A very frus­trat­ing — but essen­tial — part of the let­ter­press process

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