I have been extremely fortunate to receive a day’s tuition from Phil Abel at Hand & Eye Letterpress, in the fine art of ‘make-ready’ and ‘overlaying’ on the letterpress cylinder press. After mentioning to Phil that I hope to achieve high-quality work on my Wharfedale press, once it is restored to working order, he kindly invited me along to Hand & Eye for some guidance! For the past two years Phil’s expert skills in pressmanship have been employed in printing The Letterpress Shakespeare for The Folio Society, on his Heidelberg cylinder press.
The technique of ‘overlaying’ involves increasing or decreasing the thickness of the packing that wraps around [dresses] the cylinder to achieve a more even impression over the printed page. Whilst, to the layman, this sounds quite a straightforward process, it requires great skill and patience.
The top sheet of the cylinder dressing is usually of stout manilla and the remainder of various grades of printing paper, although rubber litho blankets and acetate are often included in modern letterpress printing offices.
The first stage involves taking a first proof of the forme, once the level of impression and positioning has been set. This sheet should be examined carefully and areas where there is too much, or too little impression, should be marked. Then a sheet of newsprint, or similar paper of around 50gsm in weight, should be fixed into the grippers on the cylinder and a bodkin is used to spike through the newsprint about two inches from each vertical edge of the sheet.
A print is then made onto this sheet of newsprint and it can be removed from the press and taken to a cutting surface for removing portions of the paper where too much impression is evident. At the same time, two V’s are cut from each edge of the paper, using the holes made by the bodkin as a starting point. A strip also needs to be cut from the gripper edge of the newsprint so that it will clear the grippers when placed in the dressing on the cylinder.
Once cutting is complete, this sheet will need to be incorporated into the dressing in place of an existing sheet of the same thickness. The manilla top sheet and acetate (if used) are then released from the gripper bar on the cylinder and the prepared overlay is then glued to a lower sheet of packing with a few spots of glue, clear of any printing areas. The top sheets are then replaced and tightened around the cylinder before another proof is taken. It is likely that more areas will still show uneven pressure and these should be marked as before.
Where areas of the text appear too light, pieces of newsprint, bible or tissue paper should be cut out and glued to the surface of the first overlay (that serves as a guide to positioning) on the cylinder. If too much impression is evident on parts of the printed page, the corresponding areas should be carefully cut from the overlay so that the thickness of the cylinder dressing is reduced in those areas.
It can take many hours to complete the make-ready and overlaying on a cylinder press although the quality of work will be greatly enhanced if sufficient care and attention is given to dressing the cylinder correctly.
I am extremely grateful to Phil Abel for his kind help and guidance and I look forward to putting this new found knowledge into practice when my Wharfedale is back in working order.