“Help! I haven’t got a printing press!”

Many students come on courses in my studio and catch the printmaking bug. By the end of the course they are enthusiastically planning their next printmaking experiments, and then realise with a cry of despair “I haven’t got a printing press!”

There are lots of ways to print without a press, particularly with relief plates and mono prints, but if you want to do collagraphs and intaglio techniques you really need the pressure of an etching press to get good results.

The right kind of press

An old cast iron nipping press

An old cast iron nipping press

Sometimes people say they have a press in the cellar, but it often turns out to be a nipping press used for bookbinding, these are great for relief printing, (or bookbinding) however squeezing something between two flat plates will not generate the same pressure as the rollers of an etching press.

The etching press works like a mangle; the rollers exert a huge pressure on the paper, pressing it against the inky plate so the surface of the plate is embossed into the surface of the paper, revealing all the tiny details of texture.

Once you have made a successful collagraph print with an etching press there is no going back, you will have to find one!

There are several solutions to the no press situation:

1. Find a friendly printmaker

Collagraph plates are easy to make at home as the materials are mainly everyday things; they may be a bit messy, but are all safe to use on the kitchen table.

"Thankyou for sharing your press with me!" cake

“Thankyou for sharing your press with me!” cake

Once you have made some plates check your local Artists Open Studios listing and ask around at picture framers or galleries to find local printmakers.

You may be able to come to an arrangement with a printmaker near you to use their press in exchange for something – money? Cake? Help with Open Studios?

2. Join a printmaking workshop.

Lots of printmakers get together to share equipment, and the number of workshops is growing as more people discover the wonders of printmaking. ‘Printmaking Today’ magazine has a pretty comprehensive listing of UK print workshops. With luck a bit of googling should turn up something not too far away from you, or at least give you some useful leads to follow in your quest for access to a press.

3. Try going back to college

If you are lucky your local college may still have a printmaking facility, although there have been many horror stories of presses being scrapped and replaced by computers. Some school art departments also have printmaking facilities and a chat with the art teacher or technician may get you access to the press.

Pros and cons of borrowing a printing press

The big advantage of sharing equipment is that you will be in touch with fellow printmakers, and the chance to exchange ideas and information is truly priceless as well as being fun, and leads to discovering new friends.

All these approaches have the downside of travelling and taking all your stuff with you, paper, ink, rollers etc. Your time on the press will necessarily be limited, so you must be well organised, and you may not have the luxury of time for pondering and experimenting.

If you like to take your time and work alone you need your own press……

4. Get your own handy little press

The X-cut XPress neatly folded

The X-cut XPress neatly folded

The one I always recommend to people starting out is the X-cut Xpress die-cutting machine. For around £80 you can have your own handy little press to experiment with in the privacy of your own kitchen. This is the cheapest way I have found to get a press.

This little portable machine is very neat, it folds away and can live in a cupboard coming out when needed. You can experiment with printing small collagraph plates in your pyjamas all night if you want.

The X-cut Xpress printing press

It is actually sold as a die-cutting machine; using pre cut metal forms it will cut shapes from paper, mainly for cards, labels and scrap-booking. (Could well be a useful addition to your printmaking.)

Knob for adjusting the roller height

Knob for adjusting the roller height

The X-cut die-cutting machine is the one to go for as it has an adjustable wheel on the top so you can easily change the pressure to suit your printing plates. Some other brands rely on packing layers of card in to change the gap between the rollers, this is fiddly and awkward. However if you already have this type of die cutter it is definitely worth trying it as a mini printing press.

The X-cut XPress ready to roll

The X-cut XPress ready to roll

You can have a look at the real thing at Hobbycraft, or other big craft shops – just remember to ask for the die cutting machines, not a printing press.

Some small modifications are needed to convert it for printing…..

Organise your press bed

The press bed with a template to help line up your printing plate and the paper

The press bed with a template to help line up your printing plate and the paper

The machine comes with a thick plastic board, which you will use as the press bed.

I make a template to keep the printed image straight on the paper. This has an outline of the printing plate within an outline of the paper size you plan to use. (A4 is the biggest paper the X-cut will take). Tape a sheet of acetate to the press bed, then slide the template underneath.

Add press blankets

You just need to add blankets to pad the back of your paper as it goes through the press.

Ideally these should be squashy and have a smooth texture – a woven fabric may transfer the pattern of the weave to your prints.

Blanket options; 1. wool blankets, 2. flooring underlay, 3. funky foam, 4. neoprene wetsuit

Blanket options; 1. wool blankets, 2. flooring underlay, 3. funky foam, 4. neoprene wetsuit

Off-cuts from press blankets or layers of felt will work.

You can also use kids funky foam, or the thin foam that goes under laminate flooring is also good, although both these will need replacing fairly frequently as they lose their bounce after going through the press a lot.

The best thing I have found is wetsuits, I got one from a charity shop, I couldn’t squeeze myself into it so cut the stomach area out (avoiding seams) and used it as a press blanket. You can also buy sheets of neoprene in different thicknesses on line. It lasts for ages and has virtually no surface texture.

Take the X-cut out and about with you

Using the X-Cut press in a community workshop

Using the X-Cut press in a community workshop

Because it is so portable I use the little press for demonstrations and take it to community workshops where it can stand a fair bit of use. One problem is the pressure wheel does seem to move on its own, becoming tighter with use, so you may need to keep checking it and adjusting as you go. For a while I accused students of fiddling with it when my back was turned – apologies everyone, now I know it wasn’t you!

Get more info

Lots of people use the X-cut as a printing press and there is plenty of information on line to help get set up and print with it.

Handprinted sell a ‘conversion kit’ with a longer press bed and blankets too if you want to avoid destroying your wetsuit.

Moving on to bigger things

The maximum paper size is A4, so it is great for small prints and trying things out. It will certainly give you enough experience to know whether you want to move up to a more substantial press, which will mean a serious investment of several hundred pounds. If you combine a little X-cut press with visits to use presses at a collective workshop you can have the best of both worlds – quite time alone experimenting and sociable printmaking in a shared studio.