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