One of the most astonishing things about studying early plates in books such as A.-J. Roubo’s “L’Art du menuisier” is that the plates are not simply two-dimensional. There is a great deal of texture. The paper is radically depressed in the field where the paper went through the copperplate press. And you can feel every line.
Last week at the Deutches Museum in Munich I spent the most time in the museum’s section on printing. I didn’t need to read much about the letterpress; we had one of those in college that I played with all the time instead of studying. But the copperplate press and its exhibit were fascinating. The exhibit showed how the thin copper plates were coated in acid-resistant wax and soot, and then how the engraver etched through these top mediums to create the image. Then the plate was dipped in acid to cut the image into the copper.
You can read more about this process on Wikipedia here.
Here is the (uncorrected) description of how the press works from the Deutches Museum.
A great deal of pressure is necessary for the manufacture of a copperplate engraving, in order to press the paper into the cuts and to suck the ink out. Letterpress printing machines with a platen are not really suited to the purpose. In the sixteenth century, presses with their own back pressure cylinders were used for the first time.
With the star wheel, the copperplate printer moves the running board, plate and wooden cloths through between the two rollers. The upper roller produces the pressure, the lower one transports the running board. Due to the high pressure, the printer needs both his hands and also his feet to move the star wheel.
The copperplate press is a reminder of the sheer amount of labor and willpower needed to create a book like Roubo’s in the 18th century. Even though our translation seems like a lot of work (I’m proofing the index today), it pales in comparison to what Roubo and the printers of the day had to do to produce the original volumes.
Viva la Macintosh.
— Christopher Schwarz