Printing an Etching

Inking and printing an etched plate varies little today from the methods that were used in the 16th century, when the intaglio printmaking process was invented in Germany by artist Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470-1536). . Traditionally, a thick, oil-based ink is used in the printing process due to its lightfastness, which ensures that the printed image survives over a long period of time.

For this image, I chose Graphic Chemical Burnt Umber as my printing ink. Because this ink is always a bit looser than I like to print intaglio plates with, I’ve stiffened it by adding magnesium carbonate powder. I’ve also added a couple of drops of clove oil to the mixture to keep the ink from drying out while it’s exposed to open air. I mix the ink and additives on a sheet of glass using a palette knife.

Ink is applied to the plate using a soft rubber brayer. Here, I am charging up the brayer with ink…

…and here, I am rolling the ink onto the plate.  The plate is resting on a heated surface (approx. 110 degrees F.) so that the ink will go down into the incised lines easily.

After the plate is fully covered with ink, we have to wipe the ink off of the surface of the plate with a piece of starched cheesecloth, called “tarletan”, so that only the ink that’s been pressed into the incised lines remains.  The ink that remains in the lines it what will be printed onto paper.

The plate is wiped until the surface is cleaned to the desired degree. The more wiping, the brighter the image that will print, but one has to take care not to over-wipe the plate since this can unintentionally remove ink from the lines and result in a washed out look to the print (like too much dodging in a photograph).  Less wiping leaves a residual layer of tinted oil, which is known as “plate tone,” which sometimes is a desired effect as it lends an aura of moodiness to the print.  After surface wiping is completed, the edges of the plate are carefully wiped with a touch of alcohol to so that they don’t hold ink.

Once wiping with the tarletan is completed, the plate can additionally be “hand wiped”, which is a process where the printer applies chalk to their palm and quickly passes their palm over the surface of the plate to remove any remaining in from the surface.

After all wiping is completed, the plate is laid down onto the press bed to prepare for printing. My press has a template for various sizes of plates and paper which I use as guides to help me determine where to lay the paper down over the plate (since I can’t actually see the plate while laying down the paper.

While I’ve been preparing the plate for printing, I have hand-torn sheets of rag paper soaking in a tray of clean water. The paper needs to be damp when printing so that it doesn’t tear on the corners of the inked plate when passed through the press rollers. The paper is carefully removed from the soaking tray and placed on blotting towels.  



Excess water is removed from the paper by sandwiching it between blotting towels and gently hand-blotting or rolling out with an ordinary rolling pin.  As a final preparation step, I use an architectural brush to remove any debris that might have found its way onto the surface of the paper.


Once sufficiently dried (yet still damp to the touch) the paper is carefully lined up and laid down to cover the face-up plate on the press bed.  Once the paper is laid down, I really can’t move it because it will have already picked up some ink from the surface, and doing so would result in unintended marks in the print. 


The blanket is then gently rolled down over the paper and plate, taking care not to disturb the paper. 

After the blanket is down, the image is run through the press rollers, where a tremendous amount of pressure is applied to print the plate image onto the rag paper.


This is a traditional etching press, with a roller on top of the bed, and one underneath the bed.


Once the plate has passed through the rollers sufficiently so that the paper is not still trapped under the top roller, the blanket is lifted, and we get our first look at the print.

It is always a delight to see a nicely printed image!

Our Location

Brentwood, TN




About the Studio

Passerina Press is an art studio located in Middle Tennessee.  We specialize in intaglio printmaking processes and photography.  Visitors to the studio are welcome by appointment.

GiottoPress by Enrique Chavez