One of the ‘inputs’ to the let­ter­press pro­cess: paper

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