I would have thought that the question I’m asking here would be a FAQ, but I can’t seem to find answers to it.
As a beginner, it’s already clear to me that I’m going to be spending quite a bit of time practicing and experimenting at the press, printing things which, while instructive to me, will in the end best be used to light the woodstove this winter. This is fine, but the prospect of doing it with good, expensive paper is daunting. On the other hand, I’m sure there are limits below which one can’t drop and still learn. I suspect that if I were to spend a lot of time trying to print on paper pulled out of my laser printer that I’d learn more about the unsuitability of it than I would about good presswork.
With this in mind, what would people recommend as the least expensive paper (or papers) suitable for a beginner to practice with? (And where would one buy it/them?)
Thanks for all suggestions and advice.
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Personally I prefer to learn through the process of a project. With each job there are a number of variables that must be consifered to get a good print including paper, ink, solids content of the form, overall size of the form, condifition of the form, etc. I think it would be impossible to try and print practise runs that would cover all or even most eventualities. If you just want to pull a few proofs to get the hang of it, you could use newsprint or even bond (computer) paper. It’s cheap and prints well for this purpose.
Choose a basic project like your own business cards or something and select the type, paper, ink, etc. Put it all together and work through the problems you will certainly encounter. This will teach you things that will help you on the next project, and the next, etc.
My first project was my business cards and I ended up throwing a few dozen away as I experimented but once I got a good print I ran them off and was able to use them. Later I redesigned the card, selected a different paper, etc. but in the meantime I had something to give people.
Front Room Press
Just print on any old paper and see what happens. I just printed a handset poem and linocut on brown wrapping paper, bond, remnants of handmade papers, newsprint, old leftover watercolor paper from my college art days, chipboard and scraps of Lettra. It was all stuff I had in the house already.
I am still a beginner too (maybe “advanced beginner,” but nothing more) and this was a cheap education in how paper, ink and press all work together. I got to see how the ink lay on each paper, how the packing had to be altered, how the paper affected the overall look…etc.
Suspense! Thrills! Try it!
While you don’t have to use fancy handmade Italian paper or the like right off the bat, experimenting on a good letterpress paper is the only way you’ll really get a feel for what’s “right.” I would recommend you invest in a large package of Crane’s lettra—it’s relatively economical and is sensitive to changes in pressure and ink consistency so you’ll know when everything is set correctly. It’s easy to get frustrated when using the wrong paper, because you may have everything right but still not get the results you want, simply because you’re printing on the wrong paper. Good luck!
I tend to agree with Clothdog. What you’re trying to do is asses the effects on print quality of changing all of the many variables, of which paper type is only one. Even the same paper will print differently depending on the weather. The same paper will print wildly differently if you dampen it. (Check the archives for paper dampening.)
Using a loupe or one of those hand-help microscopes will be a great help. This way you can better see things like how the ink is traveling into the paper, whether the ink is spreading out from the type, or whether ink is being squeezed up the sides of the type.
Once you get a feel for what happens when you use more or less ink, a stiffer or looser ink, more or less packing, a harder or softer packing, and so forth — then you can start experimenting with pricier papers. Some of the paper companies sell sample books — Legion Paper (legionpaper.com) and Talas (talas-nyc.com) come to mind. These are good for seeing the texture, weight, and color of the paper, though not all papers are ideal for letterpress printing. Oftentimes online art stores like Daniel Smith, Dick Blick, or Cheap Joe’s have special coupon deals you can apply to papers.
I’m new to the paper world myself. It’s vast, complex, and exciting. Some of the paper manufacturers’ websites have good sections on paper qualities and uses, such as hahnemuhle.com. Some papers not at all intended for letterpress papers work great. Once I used some some inkjet photo paper because I wanted to print a photo and some letterpress text on the same paper, and it worked so well for the letterpress that I used it for a letterpress-only project. (It was Moab Entrada Rag Bright 300.)
Another thing you might do is invest in a few broadsides printed by experts. I know it’s hard to spend $30 or $40 on a single sheet when you could get 10 22” x 30” sheets of decent blank stock for the same price, but the education is worth it. Plus you get something to hang on your wall for pleasure and inspiration.
I would suggest that you locate your local commercial paper supplier. A local printer could direct you to a company that carries a wide variety of commercial printing papers. There are so many manufacturers all over the country, I’m sure you will find enough examples to keep you busy for a long time. A lot of paper suppliers have over the counter stores where small printers can buy paper by broken cases or by the sheet. This is helpful so you don’t end up with a lot of paper you don’t really want. Three paper mills that have papers that are excellent for letterpress are Mohawk, Strathmore and French Papers. Hopefully your local supplier carries some of their stock.
When you feel comfortable with commercial papers, or at least have a better understanding of weight and grain, vellum or laid, and different finishes, you might want to explore mould-made and handmade papers. Often these papers need to be dampened to print properly and tend to be significantly more expensive (which makes them less desireable for experimentation). If you can find a copy of the book “Which ? Paper, A Guide to Choosing and Using Fine Papers”: By Silvie Turner, Design Press, New York, 1992. It is somewhat old, and some of the paper listed is no longer made, but it is a good overview on how fine papers are made and what to look for in a higher quality ‘art’ paper. You will find that your local paper supplier should be able to answer a lot of your start-up questions, and be able to explain the differences between different papers. They may even have a cutting service available.