Inky fingers:historic and modern printing inks compared

The cauldron used for preparing ink in the 17th century.

The cauldron used for preparing ink in the 17th century.


Every time I bring Press Genepy to a English Civil War Society re-enactment, I know I’ll be asked one question: what was the ink made of in the 17th century? The quick answer is that it was made of rosin, linseed oil and carbon black, but the whole answer is much wider.
The first thing is that writing ink and printing ink were totally different. Writing ink was made from oak galls, copperas, gum and rainwater, with a flowing consistency for a quill pen, and letters needed a sifting of sand to blot the ink and aid drying.
Printing ink needs to be thick and viscous. Sometimes ink was prepared on the premises, but the process of boiling up flammable materials was predictably dangerous and some cities had a statute that it must not be carried out within the town walls, because of the risk of fire. So printers often would buy it in.
Once in the printing house, the ink was ‘rubbed’ onto the ink-block, which was often fixed to the side of the press. The printer would take up the ink from here onto two ‘ink balls’ and rub them together until a fine film was achieved, which would then be ‘beaten’ onto the type waiting in the press. The ink takes much better if the paper is damp – i don’t know the chemistry behind this, but it is certainly true.
These days for hand printers there are a few choices – many more colours are available, but also there is water based ink, and Caligo water washable oil based ink. These alternatives are worth considering, because cleaning up after printing with oil based ink is a pain.
1. Oil based. Gives the best impression. Traditional linseed oil letterpress ink is available from T N Lawrence. Cleanup has to be done with turps or white spirit. In recent years, some printmakers have advocated using vegetable oil for cleanup as more environmentally friendly. I’ve tried this and it does seem to work, but i have concerns about the oil leaving residue on printing type and woodblocks.
2. Water based ink. I have used the Schminke brand. This has been useful for when I did some simple workshops with young visitors, as there was less risk of them ruining their clothes. However – I found it was not quite so clear an impression, it was necessary to use a lot more, and again my worry was for the wellbeing of my blocks as I think that repeated cleanup with water wouldn’t do them good. Lino and vinyl are OK of course, but I recommend degreasing before a first time print. Obviously you don’t damp the paper with this ink and this could be the reason why the impression is inferior.
3. Caligo. By some alchemy, these inks are oil based but wash up with water. They are sold from a few outlets for art supplies. The performance I thought was quite superior to the ordinary water based ink.
In the 17th century cleanup was performed using ‘lye’, which is a strongly alkaline solution, or ‘chamber lye’ – a euphemism for urine left long enough to turn to ammonia. Lover of the old ways though I am, this was a step too far for me, and my choice is to print using traditional ink , but to clean up with turps for my type and white spirit for my blocks.
This is a much longer post than usual but I hope it may still be interesting, since it sprang from such a popular question! The information about the ink came from a book written by Joseph Moxon,(“Mechanic Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing”) about whom I hope to write another time.

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