Traditionally those of us who print letterpress on a small scale often used to beg or buy offcuts from commecial printers, few of whom went wholly litho until the 1970s. Since then papers for litho have become increasingly different to those suitable for letterpress. The latter, essentially soft, absorbent and spongy, allow type to sink in without excessively distorting the other side of the sheet. This enables one to achieve a decent impression from rather worn case type whose characters are no longer of precisely consistent height. Such papers are not suited to modern high-speed photolithography which demands hard non-absorbent surfaces which require less ink and don’t shed fibres on contact with plate-damping solutions.

With unworn type, newish rollers and near perfect distribution of ink and pressure it is possible to print kiss impression (ie no perceivable indentation) letterpress on such paper if it is smooth surfaced, although the slightest over-inking will result in a splodgy edge to the printed letters. Such relatively brittle papers, when given a textured or embossed surface and even those made to resemble a traditional laid paper, such as the modern version of Conqueror are, though, totally unsuited to letterpress and will quickly wear out ones type rather than accept a decent impression. Many current ‘prestige’ branded papers do not resemble in substance or character those produced under the same name thirty or more years ago: beware!

The days when one could find paper suitable for letterpress in a stationer’s shop are long gone.

For letterpress, choose paper with a soft, silky surface and a resilient core which allows type to bite without overly embossing the other side.

You don’t have to splurge on hand-made paper — mould-made paper, made on a slowly rotating wire-mesh drum is more consistent and therefore easier to print. Often made of similar raw materials, it is more affordable whilst generally of neutral ph and thus regarded as archivally permanent and will certainly outlast most modern mass-produced papers. Certain machine-made papers made on a wire-mesh conveyor belt, are of equal permanence and still less expensive. But avoid all hard, shiny, artificially textured stock.

Most machine or mould-made paper has a definite grain direction; along the grain it is stiffer but easier to tear, across the grain it will more readily curl but is harder to tear. Book pages should have the grain vertical so that they open and lie properly, thus for a book project you need short-grain A4, which folded will give long-grain A5 pages. A ream of A4 will be enough for more than 200 eight-page pamphlets with an allowance for wastage.

Think in terms of 100 to 160 gsm-or thicker if you wish. Consider having a larger sheet cut down to approximately A4 size and using the offcuts for future projects.

Take the advice of a knowledgeable specialist paper merchant. Specialist paper-merchants, who will advise on and supply suitable paper in small sizes and quantities include-

  • Paper Resources Ltd., (Peter Gilbert and Simon Gillingham) Lower Mill House, Milton Road, Shipton Under Wychwood, OX7 6XU (telephone 01933 276 689)
  • John Purcell Paper, 15, Rumsey Road, London SW9 0TR (telephone 0207 737 5199) John Purcell’s catalogue indicates the suitability of each listed paper and includes an excellent four page article outlining the characteristics of all the classes of paper one is likely to wish to use.

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