Heriot Watt (from ECP)
Heriot Watt (from ECP)

If it still won’t print evenly you must learn skills requiring more patience than any part of letterpress you’ve so far tackled. In its crudest form, make-ready involves putting more pressure on the bits that are weak or don’t print at all, thus making the low bits type-high.

A line of perhaps rather worn bold type and a few worn letters in a text can-when identified and their feet located on the underside of the forme-be raised by sticking on scraps of precisely cut tissue. In extreme cases a length of masking tape cut to width makes the job very easy, but as ever, start with a little and you can always add more! Beware of type which is ‘off its feet’, however. Areas or lines of type in which letters each print heavy on one side and weak on the other indicate loose setting and need this to be corrected ‘on the stone’ or by being put through the stick again — was your stick properly tight?

More correctly, makeready is the process of ensuring that each part of the forme receives sufficient ink and pressure to satisfy its individual requirement. Bold, solid areas of type or blocks need more ink-and more pressure-than do light, delicate areas. In a letterpress book-printing house a skilled press-man — as opposed to a mere machine-minder — would spend hours building up a carefully adjusted ‘contour map’ of ‘onion-skin’ and an extremely thin tissue paper. In a forme of type this might be on two levels, underlay to build up type starved of ink, overlay on the tympan or cylinder packing to increase pressure on areas sufficiently inked but under-impressed.

With mounted blocks, especially half-tones, in the forme, a third level, known as interlay might be necessary to reinforce dense shadows without filling-in the detail in the high-lights. The metal plate bearing the etched or engraved image was removed from its base or mount and to which it was generally fixed with tacks around the edge-and a pair of callipers used to carefully follow around the weak shadow areas identified at proofing, care being taken to avoid harming the face of the plate whilst scratching guide-lines on the back. With sufficient carefully torn contoured layers of tissue in place, the plate and its mount would be re-assembled and replaced in the forme.

Photographers will recognise a similarity between this process and the selective bleaching or intensifying of negatives, followed by dodging and burning in areas of the print, which differentiate a meaningful photograph from a trade-processed snapshot. Similarly, the skills and judgement involved in make-ready are not learn’t from books, but by patient trial and error-experience. When you marvel at the immense tonal range and sheer sparkle of photographs reproduced as letterpress half-tones with kiss impression on glossy ‘art’ paper in a really well printed book from the 1950s or 60s — or earlier — you’ll now have an idea of how it was achieved.

With patience, it’s quite possible to restore much of the visual quality of a dented, battered block bought from a junk shop, more important, it’s good practice for getting the best performance out of your second-hand type and your Adana or whatever. Give yourself time and have a go!

This guide kindly contributed by John R Smith of the Old Forge Press. Originally appeared in the newsletter of the Oxford Guild of Printers