press packing

I have a Kelsey 5x8 and print mostly on cranes lettra, seeking a slight impression in the paper (I’m well aware of the limitations). My question is, what should I be using for press packing? I have read several different threads, all suggesting different things and I’m slightly confused. Right now I have a thin sheet of chip board with a couple sheets of paper bag. It seems to be working ok, but I wonder if there is anything I should be using that would make my printing better?!

Thanks in advance!

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In my opinion your packing is inadequate, especially for printing on Lettra with the kind of press you have to achieve the kind of impression you want.

For general purposes a hard packing is best. Traditionally, an accepted hard packing is an oiled manila topsheet (tympan paper), a pressboard, a sheet of index, and about four sheets of about 20 weight bond paper. That’s the packing I always start with. Adjustments can be made by adding or removing the book or index, or even a sheet of thin onion skin paper.

In practise people use different materials, especially for the tympan. Some use mylar and even, as you mentioned, paper bags. In a pinch you can in fact do this but there is a reason that the standard materials are, well, the standard materials: they work and solve a number of problems while doing so. For example, it is usual to take an impression directly on the typman so you can register the gauge pins. This requires that the ink on the typmpan be wiped off. Since tympan paper is oiled, regular type wash (I use mineral spirits) can be used without harm to the paper. Get a paper bag wet doing this and you can imagine the result. Tympan paper is also very strong, smooth, and hard all of which make for better printing. So while expedients can be used, in my opinion it’s better to use the traditionally appropriate materials.

Pressboard is a heavy, smooth stock, usually red; alpha-numeric dividers for filing cabinet drawers are usually made from it though in that case it is usually green. I don’t men sliding files but the thick, hard boards with the alphabet printed on cutout tabs.

Of course, your platen must be adjusted for whatever thickness of packing will be your standard, taking into consideration that in addition to the packing there must be room for your printed sheet. I adjusted my platen to the packing I mentioned above plus a sheet of 20 pound bond as a printed sheet. There’s nothing special about choosing the 20 lb., I just didn’t want something so thick that if I was printing stationery I would have to add too many sheets to the packing. I find this allows me a good range for adjustment. If I was printing something very thick I could even remove the pressboard and leave the index and book under the topsheet. But for most work I find that adding to or removing the sheets of book or index is adequate. The idea is to avoid having to readjust the platen other than in the most exceptional circumstances. Sometimes you just have to experiement using the basics as a place to start.

Front Room Press
Milford, NJ


Thanks so much for your thorough explanation! I really appreciate it! This may sound a bit naive, but which order do the pressboard, index and bond paper go in? I realize that the tympan is last so that is what the paper rests on, but don’t know how to arrange the others. I learned on a proofing press that had all of this taken care of, so I’m not terribly knowledgeable about this part of letterpress.

rpolinski pretty well summed up the situation in an excellent fashion, so I won’t duplicate what he said….. other than to reinforce the idea that proper packing is one of the keys to good printing. While there are many alternative solutions to the problem, the correct way of doing things has evolved through years of trial and errors. It only makes good sense to learn from the old masters.

ps…. the green file dividers are an almost perfect match for red pressboard, and they cost a lot less. Tympan paper is tympan paper. There is no perfect substitute. If you CAN buy it, you should buy it. It’ll make your life better.

Hi, dnr583—
I would add a couple of remarks to Rich’s:
One reason for choosing standard materials is the care taken by their manufacturers to make them in accurate thicknesses and formation (I think this is the term papermakers use to indicate the uniformity of the paper—hold it to the light; it should not have a cloudy appearance of light and dark patches.)
It’s good practice to fasten a draw sheet with the tympan under the bottom bail. Then, if additional impression is needed for some part of the form, it can be taped or glued to the draw sheet, leaving a clean packing for feeding. When you have position, pull an impression on a sheet of paper, and while it is in the guides, stab through it into the tympan so that the sheet can be “spotted up” or cut away and located under the tympan
by the stab marks. The other packing can go on top or under the draw. Under will make the spot sheet have a localized effect; over will make the effect more general.
I like a packing of about .035 - .040 inches. If your impression seems too heavy at the bottom of the form, try removing packing, and vice versa.
It doesn’t hurt to experiment—good luck!


Thanks for the info, I’m already looking into the tympan. Can these green file dividers be purchased at any office supply store, or do they have to be ordered? I guess I can’t picture exactly what they are or what they look like.

yes… they are at virtually any office supply store. I get mine at Office Depot.

They are light green-ish blue heavy, hard card stock, 11.75” x 9.5”, with a die-cut tab at the top. They have “Pendaflex” stamped onto one side, but I’m guessing that there are other brand names as well. They are used to divide file drawers, between the folders. Please note: do not buy the manila colored ones, or the ones with plastic tabs, or the olive-drab colored folders. Don’t get manila folders. They are not the right kind. Just get the plain-jane light green dividers……

By the way, your Kelsey is not nearly as limited as some folks will lead you to believe. It is actually a nice little press. If you do your packing right, set your rollers and trucks correctly, make sure your type is type-high, and adjust your pressure correctly…. all things that you should do on any press…. it will print just as good an image as will any machine, within it’s limitations of size and area. Many folks blame their little Kelseys or Adanas for lower quality work when the real culprit is the fact that they did not set it up correctly.

You questions about packing indicate that you are seriously working toward quality. With this type of mindset, you’ll be a great letterpress artisan.

Starting from the outside or top and going down towards the platen here is the basic order of the packing:

Tympan paper (also called a drawsheet or topsheet)
Index sheet
Bond sheets

As was mentiond above, some forms require fine adjustment called makeready. This is when there is a generally even impression overall but certain parts of the form are not printing as well as others. This can happen due to worn type, defects in the bed, etc.

Makeready can be done with an underlay or an overlay. An underlay is placing paper, tissue, etc. in specific, limited places under the form as it sits on the bed thereby raising the appropriate section(s) high enough to print the same as the rest of the form. An overlay is placing paper, tissue, etc. in specific, limited areas beneath the pressboard.

To do an overlay that will register in the correct places it is usual to insert a sheet of paper (I use bond like I use for my packing) with the tympan paper under the lower bail on the platen but not under the top bail. You want it attached at the bottom to keep it registered with the tympan but open/unattached at the top so you can access it and work on it.

I won’t describe the way to do makeready here but I can recommend the book Platen Press Operation among others as a good resource to learn this important technique.

Basically, the pieces of tissue, paper, etc. that will comprise the makeready are mounted to this sheet. At first the sheet remains above the pressboard so registration marks can be made through the tympan so the makeredy can be properly located and attached. For the actual press run, the pressbord is placed over the makeready sheet to even out the effect it will have and keep th packing hard.

Adjusting your platen properly and using the right packing will keep you from a lot of unnecessary makeready, though not all.


Front Room Press
Milford, NJ

P.S. Maggie Portis has a great and very practical blog about her use of a Kelsey press including the use of makeready.

Thanks again everyone for posting the more than helpful tips!



I also have a 5x8 kelsey. This may be a silly question, but where can I find index and bond paper? I have tympan paper and the red pressboard already for packing.

for index you could use file folders, bond paper is copy paper, if you have an expedix store in your area they sell small lots of all kinds of paper. good luck dick g.

Thanks for the info. May I ask what the difference is between the pressboard and the index?

pressboard is thicker and has a harder finish than index , i don’t use much tympan, instead i use a coated sheet, works well but sometimes i have static problems, also i use a fiberglass board made for foil stamping instead of pressboard, the stuff lasts a long time. dick g.

I’ll add my general packing questions to this thread too. I’m using a golding pearl and have set up to run my first prints using the suggestions above. I have in order, tympan, red pressboard, an index sheet and three bond sheets. I wanted to print a cut with a little (not deep) impression and was then going to do the text (hand set type) over top. I decided to see how a dry run would look and I am getting no impression at all. There is just a kiss to the paper. Now, I’m not complaining, it looks as though the platen is set perfectly. Without adjusting the platen, can I get the deeper impression when I want it? Or will the packing get too thick? I really want to leave the platen where it is, as I will not be using polymer anytime soon and do not want to damage my type or cuts, but a tiny bit of impression might be nice.

90s girl:

By all means, pack the platen until you get the impression you need. You will discover what that is. You can’t get that out of a book. Ideally, you would pack the press as prescribed and then adjust the platen until you get the even impression, but there is nothing wrong with trying it out the other way. More than likely someone spent hours getting the platen adjusted with the packing they had in it, you just need to find the right level to make it work. Make certain you use hard-finished sheets to pack it so it is not too “squishy”.

I endorse jhenry’s comments.
We of the old school (trained in school) were taught to print on the paper and not into it. This was particularly important when printing on both sides of thin stock.
Now I appreciate that the artist may create whatever she or he wishes and that includes some punch in the paper. You have an understanding that the punch will wear metal type and cuts. That is good. (The understanding, not the wear)
You are wise to avoid messing with the platen adjustment screws. There are two kinds of people who mess with the platen. Those who know what they are doing, and those who are looking for grief.