Printmaking Without a Press

Want ≠ Need

Sorry, was that line too harsh? Shoot, I want a press. I’ll even take one of those plank presses redesigned by Woodzilla. Yes, I said redesigned. I am Mexican and that press is just a fancy tortillera (tortilla press)!

We all envy, admire, and follow printmakers who make their press a centerpiece on their social feeds. Don't get me wrong; I will probably do the same one day too. They are, however, expensive pieces of equipment.

These are eye watering prices, but do you really need it to be a printmaker? Would you want to go without extra avocado at Chipotle simply because you’re saving up for a press? No mam! This is why I bring my own avocados to Chipotle. 🌯

A press is a great tool to have but they are a huge investment. If you are not a full-time artist, I would not recommend it. Instead, invest in something more secure, like an NFT!

Cheap & Efficient Alternatives

My spoon has seen it all.

A baren is the most sensible tool of all printmakers. It is something that should always be kept in your studio. Take a look at the following items that help me when working without a press:

❤ Wooden Spoon: I know what you’re thinking. A spoon? It is actually the best investment you will ever make since it is cheap, has a smooth surface, and can deliver appropriate pressure without damaging paper. I have even utilized metal spoons occasionally, but they get hot after you rub or press down really hard on them. Be sure to stick with a wooden spoon. I bought mine at the Dollar Store and have used it on every single print for three years.

😐 Speedball Baren: Okay, so I will be honest, I have worked with Speedball before and I am a loyal customer but this baren sucks. There are many things I dislike about this product. Starting off with the padding at the bottom. The padding that touches the paper is not entirely smooth and if you are rubbing down on nice delicate paper, you won't have paper for long. Speedball labels it as “almost friction-free.” Plus, this padding seems to absorb some of the pressure you exert downwards.

The ergonomics are also not there. Maybe my hands are a little too big for this handle but I always feel the plastic edges digging into my hand after a while. It’s just not a comfortable grip. In my opinion, it is not worth the $22.00 it retails plus shipping and taxes. One positive thing I can say about this baren is that I do use it when I print on fabric and have barely any issues.

A print pulled with a Speedball baren. Print was a bit salty and spotty.

🔥 Japanese Barens: I’m still new to Japanese barens, but like anything coming out of Japan, it doesn’t disappoint. I bought a new baren a few weeks ago. The simple plastic disc does a great job transferring an even amount of pressure to the paper. All of the test prints I did with it were great. One downside to this tool is that it's a little fragile. The bamboo will eventually deteriorate. It's an organic material, of course, but at $6.38, you won't feel guilty when replacing it. Alternatively, you could change the bamboo handle and not have to keep buying a new plastic disc.

You should not be limited to just those tools. I have also used encyclopedias, my body weight and even crystals to pull prints. What is your favorite tool?


Question Time!

This week, I decided to dedicate this space to answer your questions.

“When it comes to inking. The first roll of ink on a new design seems to print off quite smooth. But then I am having the hardest time with subsequent copies after that. And maybe I am too picky and need to embrace the perfectly imperfect perfections of this hand made work. I just get hung up on if the ink is darker in some spots and lighter in others on a print, or if there is a slight smudge between cut lines…what is your take on this? Any suggestions or thoughts on how to make consecutive prints without ever over inking the lino design and over pressing and under pressing and finding just the right spot for this part of the art?Rose S.

Well, that is actually a great big question! To start off, no matter how advanced you are in printmaking there will always be an imperfect print. As you gain experience the number of ‘salty’ or spotty prints will decrease - trust me!

The first thing I would recommend (if you are using lino) is to make sure that you sand it with fine sandpaper.

Try applying ink to your block with multiple thin layers. Do not load up your brayer too much in the beginning as it could clog fine details. It is okay to go back and pick up more ink if the block does not have enough. I know that my first print will never have enough ink and that's ok since it gives me an idea of how much to apply moving forward.

Now that you have your block inked, what tool are you using to burnish? Will it be a baren, spoon, or by running it through a press/heavy weight?

A print pulled with a Japanese style baren. It delivered a more even pressure.

When using a baren/spoon, I always hold on to the paper with one hand (left) and burnish with the other (right). I never lift my left hand from the paper because I don't want it to slip off. As I burnish, I peek at the print, but NEVER take my hand off the paper. This guarantees that when I bring the paper down, I will not mess up registration.

The thickness of your paper could be another factor. Try using a thinner paper 50-120 gsm. The heavier and more textured your paper is, the more pressure it will require from you. If you are working with a 175-320 gsm paper try getting it wet first. I would not recommend getting your paper wet if using water-based inks.

Spotty or “salty” prints could be caused by small particles stuck to your plate. Each time you apply a new layer of ink, inspect your block to make sure there isn't a dry piece of ink or lino stuck there. I used to have this problem often when working with water based inks since it dries so quickly. Weather could also affect it. California gets HOT during summers and I tend to have this issue more often on warm days. If you cake your block with ink be sure to wash it off. A smooth and clean plate will always result in a nice print.

A print pulled utilizing a wooden spoon. When using a spoon, watch the amount of pressure being applied!

One of the things that makes printmaking special is that each print is unique. There will be variations. If we wanted identical perfect prints, we would use a digital printer. I like the charm of an ever slightly imperfect print as it gives it that hand-made feel. Only you will be able to determine how much of these peculiarities you are able to tolerate. I like having slight variations from print to print. I appreciate this more when creating landscapes because nature does the same; it can be wild and untamed but still beautiful.