My etching press is small by many standards. The press bed is less than half the size of the one I used in the Kresge Art Center at Michigan State University. The roller is much smaller in diameter, too, making its operation a muscle-building exercise. A good etching press can cost upwards of ten thousand dollars. Mine, when I purchased it more than twenty years ago, cost a little more than six hundred dollars; the heavy press blankets added another five hundred dollars to the bill. It is classified as “student grade,” suitable for use by the individual print-maker. It is perfect for me!
That’s what I am, an individual – and occasional, I might add – print-maker. I don’t teach print-making, so don’t have students and inexperienced users pushing the press to its limits. I rarely use the press for metal etching plates, which can be harder on the roller, gears and felt blankets. It’s main use, in my studio, is for printing monoprints, using a thin plexiglas plate, and collagraphs.
My collagraph plates are usually created on binder board, a dense, smooth cardboard designed for book-binding. Sometimes I just use the cardboard backing from sketchbooks and bound tablets. I’ve learned to get a great deal of textural information from very little actual depth on the plate, so they can be run through the press without difficulty.
After nearly two years of disuse, the press and I are becoming reacquainted. I cleaned each of the felt blankets, and trimmed off the frayed edges. I cleaned the roller and gears of accumulated dust. I wiped down the press bed. Next, I checked and adjusted the tension. Finally, I was ready to try it out.
I had to remind myself of the process, too. Prints to be re-printed and papers for new work all had to be dampened (I use a spray bottle to generously spritz the surface) and layered between sheets of blotter paper. The whole stack, then, goes into a large plastic trash bag for several hours or overnight. I cut mat board into squares, to spread the thick ink over the plate. I cut card stock into squares, and folded each one, to use as holders to pick up and move the inked plate. I assembled inks, burnt plate oil, cheesecloth and starched tarlatan for wiping the plate, and latex gloves to protect my hands. Finally, I was ready to print!
As I worked, I continued to make adjustments: to the viscosity of the ink, the amount of wiping of the plates, and the tension on the press. I remembered, and learned, through my failures. The first long day was almost a total bust, and I left the studio exhausted and a little discouraged.
The second day, I gathered the knowledge I’d gleaned from the mistakes of the first day. I added less burnt plate oil, keeping the ink thicker; I kept a better eye on the surface of the plates, to be sure not to over wipe. I had finally gotten the adjustments to the press right. And I was rewarded, that day, with some good results!