Let The Presses Roll

Let’s take a look at how Lois Senefelder, in 1798, was able to print his stone pictures. Senefelder was very inventive. He found that to transfer a stone image to paper required a special machine that pressed the image onto  the paper.  When he  dampened the stone with water the non-greasy areas of the stone retained the water, while the greasy drawing areas of  the stone would remain dry, repelling  the water. Then when he applied an oily ink  to the stone with a brush, it adhered only to the drawing.   He built his own printer using a scraper bar to  pass over the paper and stone while using a hand crank to apply pressure. Below is his original press.

stone lithography press early

As refinements in drawing materials and chemical processes were made, so were improvements in the presses used to print from stone. Traditional printing methods of the day, flat platen presses for woodcuts and roller presses for etchings, proved ineffective for stone lithography. Subsequent improvements in wood and iron involved a flat bed press which moved the stone and paper under a stationary scraper bar. The inked was applied with a roller and the stone was hand cranked to move it under the press. This method provided sharp and uniform images and has remained virtually unchanged to this day for fine art printing of lithographic prints. Below is a picture of a typical flat bed press of the mid 1800’s.

stone lithogrphy press hand

Lithography offered uniquely different opportunities for creative expression when compared to wood cut and intaglio techniques, the two major printmaking methods of the 18th and early 19th century. After 1850 the rapid press was introduced, the inking and moistening of the stone now being carried out mechanically. Lithographic presses were worked by hand at first, but from 1870 onwards they were driven by steam.

stone lithography single feeder

By 1880, lithography firms could print hundreds of cigar labels a day. This was the start of the golden age of cigar box labels.


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