Strange inking phenomena

I’m using vanson rubber base ink.

But I get a strange thing happening in that the print quality is awful with orange-peeling effect and almost blotting when using Cranes Lettra and other soft, embossable card.

But as I leave the ink on the press, after about 3 days, and doing some more prints, the ink seems to ‘settle’ down and I get a much sharper print. The situation is much less apparent on a flat-pulp board for instance.

Any ideas why that might be?

I know the ink is very old but still seems to be alive, and I have ordered a new tin to see if that makes a difference.

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Are you sure you’re not over-inking? Sometimes when you have too much ink on the press you can get the “orange-peel” effect.


It could possibly be over inking. I have a card I’m doing with 24pt Garamond Italic + some small 8pt text below.

So it might be I’m having too much ink on in order to get the 24pt nice and black and then that’s overinking the small text.

Is this just the joy of letterpress I’m experiencing?

I do find that I’m trying to ‘perfect’ the print but I guess that’s letterpress - the appeal and character is that it’s not ‘digital’ perfect.

Can you post a picture? What type of press?

Sure Paul. It’s almost as it it’s ‘blotting’. But as I said above situation seems to improve by above the third day of leaving the ink open on the press and taking a couple of prints each day to wake-up the ink again and stop it setting.

I have attached a coupe of images.


image: _DSC0006.jpg


image: _DSC0008.jpg


Can you post pictures from later, the good prints?

My guess? the ink is drying out a little bit over the course of two days, and you end up with stiffer/tackier ink than you started.

You can modify the ink before it goes on the press by using magnesium carbonate to dry it out and increase the tack. This is my standard procedure. How much you modify is a matter of experience.

Thanks HavenPress. The _DSC0008.jpg (bottom image) is the one from the third day.

It is Cranes Lettra which I like because it does give a nice bite when you print and looks ‘letterpress’ to the unknowing. But I’ve found that if I print at the same time on a less spongy board like a standard pulpboard the problem goes away.

Guess, this is all down to experience and finding the right ink, possibly adding driers as your recommend and the right board for me.

Using a little Adana 8x5 only - love it though as my motivation for going into letterpress is to produce genuinely hand-set lead-type and individually printed cards.

It looks to me as though the type has a lot of ink on its beards, not just on the face. I’d suggest checking your roller settings — you may need to adjust somehow (taping trucks or rails or both) to get just a kiss of the rollers on the type. You should be able to punch the inked type into the paper like that without any of the ink around the edges of the letters showing as it does in your photos.


Lettra is a horrible paper. I can’t understand why there is such a passion for using it. You have proven what your problem is using your own description. Change to another paper.


It appears that you are using too much ink. I also strongly agree with AdLibPress that you have too much roller pressure and are inking not just the face, but down on the beard also. If you are printing into the paper, this will cause a sloppy edge to the letter. Think of buttering a knife. Both the cutting edge of the knife and some on the side. Then press the knife down between two fingers . See what rubs off on the fingers.

Van Son or any other ink should not have to cure or mature on the press. It should print right out of the can with the proper amount. Rubber base ink dries mostly by absorption and Lettra is a very absorptive paper.

Could be light pressure still, but very wet ink with smash impression.

A lot of folks spend hours and days dialing in rollers when they either have ink that is too wet coupled with too much impression, or have too much ink on the rollers even if they are ‘kissing’ the type with the rollers themselves.

I contend that like many things, ink formulation and ambient temp come into play far more than is addressed by your average would-be printer. (No offense Cedar, I’m not saying you’re would-be- I mean the general person posting inking problems here as I’ve seen.)

I don’t claim to be an authority, and it could very well be roller pressure, but I’ve seen this same phenomenon with too much ink that was too wet.

By the way, magnesium carbonate is not a drier- it’s a tack modifier. It will dry the ink out a little bit but doesn’t set/oxidize the ink more quickly (to my knowledge, or at least not as I’ve seen it used).
Drier is usually a liquid with a specific mineral in a particular state that will affect the oils in the ink. The mineral is suspended in the liquid- manganese or cobalt usually as I’ve seen- and this liquid is mixed with your ink.

Magnesium carbonate is a powder and is mixed into the ink differently than liquid. The process is a bit more like baking.

Good luck with your problem- look into some other papers as I suspect this is at least a part of the issue.

Thanks for all these answers guys. This gives me plenty to work on including:

a) considering using a paper other than Cranes Lettra as it may be too absorbent - do like the texture and bit of the ink though

b) Using magnesium carbonate to increase the tack of the ink

c) raising up the rollers to reduce the ink that’s going onto the beard of the type.

Funny you should say about the weather HavenPress - in my workshop it’s cool in the mornings but heating up a lot in the afternoon with this weather at the moment - not sure if that’s having an impact too.

Lots to experiment and test here…

This post is a perfect example of the un-adaptability of certain aspects of offset printing to letterpress. Today Van Son inks are formulated for offset printing and are really too runny to work well with most hand-operated letterpress machines. Adding Magnesium Carbonate to ink will cause it to dry faster, but will not effectively thicken the ink. If you want to make the ink thicker you should add starch. Some recommend corn starch, but I prefer rice or tapioca starch which is ground much finer. Do not add much or the ink will become opaque and gritty; necessitating a re-grinding of the ink, which can be easily done with a glass muller. Calcium Carbonate or Precipitated Chalk can offer some of the same properties, but is used more as an extender or to create a matt finish ink. If you can get your hands on it, a 4/0 Varnish added to the ink with give it more body without reducing the gloss. An ink manufacturer could supply you with a can of it.

If you are using an Adana Eight Five the only accurate roller adjustment is turning the roller trucks around, but I don’t think that is where your problem lies. You are trying to get full coverage of the 24 point type, without over-inking the 8 point type, which is not always easy to do with a small two-roller press. You are compounding your problems by trying to print with too much impression on a paper that is very fibrous and somewhat brittle, and in my opinion totally unsuited for letterpress printing. I think that you could control your problem better by reducing the impression on the 8 point type, and increasing it on the 24 point type through judicious make-ready on the platen.

I think you are also using too much ink, which is stripping off into the recesses of the small type. I would suggest reducing the amount of ink, and either double-rolling the form, or if that doesn’t work, double printing the paper to increase the coverage on the larger type while leaving the coverage light enough to not over-ink the small type. This is a difficult thing to do accurately, but by making sure the paper is precisely placed in the guides it can be done. Last resort would be printing the large and small types separately. On a short run it wouldn’t take that much time, but a longer run it might be too time consuming, and one of the other solutions would be more expedient.


Going along with what Paul said you could ( if you can ) adjust your rollers and or ink to print the small type properly and place a piece of masking tape or two under the large type. ( I mean under your paper not the type in the chase ).

There’s a lot of wisdom in DTP’s posts (including the one about Lettra). Modern inks aren’t made with letterpress need in mind. I would suggest you pick up a can of Charbonnel black etching ink. It more resembles the inks used in the days of letterpress. Its much drier, denser and has many times more pigment than offset inks.

One could purchase powdered pigments from art stores or catalogues and add to the ink to increase the density of color, and that would also add to the tack somewhat. One would have to know the original pigment used in the manufactured ink, or risk significantly altering the color or quality of the ink. A downside would be the added grit to the ink. The advantage to using inks from an ink company is the thorough grinding of pigment in the vehicle. Grinding can be done by hand, but most printers would not chose to do it, and it is too time consuming for any large amount.

In researching letterpress inks I found a company that would, without divulging their formula, identify an ink they made that was closest to a formula I had located. The ink identified was Lithographic Crayon Black #68 sold by Daniel Smith, but let me tell you, there is not a bit of drier in it, and one would have to add quite a bit to make it workable. Gans Ink in Los Angeles makes and sells very good letterpress specific black ink (sold only in 5 pound increments), but does not make colors. In fact I have found their colors to be exceedingly runny, especially the opaque white.

I used to have sources for letterpress inks, but as the old chemists died the formulas were lost or ignored. The industry is moving toward water-based inks which are totally unsuitable for letterpress, and we will probably have to go back to making our own inks by hand eventually.

I would choose to avoid etching inks for letterpress. The oils can leach out over time, a problem that can have devastating consequences to books or other more permanently printed items. Some art suppliers are trying to stock inks that are appropriate for relief printing (Daniel Smith, Graphic Chemical), but the inks usually lack the drier needed for machine or commercial work. I haven’t tried the inks that NA Graphics carries, and would love to hear feedback on them. I notice that they don’t carry a full range of process colors in oil, but do have quite a few pre-mixed colors that are rubber-based, which I don’t use.

There isn’t enough of a market for letterpress ink for companies to stock an easily ordered range of items, but there are small ink companies that will make up special ordered batches, which can run into real money. The other alternative is to learn how to manipulate the existing inks to make them workable for whatever your current demands would be. And to think that I hated chemistry in school.


Wow! Thanks again for these really detailed answers.

I don’t think I’m in the market for mixing up my own inks or sourcing special inks and it does seem that my original report of a strange phenomena whereby the rubber base ink seems to get better and better printing wise as it stays open for longer on the press.

I hear what you say Devil’s Tail Press about increasing make-ready and putting more impression on the 24pt text in order to relieve the pressure on the 8pt text - or possibly double passes for printing.

DTP, “The industry is moving toward water-based inks which are totally unsuitable for letterpress, and we will probably have to go back to making our own inks by hand eventually.”

Just where are you getting this from? I’d like to know…..

The flexographic and serigraphic industries are already moving toward water-based inks because of ozone concerns, as is the automotive paint industry. Where industry leaders go the rest are eventually forced to follow. During the oil shortages of the ’70s the industry adapted by using soy-based oils, and now most inks contain some plant-based oils (that is why they are so glossy). As oil becomes more expensive and difficult to obtain the printing industry will have to adapt, and they will. There is plenty of info on the Internet if you look for it.

Paul, thanks for that info about the etching ink oils leaching out. I was not aware of that. Thankfully I haven’t used it in situations where longevity was a factor. What I have noticed, is if you double strike using etching inks, the second coat never dries.

So, this afternoon after reading some other forum posts on the matter of inking I tried raising up the rollers by winding electrical tape around the runners. I put on quite a lot so as to lift the rollers completely away from the type, test this by getting a blind impression on the paper even with inked-up rollers and then removing the tape on all four runners bit by bit until I start to get inking.

But alas the problems persist.

Then I read on Happy Dragons Press website that they advocate using Linseed Oil Relief Ink available from Lawrences:

I’ve been trying to work with rubber base ink until now for the obvius advantage that it stays open on the press, but it seems to only work well for me on polymer blocks.

So maybe for my lead-type work, which I am doing a lot of at the moment, I need to perhaps try the linseed oil inks.