.
Invented in 1796 as an inexpensive way to print text or artwork, lithography is still used today by printers producing large volumes of illustration in books and magazines. In the 21st century the process has become more sophisticated and is now known as offset lithography, but the principals behind the method remain the same. To print using the traditional technique, fat, oil or wax was applied to a smooth lithographic limestone plate in the shape of the desired image. When the stone was moistened with gum arabic and acid, the oily or waxy areas would repel the fluid. Finally, an oil-based ink was applied, which would take to the oily or waxy area alone, leaving the untreated areas blank. The lithograph could then be pressed onto a blank page, creating an afforable, precise print.
This method is similar to lithography but was used to make coloured prints. In some cases, more than 20 stones were used to make a single image, with each transferring a different colour. In other instances, hand-colouring was used to complete the print. With so much time and skill going into each chomolithograph, this was an extremely time consuming and expensive process.
Rotary printing press
The rotary printing press machine consisted of a rotating drum, used to continually print onto paper, card or plastic that was fed into it. This technology, invented in 1842 by Richard March Hoe, allowed printing to become much faster and more efficient. Presses varied in terms of the techniques they used to print as they spun; as an alternative to lithography, some used a process called gravure, where an ink-filled drum pushed ink through small letter-shaped holes in its surface, and others used flexography,which used a raised, ink-covered stamp to make each mark.
Hot metal typesetting
This process is used for letterpress printing and took the historic creation of the printing press to the next level. Molten metal is poured into either letter or word shaped molds (known as glyphs), creating accurate, uniform “stamps” to print text.
The development of this technique was all part of making printing evermore mechanical and efficient, reducing the need to lay out pages and texts by hand (known as handsetting). The Ludlow Typograph, invented in the early 1900s, was the first printer to use hot metal typesetting which required no handsetting whatsoever.
In 1880, Thomas Edison received a patent to use authographic stencils for printing. With this invention, mimography was born. It was an incredibly cost effective printing process which pressed ink through a stencil (made from a fine metal plate, perforated with a blunt stylus) onto paper. Over time, it was found that this printing technique worked very effectively with a rotary press, which is exactly how the beautiful piece of machinery above worked.