WHAT IS AN ETCHING?  3 PAPER, PRESS AND PRINTING
Printing etching plates onto dampened paper with an etching press

COLIN BAILEY
ARTIST & PRINTMAKER
Etchings and the etching process explained.



Part 3
Pulling the print off the etched copper plate
The Rochat etching press
The Rochat press: probably one of the best known heavy duty etching presses
1 2 3 4
PAPER - DIFFERENT TYPES OF PAPER USED FOR ETCHING
Most paper that can be used for drawing can also be used for etching. However, as the paper has to be dampened before printing I have found it advisable to choose a heavier weight paper (around 200 GSM) as this will stay flatter after passing through the press and drying out. I always place each completed print between sheets of newsprint and then place a heavy board on top to ensure this. Below is a by no means comprehensive list of suitable papers. I have experimented with all of these and presently have settled on BFK Rives 250GSM White.
Velin Arches
A printmaking paper designed for etching, silkscreen or letterpress. Mould-made 100% cotton rag, internally sizes and acid free with four deckle edges.
BFK Rives Blanc
mould made 100% cotton, watermarked, smoother and less sized than Velin Arches. Also available in black and 3 colours.
Somerset
These papers are made at St. Cuthbert's Mill. Originally intended as a printmaking paper, they have been discovered to also be highly suitable for pastel drawing. Mould-made 100% cotton rag, acid free with four deckle edges.
Fabriano 5
A watercolour paper that is 50% cotton rag and 50% wood pulp, surface sized and acid free with two deckle edges very white, available in 2 surfaces, watermarked. Suitable for many printmaking techniques.
PREPARING AND SOAKING THE PAPER
There are several rituals I observe before printing: I tear the paper to the size I require (usually 2 - 3 inches bigger than the plate). I then place each sheet one by one in a the bath which I have half filled with warm water (I think it is absorbed into the paper better!) I have a large photographic developing tray on hand for transporting the wet paper.
While the paper is soaking I make sure I have everything laid out for printing; scrim (tarlatan), squares of tissue for fine wiping, card for applying the ink, rags for wiping the plate edges and of course my plastic fingers! Cut out of a large plastic bottle and folded these are perfect for handling (and keeping clean) wet paper and blankets and can be cleaned with white spirit if they get inky. Ink is squeezed out onto a sheet of glass and the pressure is checked on the press and the blankets straightened.
About a dozen large folded sheets of blotting paper are stacked for the wet paper and a pile of newsprint is at hand. For some obscure reason the blank paper used for printing newspaper is called newsprint, whilst the pages of old newspapers are ... Just old newspaper!
After soaking the etching paper is placed between the folded sheets of blotting paper and pressed until damp (if the paper is still shiny with water it is too wet and if it has started to cockle it is too dry. Too wet and the paper will reject the ink, too dry and the paper will not be pliable enough to be pushed into the line properly). I generally keep only three/four sheets in the blotting paper at any one time to ensure they do not dry out.
Remaoving excess ink from the copper etching plate with a piece of card
INKING THE PLATE
I transfer ink onto the plate with small squares of cut up mounting card ensuring that the whole plate is covered and not just the bitten areas. Using the edge of the card the ink can the be scraped off the surface of the plate and used for the next print.
WIPING THE PLATE
This is one of the areas where experience and instinct kicks in and I have seen all etchers get it wrong at some time. The main characteristic of intaglio printing is that the ink is printed from out of the lines which of course means that the ink on the surface has to be removed. Invariably some ink will remain - this gives intaglio prints their distinctive plate tone. The danger is in over wiping the plate and losing subtlety in the etched image or under wiping and losing detail in the line work - the balance is a matter of personal choice and often becomes the style of each individual printmaker. It is this stage that prevents etching becoming easy to mechanise
The plate is  wiped with scrim in a circular motion without scrubbing too hard into the lines. Most of the ink will be removed this way and if a darker plate tone is desired a print can be taken at this stage.
I usually wipe the plate further with small squares of tissue using the ball of my hand to obtain a cleaner more contrasty print. Finally I run a rag carefully around the BEVELLED edge of the plate to avoid ink being squeezed out from the back of the plate
Wiping the inked copper plate with scrim
PRINTING THE PLATE
The bed of the press is rolled out into position and the blankets are carefully folded back using the plastic fingers. A sheet of newsprint is placed on the bed and the plate is carefully laid centrally on top. Using a strip of card the width you wish  the border to be, mark the distance from two edges of the plate with a pencil. The paper can now be carefully placed against the two pencil lines ensuring the print will be straight and central on the paper. Place a second sheet of newsprint on top, replace the blankets and turn the wheel to run the bed through the press.
It is advisable to run the bed through in one fluid movement as pausing can show up as a line on the print.
Adjusting the pressure of the press should be only attempted as a last resort and not as a remedy for sloppy biting or wiping! Over the length of a busy print session the blankets will absorb water from the dampened paper and swell slightly this will alter the effective pressure and the blanket should be run through the press and hung up to dry overnight.

INK: Various inks are available for etching. And are generally catergorised as being stiff or cold wiped. I use Graphical Chemical Bone black ink which comes in a practical 1lb cartridge.
A traditional etching press
FURTHER READING
With etching having been around for such a ling time  it is not surprising that a good many books have been written on the subject - the best by practicising printmakers.

The Art of Etching by E S Lumsden is the book I used when first learning etching and I still have that original battered and acid stained copy! This is the best technical guide to etching I have found and contains sate by state examples of the author’s own etching as well as a good selection of the best known Etchers
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Ryepress resources is an Amazon “Astore” in which I have gathered together a selection some of the Art Materials and equipment that I have used personally and can therefore recommend.