Timeout for Art: Etching Press (April A~Z Challenge)



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!


two different versions of “Heart Murmurs”


three versions of “Fever Dream”


three versions of “Redshift”


and this pair: “Shelter” and “Secret Space”


11 responses »

  1. Hi Cindy,
    This was a really interesting and informative post. I have a question. I’ve never tried print-making, but recently bought a gelli plate and a brayer. What is the difference in what you can do using an etching press? Clearly there are huge differences since my cost investment was $40. I can see that I can’t do anything of the size you’re able to make. And I’m sure I won’t be able to anything of your quality, but that’s down to the artist in my case, not the tools. But what else? Is it the number of prints you can pull?

    E is for (The) End of Absence

    • Well, Karen, I have never used a gelli plate (so don’t take any of this as gospel), but did look into them a while ago. From what I remember, they can get some really exciting results, without the use of a press. Many of the results would mimic what I can get with a collagraph plate (which is softer than a traditional copper or zinc printing plate) going through the press. What you – I’m guessing here – probably can’t get are the fine inscribed lines that are the result of the dampened paper being forced into the incised lines of an inked plate. It’s hard to get that much pressure from a brayer or other hand-printing methods. However, I’ve seen some very complex, rich and exciting results from gelli plates. I can get hundreds of identical prints (if I want – which I don’t) from a zinc etching plate. My collagraph plates, though, are limited to about 50…and they are not identical. The materials I use to get the textures compress and degrade every time they go through the press, so the image changes slightly with each printing. Rather than try to print editions, which has never interested me, I treat each one as a separate piece. They aren’t considered monotypes, as the image is replicated every time I use that plate. Where a print would usually have a fraction (1/100) stating that it was the first print off the press out of an edition of 100 identical prints, my images have the designation “Unique” which is accurate. I think, with a gelli plate, your images change with each printing, so the correct definition would be “Monotype” or “Monoprint.” Thank you for your interest, and good luck with printing!

  2. That’s really cool! I’ve seen an etching press once but did not see it in use, so definitely unaware of all the work that goes into making prints.
    Your prints look fabulous by the way! I like “Redshift” and “Secret Space” the best.

    • Yes, it is a lot of work! Some of my larger plates take two hours just to ink and wipe…from which I get one pass through the press! I am often in a position of having to educate potential patrons, who don’t know the difference between prints made from a printmaking process (intaglio, silk screen, collagraph, relief), all of which are very labor intensive, and “prints” that are made by machine in editions of hundred or thousands, and are basically like good calendar images. When I’m discussing the art work, I tend to refer to my work as “original prints” to help differentiate. Thank you for reading, and for your generous feedback (“Secret Space” is one of my favorites, too!)!

  3. Your prints are just beautiful, and I hope the process itself put you into a proper Zen frame of mind! I so miss having an etching press around. For years, I hung around my local community college auditing printmaking just so I could do etching. The first class I ever took was not actually an informed choice. I picked it because another class I wanted didn’t happen. But that first printmaking class opened me up to a whole new world. My feet and back would be screaming if I tried it now. But oh, how addicting it can be. Your explanations above are great regarding original prints. They are original works of art, and can’t be placed in the same category as a machine-made print.

    • I fell into both printmaking and ceramics because the class I wanted in each case was full. I ended up with ceramics being my major concentration for my MFA, with printmaking a close second! I can see where printmaking would be a good fit for you, with your love of pattern and surface interest. I so admire your work, Martha, that any praise from you is high praise indeed! Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to offer such generous comments!

  4. Fascinating! When I see prints at art shows, I’ve wondered how this process worked. I think an artist has to be passionate about the process as much as the art. Thanks for the post. Best wishes to you.

  5. wow! with winter behind and spring in bloom, you are on a roll!!! love this, and will save to read/study offline!!!

    i’d hoped to have a timeout ready – photos ready and text semi ready but there’s been a medical emergency for a family dear to me, so we’re on a vigil til he pulls out of the coma or else … no one wants to discuss the what else aspects…

    am near internet but not much time to focus on that, hense aat 4 in the morning i’m ‘catching up’ just a bit..

    time now for sleep…


  6. Pingback: Celebrating 14 Women Who Used to Be Strangers - Profound Journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s