Dampening the paper

I’m interested to learn how and why people dampen their stock before they use it. I read of one printer who totally immersed every sheet in ten and left the pile to absorb the water overnight - I believe he was using an Albion press.

I assume it facilitates better ink absorption. Is there a general rule-of-thumb, for example do uncoated stocks require more moisture than coated ones? Your input would be appreciated - as usual…

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The subject of dampening has been covered in the past on the list, but you ask one question which needs an answer.

It would be impractical to dampen clay-coated paper stock. Coated paper prints so well anyway that there is no need to dampen. I fear you would have quite a mess if you attempted the dampening process on coated stock.

A bit of dampness in the paper stock allows compression of the surface, and if there is sizing (starch or other chemical applied to keep writing ink from wicking through the fibers and to give the sheet some stiffness) a slight dampening allows better ink adhesion to the surface.

If you are willing to try it, you will find that dampening paper can make a vast difference in the image achieved, and much less ink will be consumed. I have often found difficult-to-print paper stocks which, when slightly dampened, print very well indeed.

Dampening paper is done to soften it so that it requires less pressure to achieve smoother, more solid printed images. During the era of the handpress, it was quite common and is still employed today by printmakers and some traditional letterpressmen. It is especially effective when printing large solid areas on small or low-pressure presses, but is applicable to almost any press.

I regularly dampen paper for printing large solid areas on uncoated stock. I never dampen coated stock. (Actually, I never print on coated stock, anyway.)

The method I use is quite simple: I brush a thin coat of water onto every other sheet with a short-bristle, wide brush, and then set the stack aside for several hours prior to printing. The idea is to dampen the paper, not wet it to the point where it is falling apart or difficult to handle. If there are shiney spots visible when you are ready to print, it is too wet.

I always use oil based inks (Charbonnell) when printing with dampened paper. It works well in that application.

One should only dampen handmade and mouldmade sheets. The latter like BFK and Somerset are highly absorbent and uniform throughout. Commercial offset sheets will cockle.

For most papers you need only to alternate wet sheets and dry sheets (1 wet to 2 or 3 dry) in a pile and put them in a bag overnight and place a weight on top to keep them flat. It does not require much dampness to make a difference.

Printmakers tend to submerge each sheet in a tray, but most printers I know use spray bottles. Buy a pump-top, trigger controlled bottle that require less finger squeezing.

Practical methods of dampening is described in both
“Printing on the Iron Handpress” by Richard Gabriel Rummonds and in “Printing with the Handpress” by Lewis & Dorothy Allen.

See also the Letpress archive.

If your printing dampenen paper on your Vandercook, John, I recommend a mylar drawsheet on the cylinder.

Just to add a little to the above comments. Dampening softens and ‘plumps up’ the UNCOATED paper so that it more easily accepts an impression. The results are often dramatically better than printing on dry sheets.

The whole idea revolves around damp, not wet (or even moist), paper. It should feel cool to the touch. The idea is to allow the moisture that you added (by various methods) to migrate and evenly spread out in the sheets.

When I moisten my stock, I generally put water into a deep sink and totally emerse, or dip, a sheet into the water, and then hold it above the sink until almost all of the water has dripped off of it. I then lay this sheet down and put 5 or 6 dry sheets on top of it, followed by another wet sheet, and the process continues until I have a stack of sheets. I then put a piece of plate glass on top of the stack and put weights on top of that. I also try to put the whole stack into a large garbage bag and seal it. I try to leave the stack overnight or at least for several hours to allow the moisture to migrate and evenly distribute through the stack. The plate and weights on top serve to keep the paper from waving. The garbage bag serves to retain the overall moisture in the stack.

One other meothod that I have used it to fill at old (cleaned-out) Windex bottle (or any other sprayer) and simply “spritz” a sheet with water and lay in down. I then put maybe 3 sheets of dry paper on top of it, and build a stack in this manner. Again, I add a plate and weights to the stack when I am done. This can be left for a few hours and will provide the dampness necessary. You’ll just have to experiment a little, but you WILL like the results.

The original need to dampen paper came from the process of handmaking sheets, which were (and are) not as consitantly smooth and regular as machine made paper. To compensate for the thickness/thinness of certain areas in a sheet, they were dampened and the overall softness provided a better uniform impression.

The one drawback to dampening sheets is that the paper naturally tends to wave or curl as it dries out again. Sheets that have been dampened and printed often need to be put into a bookbinding press or otherwise weighted down after printing and pressed-flat again. This takes a little time (overnight or more) to allow the fibers to readjust and straighten themselves out again. Sometimes to acvtually spritz the wavy paper again to soften it up before trying to flaten them out again. If you leave them under weights long enough to allow the moisture to gradually escape, you will end up with great results.

I hope this helps.

Exactly the kind of information I was hoping to receive - thank you all.

Has anyone tried this with rubber based inks? I would be curious if it works as well as oil based?

To Bespoke:

Yes, the dampening works well with rubber-based and acrylic inks as well. The technique has more to do with the paper prep and subsequent surface characteristics than the inks used.

Try it — as Foolproof says — you’ll like it. (Other than the extra time and care it takes)

Hello all. I am new to this community but I wanted to share some information with everyone who is interested. I am a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology and I recently did a study on dampening substrates.

John Christopher, and everyone else, I found some interesting results. I basically took several 4x6 inch handmade paper sheets, dipped them in water for different times and printed them on a Albion handpress.

Some of the times I dipped them for was for 1, 30, 60, 120, and 300 seconds. After I let the prints dry, I scanned them in Photoshop and took down the histogram results, which basically measures the density. I found that, on average, 30 seconds of dipping time gave the best results. Basically, the print did not get too dark to the point where you lose image quality.

I am actually in the process of getting this study published. If anyone is interested, I could probably send you the results if you desire.

Happy Printing!


Coming into this a bit late. I follow the Allen method (with a nice dollop of Everson’s wisdom), and have not had problems, for whatever that is worth. Printing has always worked out quite well (been in the fine press biz for a bit now) and no cockling of the paper.

As Paul suggests this should only be practiced with mouldmade or handmade papers; the only domestic commercial papers I have ever had luck with in this regard were made by Curtis and they are long gone. The rationale for this has to do with grain direction and the differences in regard to the variant paper manufacturing processes.

There is a concurrent thread on Briar you should also look at for more information.

Printing damp is kind of a pain in the ass (in terms of the time you have to allocate to it all) but the preparation gives you a greater appreciation for the paper and the result is far, far better than you could otherwise achieve.

You do need to check out further information on this in the archives of the older letterpress lists (Letpress, PPLetterpress). There are no easy answers to any of this.


OK so here’s the really naive question. Once the correct paper is wetted per all the instructions and suggestions followed above, does one need to (or should one) wait for the paper to be totally dry or use it as moist or cool? I assume that once “plumped up” it would dry as such. Thanks, Neil


Yes, you print on it while it is moist. That is why it is critical to just have a “whisper” of dampness, and not wet. If the sheet were too wet, the ink would not correctly bond to the wet fibers.

Just give it a try and see what difference it makes. If it is good for you and worth the work, you’ll soon develop your own sense of what works and what doesn’t.

John Henry

Cool - I hope to have time next week. I just created a plate for the deboss area and will then fllow up with the text. Thanks John. Neil

Use it moist!