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