Adventures of a Countess

The Centre for Print Research purchased a new addition to their range of presses, an F.A.G. 535 MRS proofing press. The members of the centre decided to try out its capabilities.

The machine was named the Countess to emphasise the authority and respect demanded in her handling and care. The F.A.G. letterpress arrived at W block from ‘Beyond Letterpress’, a seller of rare and restored presses. A member of their team, Rod, agreed to induct our Print Technicians Laura Clarke-Oaten and Harrie Fuller as well as CFPR’s very own letterpress aficionado Angie Butler. They then passed on this knowledge to the disruptive print team, who immediately showed interest in trying it out.

The disruptive print team then decided a fun starting point for learning the press would be printing Christmas cards. We decided to print an edition of 100 cards. The selected image was a wintery landscape, with a subtle greyscale of snowy white hills and a white dog in the middle. For an added challenge we formulated our ink in-house. This was linseed-based combined with Merck’s speciality pigment Iridion 6123, Icy white, our chosen substrate was black Plike by G.F Smith.

It is pertinent to state that the members of the disruptive print team had little experience with letterpress printing, especially with electrical machines that threaten to take one’s fingers off if not careful. Natural caution quickly became excitement after observing the speed and consistency in which the F.A.G. produced prints.

Various test plates were made up by Centurion Graphics, to determine what material and what halftone would achieve the best result. When choosing between photopolymer or magnesium plates, we chose magnesium relief plates with a 100lpi halftone.

After our initial day of testing which plate and halftone to use, printing the cards took another two days. The first day was spent getting to know the layout of the press and understanding how to lay down registration. Afterwards we adjusted the pressure, the amount of ink used, the placement of the plate, and tweaked the ink formulation. The letterpress proved itself to be a Rolls Royce of printing, as it provided an adjustable bed height as well as 7 oscillating rollers. To our joy we found these numerous rollers to be a real asset to ink making, as the ink slurry no longer had to be hand-mixed for an eternity before printing. We could simply mix the pigment and linseed and let the Countess do the rest.

Some amusing mishaps also occurred along the way: the test prints were showing a ghostly imprint of a skull that nobody could figure out the origin of. Finally, after concluding that the Countess was not, in fact, cursed, we realised that the paper packing of the press had a deboss of a previous print job in it, which left the mysterious skull mark. The haunted imprint served as a great teaching moment of the importance of even pressure and a reminder to check the state of the press before and after every job. After this little adventure, everything worked as smooth as can be, and by the end of the day, we had successfully done 60 prints.

On day 2, things did not go to plan. The Countess started to show her fussy temperament. With Disruptive Prints resident print technician Harrie taken ill, it was up to Dr Susanne Klein and Elizabete Kozlovska to take on the challenge of taming the Countess.

Once the paper was cut and the rollers inked up, we were ready to print. It was then the fun truly started. After the second card, we started noticing a strange splatter of ink along with anomalous lines stretching across the image. All variables were checked: the height of the bed was adjusted to accommodate appropriate pressure. The plate and the rollers were cleaned multiple times, and the press was taken apart several times. Finally, after all this cleaning, close to giving up on completing our 100-card quota, research technician Laura Clark found the solution. The press has internal brushes that sit next to the packing that can be lifted in contact with the paper or left down. When inducted to the F.A.G. we had  changed the angling of these brushes, which, until now, showed no visible disruption.  After cleaning and adjusting the brushes, the problem was resolved. And so, after a little blood, sweat and tears the final 40 prints were pulled and the edition was completed.

In the space of a month, the Countess has well and truly become a workhorse and mainstay at CFPR, always producing exquisite results. Now onto the next challenge!

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