Etching Press Guide for Block Printing
As a linocut printmaker, I get quite a few emails from artists asking about the presses I use so I thought I'd share my experiences with you. I have two table top etching presses of differing sizes and often use them instead of hand burnishing my block prints with a baren. An etching press is basically a machine with two metal rollers through which a flat press bed slides under pressure. On top of the press bed is the paper and inked printing matrix (e.g. linocut, etching, collagraph) and the image is transferred from the matrix to the paper due to the pressure. Usually, the printing press is powered by hand.
Choosing a New Printing Press
I use two Blick printing presses in my studio and have been very pleased with them as linocut presses. I chose them after doing a lot of research - comparing prices, specs and printmaker feedback. I've summarized some of what I've learned as a press buyer and printmaker below. I've included Blick and Amazon links to some of the items I'm talking about so you can do more research and there are other reviews of these presses on the Blick website - I encourage you to read them. If you click on one of these links and buy something, I get a commission because I participate in their affiliate programs (see this disclosure) but I want to point out that I bought the printmaking presses with my own money and I'm not going to say that they're absolutely perfect. Now, they're quite a few options for tabletop printing presses and I'll outline several ideas to consider if you're looking for one.
Takach Press Corporation - maker of fine art presses based out of New Mexico.
Conrad Machine Company - this Michigan company has manufactured fine art presses since the 1950's.
Ettan Press Company - they have suspended production of presses as of 2017.
Whelan Press - no longer in business.
Blick Art Materials - they offer a range of affordable table top etching presses.
Update: In 2018, Speedball released a new line of 12" x 24" and 24" x 36" table top etching presses. Speedball etching presses are made in partnership with India-based Ravi Engineering Works. I'm very interested to hear how printmakers like these affordable presses because they look promising.
I'd say that Takach and Conrad are amongst the best presses available in the US - the type you might find in a university print studio.
After all of my research, I settled on Blick for a couple reasons. First, they are more affordable than other etching press options and, second, shipping was more straightforward (they don't weigh as much as some other presses). I'll go over the basic differences between the two Blick presses I use.
After that I'll give you some thoughts on how I've used them and tips to get the most out the printing presses, particularly for block printing. Blick has a range of presses for sale so I might note that they have their 906 Etching Press, which fits between my two presses in terms of price and size. Finally, at the bottom, you'll find information on used printing presses and other alternatives.
Blick 999 Model II Etching Press
The Blick 999 Model II Etching Press is the bigger of the two presses I own. The press bed measures 36" x 19 5/8" and is not made of metal - they call it a phenolic bed. It's a pretty heavy press and really needs two people to move it unless you're a professional wrestler or looking for back problems. It comes delivered in a nice crate (keep it for future moving, shipping or storing) and there's a photo above of what it looked like when it was shipped to my home studio.
You can buy a press bench for this press but I built a bench out of a couple IKEA coffee tables.
Blick Econo Etch Model II Press
The Blick Econo Etch Model II Press was my first press I bought and it's a nice complement to the larger press. It has a metal press bed, which measures 11 11/16" x 19 3/4". They say it weighs 67 lbs and I can lug this thing around by myself...akwardly. From what I can tell from some research, I think the Blick Econo Etch Model II Press is comparable to the Richeson Baby Press (not to be confused with the Blick Baby Press, which is very small and altogether different).
I use an IKEA kitchen cart for my press bench. Due to its small size, I sometimes bring it to art shows, galleries and other public events and do demonstrations. Here's a photo of my portable setup for an elementary school demonstration I did in 2017.
My Review of the Blick Printing Presses
While they lack the refinement and build quality of the much more expensive brands like Takach and Conrad, these Blick etching presses are significantly less expensive (in some cases by $1,000's) than other options and you can create professional work with them. Here's one way to think of the difference - it's like Mazda vs. Mercedes - does that make sense? If you're looking for a higher-end printing press, Conrad etching presses have a good reputation amongst artists and they're based in Michigan.
I have printed woodblocks, linocuts, drypoints, collographs and monoprints with my presses. Most of my work, though, has been block printing using linoleum. If you're curious to see one of the presses in action, I've got lots of videos of me printing blocks.
Printing my "Seeking" linocut on 16" x 20" paper.
This little video of an airport code map shows the sheet of MDF that I place on top of the block and paper before I crank it through the press.
Block printing on a t-shirt using the press.
Blick also has their 906 Etching Press, which is smaller and less expensive than the 999, but bigger than the Econo Etch. One difference with that press is that they offer a couple different sizes of press beds and they're sold separately from the press itself, as is the gray blanket. Though Blick coupon codes are often not usable on the presses, they're usually helpful for other supplies and accessories.
Printing Linocuts on an Etching Press
Here are some tips for printing linocuts on these Blick presses based on my experience:
The presses come with a thick gray cushion blanket, which is sufficient if you're just printing linocut or woodblock prints. (You'll want the catcher and pusher blankets if you're printing intaglio prints, like drypoints for instance.)
When block printing on the etching press I use a sheet of 1/4" MDF laid on top of the linoleum block with the thick gray blanket on top of that. On small prints I sometimes even skip the blanket.
The press bed often takes a little push to get the press bed to engage with the metal rollers, which I've just gotten used to. These presses can be a little quirky.
In the past, I've made "rails" for use on the press bed - I know that a lot of people do something similar. The rails, made out of linoleum the height of my block, help with the engagement of the press bed and prevent the bumping of the block as it passes under the roller. Here's an picture of linoleum rails on the press bed to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. While I don't use this method anymore, you might give it a try.
If part of the printed image is blurry, try lightening up the pressure on the press.
I sometimes print t-shirts on the Blick 999 Model II Etching Press. This is how my materials are stacked on the press bed when printing on fabric: 1. press bed, 2. thin wool blanket (or scrap fabric), 3. t-shirt, 4. inked lino block face down, 5. thin sheet of MDF, 6. thick gray wool blanket.
Options for Used Printmaking Presses
Another idea is to purchase a used etching press but they can be quite hard to come by and they hold their value well. Another challenge is shipping. Often the seller provides free local pickup but it can be both costly and logistically challenging to get a big press across the country. Options for finding used presses for sale include:
Ebay - definitely possible to find a random Blick, Griffin, Ettan, Charles Brand, American French Tool, or similar press here from time to time.
Craigslist - hard to search a wide geographical area in an easy way but there are some sites out there that will help you search Craigslist throughout the US.
Conrad Machine Company - has a variety of used presses.
Takach Press Corporation - also has some used presses.
Alternatives to an Expensive Etching Press
There are also less expensive options for a new printing press, such as these that I've not used:
Speedball Block Printers Press Model B - this is a very basic, lightweight device that exerts pressure down on the block to produce a small print. It can be had for about $60, but the reviews seems mixed.
Speedball Printers Press - has a 12"x24" press bed that slides between two rollers. This press costs under $400.
Xcut Xpress A4 Die-Cutting Machine - this machine is made by UK-based docrafts and was originally designed for crafters looking for a die-cutting and embossing machine. However, there is a growing number of printmakers who have had success using it as a printing press. You might check out YouTube and Facebook for hints and tips on using this device.
Akua Pin Press - this is a 20"-long, finely machined metal roller with handles at the end that the printmaker rolls over the inked plate and paper. Seems very well reviewed and costs about $200 or so.