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Handmade Paper Letterpress Print

Stephanie Bacon shares her process for making her handmade paper letterpress print design.

Stephanie Bacon has dabbled in art her whole life.

Materials and Tools:

vat
papermaking molds
blankets
interfacing fabric
wooden boards
blotters
shop press
hose and water
paper from recycled materials*
bucket
blender
pencil
marker
tracing paper
relief printing block
craft linoleum block carving tools
metal and wooden type spacers and wedges (known as "furniture")
proofing press
ink
palette and palette knife
brayer
rags, vegetable oil and scrap paper for cleanup
rubber gloves
*Used printmaking (or other acid-free) paper and found paper items for lamination

Steps:

1. Tear (do not cut) sheets of used printmaking or other acid-free paper into approximately 1" x 1" pieces. Place pieces in a bucket and completely cover with water. Allow paper to soak 24 hours or more.

2. Place about one cup of paper scraps into a kitchen blender. Fill the jar with water until it's about 3/4 full and blend on any speed until you reach the desired consistency.

  • A recommended length of time is about 20 seconds.
  • For a lumpy and highly textural paper blend for a smaller amount of time.
  • For a smooth and fine paper where the fibers are broken down blend a longer amount of time.
  • Over blending produces a structurally weak paper.

3. Pour the blended pulp into a large vat or tub. Continue grinding the scraps a cup at a time, in the blender, until its all ground into pulp.

4. Add more water to the vat, equal to the volume of the ground pulp or more. Mix well with your hands or a paint stirrer. The pulp should be a thin, even suspension throughout the water. Pull a sample sheet of paper to test the proportions of pulp to water. Add more water if the sheet is too thick.

5. To pull a sheet, wet the papermaking mold. Holding the mold vertically with both hands, dip it into the back of the vat and in one smooth motion, turn it to a horizontal orientation and pull it forward and up, collecting the pulp on the screen. As the water drains from the screen, shake the mold a couple of times from right to left and front to back. Note: Any frame that has been stretched with a screen or mesh that allows water to pass through may be used as a papermaking mold.

6. To couch or remove the paper from the mold, allow the mold to drain for a few minutes until the draining has slowed considerably. Prepare a stack of several thicknesses of soaking wet blankets that have been cut to a size slightly larger than the mold. You may also couch onto interfacing fabric but it is advisable to have a stack of several thicknesses of wet blanket below the interfacing to provide a cushion for the sheets. Starting from one edge, invert the mold onto the blankets and press down firmly on the right and left edges of the mold. If excessive water is releasing from the mold gently sponge the back of the mold.

7. Remove the mold from the sheet with a quick smooth rolling motion. At this point, you may choose to add an element on top of the wet sheet, which will adhere to that sheet by pressure. This is called lamination.

8. Laminate a decorative paper napkin onto the sheet. When dry, it will form a single, bonded sheet.

9. Place another wet blanket or piece of interfacing onto the sheet and continue pulling additional sheets and stacking up blankets in between each one until the pulp is expended or you have reached your desired quantity. Cover the last sheet with additional blankets. The stack of sheets and blankets is called a post.

10. Place the post under pressure to remove as much water as possible and to ensure that the sheets will dry flat. Place the post between two flat boards and stand on them for a while; or place heavy objects or buckets of water on them or use a shop press for this purpose.

11. Dry the sheets as they are, between blankets or interfacing, in which case the paper would have the texture of the blanket or interfacing.

  • Accelerate the drying process and dry to a smoother surface by restacking the sheets, swapping out the wet blankets for dry ones, or interfacing, or blotter paper, or any other material that absorbs the water and that creates desirable surface quality.
  • Continue restacking the sheets for faster drying, but keep the sheets under weight or pressure as they dry to ensure flatness.
  • Average drying time ranges from 48 hours to a week or more depending on weather conditions.

12. The written verbiage and the visual imagery for the print are developed in tandem. Write notes for verbiage on scraps of paper. Revise as needed and sketch out ideas for visual images to accompany each text.

13. Make a final drawing for the relief block, in this case a piece of cake. Transfer the drawing to a flexible rubber block using tracing paper.

14. Make sure to transfer the image backward, so it prints forward.

15. Carve the design into the block using carving tools. Test the block by rolling ink onto it with a brayer, printing a proof version and revising as necessary.

16. Set the type. Each wooden or metal letter is individually placed in its order, reading backward so that it will print forward. Horizontal and vertical spacing is created by placing blank spacing elements between the letters. Proof the type, usually printing a right-reading version using carbon paper and make adjustments to the type style, size and placement.

17. Place the relief block and the type together within the printing bed on the press. All the printable elements need to be tightly wedged into place, so that they don't shift during the printing process. Blocks of wood and strips of metal known as furniture are wedged into the printing bed to hold everything firmly in place.

18. Wearing rubber gloves roll the ink out with a brayer on a glass or Plexiglas palette as thinly as possible. Ink the type and image with the brayer.

19. Place the handmade paper right side down upon the type and image. Place blankets or sheets of paper on top of the handmade paper sheet to provide a cushion and adjust the pressure.

20. Hand-crank the rolling drum across the back of the sheet, applying sufficient pressure to transfer the inked design to the page.

21. Remove the handmade paper letterpress print and allow to dry.

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