Paper dampening

I tried some dampening of parchment card stock he other day as I couldn’t get a good print….didn’t really work but wondered how people dampen the paper, you couldn’t work too fast ad the paper curls it would be hard to keep under gauge pins

How do you pros do it?

Log in to reply   15 replies so far

I usually dampen handmade and mould made paper.

Machine-made paper is not suitable for dampening. The fibers are extremely short and dampening will not add anything to it’s printability. Dampening is used for softening the inner sizing that is used in the manufacture of mould-made and handmade papers, to make the surface more receptive to accepting ink. Unfortunately the machine-made papers available today are made for offset, ink jet, or laser printing which are surface applications. The papers tend to be hard to withstand the pressure of offset printing, and the surface is sized and buffered to be more receptive to those processes. Compounding the problem, over the counter inks are not designed for letterpress printing (even though the ink manufacturers claim they are), and they contribute to the poor coverage problem.



I would definitely agree with typenut and Paul. Machine made papers do not respond well to dampening. There are a very few exceptions (the old Curtis Flannel, made from tobacco leaves, is one) but for the most part the extreme grain direction could be problematic—your stated problem of curling.

Plus, I would also agree with Paul regarding today’s commercial inks. They are not formulated in this regard, certainly not with dampened paper. Some might work, but I would not chance it.

I note from your Christmas photo you are using a platen press. Not really suitable for dampened paper nor, for that matter, inks that would be. Maybe the problem can be resolved in some other manner.


While I certainly would prefer to use mould-made and hand-made sheets, I have to disagree slightly with the folks who have responded to your query. I have had success with dampening many machine-made papers in the past. There is indeed a more definitive grain direction, but if both sides of the stock are brought to a moisture equilibrium, there should be no more curling than I find with mould-made sheets.

If you only dampened one side immediately before printing, that may be your problem. The sheets need to be dampened slightly and then tucked away in a plastic bag or humidor for an extended period (from a couple hours to overnight depending on the paper). This allows the moisture to migrate throughout the paper so the sheets will lie flat. If the sheets are allowed to sit outside the bag or humidor for an extended period before printing, the top sheet will begin to dry on one side and will begin to curl.

The “parchment” finish paper you were using has intentionally short fiber in some areas and long in others to produce the effect of semi-translucency, so may not evenly dampen. I have found that most papers appreciate dampening and are much more ink-receptive with a touch of dampness.

You will find that some papers are more prone to “cockling” than others as well, and placing printed sheets between blotters with just a bit of weight on top will help to keep them flatter when drying.

Don’t give up on dampening as it can make a big difference and allow you to get a darker image with much less ink on many papers, not just handmade.

John Henry

As a related question (since I’m interested in playing with dampened paper myself), how damp is “damp”? Barely wet feeling? Extremely damp? Will it vary from paper to paper or is there a basic level of dampness that generally works with most papers? Also, are there any plans or at guidelines available for building a humidor? What kind of paper do you use for blotter?

I guess the better question would be: Is there a website, book or other resource I can use that goes into detail on running dampened paper? Thanks!

A stack of newsprint works great for blotter

John Henry is right on the money. Some machinemade papers perform extremely well when dampened. It does take TIME to do it properly, but there are also shortcuts that act reasonably well.

The “dampness” is an elusive definition. The paper should not be wet, but sort of soft and cool to the touch. Don’t really know if it can be described very accurately at all. Almost something that has to be seen and felt to understand.

My usual method is to fill a deep sink with several inches of lukewarm water. I then take a full sheet a literally dip it in under the water and then hold it on end until almost all of the water has dripped off back into the sink. I lay this sheet on top of three or four dry sheets and then put another six dry sheets on top of that and continue the process, one wet sheet to six dry sheets.

I usually do this on a large piece of glass or other non-porous material. The trick is then to place another sheet of thick glass over the whole finished pile and then put weights (books, etc.) on top so that the pile will be forced to remain flat. Often times the whole works will also be put into a large garbage bag and sealed. Ideally, I let the whole pile sit overnight to allow enough time for the dampness in the wet sheets to migrate evenly into all the other sheets.

The ‘quick” method is to use a spray bottle of water to spritz the sheets (over a sink- doing both sides) and then making a pile of perhaps one wet to 2 or 3 dry sheet formula and again put some weight on it all and let it sit for may a half hour to an hour. This will often allow the moisture to migrate and soften up all the sheets.

There is often a little curling involved when your printed sheet have dried.

This can be resolved to going through the dampening process again and stacking everything under weights and leaving it all to slowly air-dry in the flatened state. This may take a few days - and definitely do not put anything back into a plastic bag - because you want to get rid of the moisture and not retain it.

Maybe this is oversimplified, but it works for me.


There are many books on hand printing (including many texts from the Nineteenth Century) which delineate how to dampen paper by various methods. I use the method which Rick mentions first, and is what I was taught in college back in the 1970s. Many of the early textx will mention taking a “quire” of paper (approx 24 sheets) and holding the end, dragging it through a dampening trough. I suppose this accomplishes getting the outside sheets quite wet and the inside ones still dry. You then stack this quire on top of the one last dampened and leave that “post” of paper overnight to come to equilibrium before printing takes place.

There is a good description of makign humidors in Lewis Allen’s Book “Printing on a Handpress”. There was a discussion in another printing forum a few years ago about a fellow who took a small dorm refrigerator and dampened his stock by setting it in the rewfrigerator (compressor off) and setting dampened sponges in the unit around the paper and in the door. The seal in the door kept the humidity in ansd the paper took on the moisture that way.

I put my post of sheets in a plastic bag and let them sit for 3 or 4 hours, at least, before printing. I have hand dampened sheets with a moist sponge — every sheet — and that cuts the time down, but is more difficult to get the correct amount of moisture.

The level of moisture needs to be so that the paper is cool to the touch and just slightly limp when you pick up a corner. The moisture is barely perceptible.

Keep asking questions and try a few things on your own, and you’ll come up with a plan that works for you.

John Henry

When I’ve run out of time to dampen paper overnight, I’ve set up a humidifier, the kind you get at the drugstore, beside my platen press and pass a sheet of paper through the mist before placing it on the platen to print. It works best to mist both sides of the paper before printing. It is possible to run the press slowly enough to accomplish the dampening in between impressions — and I use a foot treadle.

But I like Rick’s and John Henry’s idea better!

—David Smith.

Thanks all there is a wealth of info for all here!

Dampening papers was , and was is the word i will use to explain something . 100 years ago it took weeks for paper to get from mill to press , in those days you did not have tar lined wrapping for reams ,or llike today wax lined wrapping so by the time you received it the stock would be unforgivingly brittle ,and therefore needed wetting back .
today you get the stock usually within days of leaving the converters and from mill to your press it may only have been exposed to the atmosphere for an hour or so , why you would want to wet a modern stock i dont know ,as you wont get more moisture into it than is already there but to attain good results you would cap and wrap stacks from your guillotine trying to protect them from the atmosphere until ready to print . If you buy stock that has sat on a shelf and open to the air you are not buying printable stock .that is my take on this and all my life in print this has been the way we did it .
Mr henry , i thought a quire is 124 sheets that meaning 1/4 ream !

I use the Lewis Allen method mentioned by John Henry. Some day, in the studio of my dreams, I hope to have a set of the beautiful humidors depicted in Printing with the Handpress. For now, since I’ve worked with only small sheets so far, I’ve made do with picnic coolers.


Have rummaged through endless stinking books and a quire is 24 sheets , so what was 1/4 ream called then chaps ??? And ladies !

Thanks everyone for the comments and techniques. I’ll definitely have to try that soon.

I am somewhat baffled by some of the comments above.

I don’t understand the need for “fresh” paper at all. The moisture content is very fugative. Under normal circumstances, paper is usually left to sit, unwrapped, for at least a day or so in the environment in which it will be printed so that it can acclimate. Printing plants can be dry or damp/humid depending on the time of year and the paper needs to be left to adjust to these conditions before printing. Modern commercial plants are climate controlled to try to prevent a lot of variation.

I think this discussion is about uncoated commercial stocks and there is a GREAT advantage to having the time and ability to dampen them if you can. The moisture will soften and expand or ‘plump up’ the stock, providing a much better surface to imprint, especially if you have a stock with any kind of surface texture at all to it. It becomes far more plyable and the softness will allow your type of contact the entire surface better (and not be influenced by the pattern of the surface texture).

The reason that papers were originally dampened is because of the inconsistancies found in handmade paper (thicker and thinner in places with perhaps some bits and blobs here and there as well) that needed to be softened-up for a more consistant impression.

I am by no means a scholar on uncoated papers, but my observations are mainly from personal use and occasionally tinkering with uncoated commercial stocks for over three decades.