Make Your Own Printing Press

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2004
By: Peter Johnstone

Cover of Make Your Own Printing Press

The cost of living overtook me. I could not afford to buy comics. They had priced themselves out of my market. Furthermore the photocopying that I had used to make comics and booklets before was also too costly. Usually I am only interested in small press that makes 50 to 200 copies anyway, but I had a spelling reform project that required 1000 or more copies.

So I determined to look for a method of printing that would cost only the price of ink and paper. That is 2 1/2 cents (all figures in New Zealand Dollars) per sheet. So a 20 page home made comic would cost 50 cents. Not the $4 to $7 of photocopy. My model for this was the rubber stamp, and the stencil. If I could find a way of making a rubber stamp out of a substitute rubber, made out of cheap and readily available materials that would do. (I envisaged also being able to print onto old phonebooks and newspapers and using house paint instead of ink. Bring costs way way down.)

So I looked at the mould and cast method, with the cast being the stamp. I looked at re-casting plastic milk bottles in the oven, and using modelling clay or concrete cement, and even paint mixed into a paste with flour. Nothing worked properly.

The nearest success was woodblock engraving. Early English printing was by woodblock, carved with chisels. Instead I came up with covering the lines with mud, of paste thickness, extruded like icing a cake; then the surface was scorched. I used a tin foil dish filled with a small amount of crumbled Little Lucifer fire-starter, for an even heat, placed on top. The wood must blacken without going to flame. The charred area between the lines can be scraped away easily, without chisels.

Eventually I found an article I knew I had somewhere, from the Small Press Explosion, issue 8, (1985). It was by Eric Mayer, entitled HECTOGRAPHY. Hectography is a technique invented in 1870 and used into the 1920s. Hecto means One Hundred, and used in hectography because it is meant to average 100 copies.

THE METHOD: put into a pot 1 part (I used a tablespoon) of gelatine to 4 parts water, let it stand for 1 hour. Then slowly stir in 6 parts of glycerine while heating it over a pan of simmering salt water. Place a couple of sticks across the pan and you can sit the pot down on it. It needs to be steam cooked so it cannot burn. I cooked my first printing block for 1 hour. The recipe says to cook for several hours. I suspect that the longer it cooks the tougher it gets. Then pour into a flat tray to cool for 24 hours. The result looks like a beautiful clear golden jelly, but it is tough. It absorbs ink like a sponge, but without the holes. The idea is that a master copy of the drawing or writing is laid face down on top, leaving it for some time so the ink can be sucked out. Then remove the master. Several colours can be absorbed off the one master.

In the Eric Mayer article he uses ditto master carbon sheets of aniline inks as used in the Ditto Machines some of the older readers might remember from their school days. The process involves drawing or tracing on a sandwich of paper, ditto carbon and paper, so that the ink is transferred onto a master sheet of paper. After looking around on the web I found some recipes for inks:

Black -- Methyl violet, 10 parts; nigrosine, 20 parts; glycerine, 30 parts; gum Arabic, 5 parts; alcohol, 60 parts.

Blue -- Resorcin blue, M, 10 parts; dilute acetic acid, 1 part; water, 85 parts; glycerine, 4 parts; alcohol, 10 parts. Dissolve with the aid of heat.

Green -- Water-soluble aniline green, 15 parts; glycerine, 10 parts; water, 50 parts; alcohol, 10 parts.

Purple -- Methyl violet, 2 parts; alcohol, 2 parts; sugar, 1 part; glycerine, 4 parts; water, 24 parts. Dissolve the violet in the alcohol, mixed with the glycerine; dissolve the sugar in the water; mix both solutions.

Red -- Fuchsin, 10 parts; alcohol, 10 parts; glycerine, 10 parts; water, 50 parts.

(From )

I've experimented with using the recipe green with cloth dyes used for home dying, but was not happy with the results. I might try adding stove-black liquid, available from the grocers, to make a really strong black.

To print from this place blank paper on it and the ink will transfer. Don't leave it too long because the more ink one sheet absorbs, the less copies you can print. The un-used ink will settle by gravity down to the bottom of the block. This will choke it eventually, but I suspect that leaving a wet cloth on top and an absorbent pad underneath will slowly flush it clean.

This printing block will liquefy when heated so can be recast at any time. It will keep indefinitely, so long as it does not dry out, so you can keep spares in glass jars in the cupboard, or give them to friends. No electricity is involved in the printing process itself. The cost of a packet of gelatine in New Zealand is $4, and a bottle of glycerine $4, both available from the grocer.

Glycerine is, I think, the same as gristle and tendon, and can be made that strong. If the mixture is too sticky more glycerine is needed, if too soft then more gelatine. Dampen the surface lightly before beginning to print. My supposition and hope is that this tough jelly can be made tough enough to serve as the rubber substitute for stamp making. By impressing the lines into thick tin foil to a uniform depth of 1 centimetre, and pouring liquefied gelatine-glycerine onto it, and placing on top a block of wood with cloth or sponge attached, then allowing it to set, this should make a stamp. If the jelly is tough enough it can be re-inked easily, and suck up the ink like a reservoir, to print 100 at each inking.

I have another suggestion for progressing the technique. Photocopying has the advantage of being able to reduce in size to fit more on to the page. We need to add a photo process to Hecto to revamp it. I am suggesting that a photocopy onto clear acetate (same as is currently used for overhead projectors, cost 50 cents per sheet) be used as a photo negative. Beneath this place a paper-thin layer of gelatine glycerine mix, on top of a blotter. Through the acetate shine ultraviolet light, which is the stuff that sunburns, and burns when focused through a magnifying glass. In theory then this should melt the gelatine glycerine in the clear areas, which should recede into the blotter, leaving the protected lines standing upright. Just like a stamp. This can be inked by a single action, using an inkpad or sponge. Each inking should allow for 100 copies to be printed. So this would be a new form of Master copy. Hope it works. Fingers crossed.

Some links:

A doodler, writer, and comic creator, Peter prints his work in small batches of 50, photocopied as required. Also make text story booklets. Willing to give them away free. Metaphoric deep thought, or absurdist humour. Intellectual sometimes. He can be contacted at

Peter Johnstone
11 Florence Street
New Zealand.

If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me