James McCallum

James McCallum

How I make the hand-printed limited edition dust jackets

Printing the Etchings for the Limited Edition Books

Etching is a form of intaglio printing where an image is etched onto a copper plate by hand. It is a far more complicated process than the simple-sounding term ‘print’ implies.

The copper plate is covered in a resin ground or a chemical-resistant wax material. Using an etching needle, or a similar tool, the image is engraved into the ground, revealing the plate underneath. The plate is then dipped into ferric chloride. The ferric chloride bites into the surface of the plate where the copper was exposed. Biting is a printmaking term to describe the ferric chlorides' etching, or incising, of the image.

After the plate is sufficiently bitten, the plate is removed from the chemical, and the waxy ground is removed to prepare for the next step in printing.

To produce tone or shading an aquatint is applied to the cleaned copper plate. Here a waxy solution is sprayed onto the plate by using an airbrush. When the solution dries the plate becomes covered by a myriad of tiny beads of wax. When the plate is returned to the ferric chloride any exposed copper between these waxy beads will be eaten away. The longer the plate is exposed the deeper the bit and the more ink it will hold.

Variations in tone can be controlled by applying a resistant varnish. Any areas that should be remain white should be painted with varnish first before the plate is dipped in to the chemical. The areas containing the paler tones must be next be painted with varnish and so on. (I often find this technique pretty confusing as requires virtually the opposite thought process to watercolour painting!)

‘Inking-up’ the copper plate

To take a print from the plate, etching ink is applied to the surface by wiping and/or dabbing the plate to push the ink into the bitten grooves. The plate is and then rubbed with tarlatan cloth or scrim to remove most of the excess ink. The final smooth wipe is often done with tissue paper, leaving ink only in the incisions. The plate is now ready for printing. The plate has to be inked up in this manner for each individual print. It often takes a day to create the plate and a further two full days to complete the edition of fifty dust jackets.

Although the each etching comes from the same plate each print tends to show slight individual variation and this quality is one of the delights of the printmaking process.

A copper etching plate ready for printing

A copper etching plate ready for printing