deep impression

To date, I’ve been using a hard packing and getting a relatively shallow impression, fine & sharp. Very pleasing and easy on the type.

People advise against using lead type to obtain a deep impression, since the higher pressure will strain the press and crush the type. But couldn’t we achieve a deeper impression, when desired, safely, by using a softer packing? Then the packing will relieve the strain and avoid crushing the lead type.


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The comments I’ve read on the subject suggest that soft packing actually causes increased wear on type. Dampening an already soft paper may yield better results, but ultimately you shouldn’t use irreplaceable type on such a job.

A casting machine would help too!

I forgot to mention that using soft packing just requires more impression to pound into the paper, IMO. At the end of the say, you’re still compressing fibers, whether you need to compress every sheet in your soft packing or just a few in your hard packing! I’m sure a letterpress scientist can offer better comments however.

Any attempt at deep impression will wear lead type, casting type on a ludlow or linotype then smashing it doesn’t matter cause you can cast more, but hand type once worn is gone for good. a mag die or poly plate would work. Good Luck Dick G.

It wears the edges and rounds off the type face which looses sharpness. How many impressions is your average run?

Average run? About 20 :-)

I certainly have no irreplacable type, though of course it costs real money.

I believe that the edges will be rounded over time, but I think the softer packing will cause less total stress on the lead and the press.

Consider the thought experiment of trying to press a pen (I have one here in front of me) 1 inch into a sheet of paper on my desk. Takes a lot of force and may destroy the pen. But if I put a 1 inch piece of styrofoam on top the desk, then the sheet of paper, I can do it pretty easily.


My understanding is that the soft packing allows the paper to push into the packing with the impression, whereas harder packing makes the paper itself compress with less show-through on the back. Both will give deep impression and both will smash the type, but the hard packing will give a better result.

I will agree with Vrooom:

You will find that a hard packing will help to preserve your type from wear, and produce a much sharper image at the same time. Dampening the sheet will help a great deal in both image quality and deep impression. Particularly if you have short runs, the task of dampening is well worth the effort.

I really like the look of type pressed into the paper and forming a nice impression in the sheet, but I also want the image to be fully inked and with sharp edges. Experimentation with various papers and treatments will get you both.

Again, I’m no letterpress scientist, but my completely uneducated guess about Preston’s styrofoam example is that the “packing” is acting as a rudimentary counter die. The areas not under compression still apply resistance to the printed sheet, causing it to deboss around the raised surface. Might explain the complaints of soft packing wearing the periphery of type faster than hard packing.

Less effort is required on your end with the pen due to the counter pressure of the styrofoam, but the entire system of your hand (platen) to pen (relief structure) to paper to foam (packing) to table (bed of press) is similar in my mind. Perhaps it’s even more dangerous as there’s not as much pressure placed on the type as there is on the press itself?

You could test with a scale acting as the bed and see if the same result on 2 separate sheets of paper with the two types of “packing” is of a measurable difference. Again, my guess would be not, and unless you’re dealing with a reinforced press (Kluge Die-cutting press, Colt’s Armory Press) then there could be damage caused by this increased pressure. I’m obviously assuming a platen press here.

Like Dick mentioned earlier, I’ve had some nice results with Mag. dies, photopolymer, and 220# or heavier cotton paper. Heavier paper definitely gives you more room to work with… the fluffier the better!

20 impressions generally will not ruin type unless you actually crush it. To be safe I might devide the type case compartments with reglets or chip board and keep type I used for heavy impression separate. The smaller pt. sizes, 6 to 12-14pt are the most vulnerable. I wouldn’t worry too much about 16, 18, 24pt and up.

Preston -

What press are you using?

Soft packing and deep impression can ‘lock up’ a press as large as an 8x12 C&P. I once had to rescue a novice printer and loosen her platen bolts to relieve the tension and open her locked up press.

She was trying for a deep impression and it almost damaged her press. The packing gave just enough to let the press close, but not enough to let it open up again.

The old castings on these presses can be brittle and I have seen at least one press broken by too much pressure. Granted, it was a form that unlocked itself and left some thick wooden furniture between the bed and the platen, but the result was a snapped casting at the base of the roller arm linkage.

Smaller presses are even more susceptible to overpacking, so wearing out your type is not the only issue to consider.

Of course, as Vroom suggests - a Colt, Thompson, Kluge or C&P Craftsman can handle a whole lot of impression, but I’ll bet your press is not one of those.

In any case, as others have noted, hard packing is better for compressing the fibers of the paper you are printing on. Soft packing not only endangers your press, but also does not give you the deep impression effect you want.

Try dampening or steaming your paper to soften it. Use a soft, “fluffy” paper like Lettra and stick to a hard packing. That would solve both problems for you.

Even when doing proper die & counter embossing, we use a hard packing. And, the best embossing is done when the press has a heater in the bed.

But the problem with type is abrasive wear on the edges of the face. You won’t “smash” the type, but it will accelerate the wear - especially if your type is Thompson-cast or monotype. But even the hardest nickel-alloy ATF type will wear over time.

…. but not so likely on runs of 20 impressions….

- Alan

I do use dampened paper and a very hard packing; the result is very nice. I have no complaints about it.

I’m printing with a Poco Proof Press, hence the limited runs. The advantage of such a press is that I have a lot of control (albeit tediously achieved) over the “depth of drive”.

Let’s think about how things fit together.
First there the bed of the press, cast iron and quite incompressible (cast iron breaks rather than bends).
Then the lead type, mostly incompressible, except with very high pressures.
Then the paper, which can be compressed a bit.
Next the packing (including makeready), which is more or less compressible, depending on how hard the packing is: Soft packing is more easily compressed, hard packing is less easily compressed.
Finally, there’s the cylinder, cast iron, and not compressible.

The position of the bed and the cylinder are fixed, as is the size of the lead type. What’s interesting is the space between them, some fixed amount. And we’re allowed to fool with the thickness of the paper and the thickness of the packing (plus whether it’s hard or soft) to fill that space.

Now, if the packing and paper are thin enough, the type won’t even touch the paper, regardless of how hard or soft the packing. No stress on the press and no wear on the type. So hard versus soft is certainly not the controlling factor here.

If I fill the space precisely with packing and it’s very hard, say a piece of steel, then the lead type will try to compress the paper fibers to a thickness of zero inches; probably won’t work. This will make for lots of stress, and will probably squish the type and may break the press. Sounds very bad, even though we’re using the ultimate in hard packing. (Of course, if the space is overfilled with hard packing, then something will certainly have to give.)

The scheme I use now, and probably most folks, is an amount of hard packing such that packing plus paper just slightly overfills the space between lead and cylinder, enough so the lead is driven slightly into the paper and the packing doesn’t compress. We play around a bit with the amount of packing to compensate for the thickness of the paper and to achieve more or less impression.

Now, all this comes up because my wife wondered if I could approximate the effect of an etching press with an engraved wood block. I thought: Sure! I’ll use a slightly thicker, but softer packing (like the blankets on an etching press), so that the block is allowed to press into the paper, and even into the packing. We’ll get quite a bit of show through on the far side of the paper, just like an etching press, and she’ll be happy.

You guys claiming I’ll break my press are not thinking about it very clearly, I think :-)

Imagine the space between the cylinder and the type (or block) is 0.1 inch. I claim I can use soft packing, say a piece of styrofoam in the extreme case, 0.2 inches thick, and force it though the press. It’ll squish down trivially and there will be no difficulty. Of course, probably won’t print well, since any paper would probably move too much on such an unstable packing, but that’s a separate issue, and one I hope to address by experimentation. We’ll see.

Thanks for your feedback,


I am not an expert on this matter, but what everyone forgets
is that letterpress normal types where not designed to do deep impression printing. The printing was to be done with a “kiss impression” and the hard packing is the best. If you want a deep impression, you have to be printing on a soft special paper. If you do not use regular types, what are you going to use??? Brass types?? Years ago, if you had too much impression on a form, it was considered poor printing! Am I the only one that knows this? I don’t think so.
Folks have adapted deep impression printing with types that were not intended for this purpose. Of course they will wear quickly.

Sal Zampino

I’m not using type; I’m using an engraved wood block. See my note above.


Even if you have a steel plate (doesn’t compress), you can apply enough force with a bullet to compress it. Cast iron isn’t nearly as tough as that.

I haven’t worked with an etching press in a while, but the support for the impression cylinder is much more reinforced than the one on a Poco. Additionally, modern etching presses use steel plate to build this assembly. It’s got a higher tolerance than cast iron, which is part of why you only see cast iron used on older presses. Some of the newer presses are rated at 40,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Woe unto any paper that get squeezed through such a press!

But, most of what’s been commented, though sound, is probably off now that we’re discussing wood blocks with a cylinder press (I’ve been assuming a platen press, and working from the reference to lead type in your first post). Even so, I would be afraid to break the frame of the Poco trying to obtain a deep impression.

Paper also comes to mind again, since the most luxurious and “deepest” woodblock prints I’ve seen were done on Reeves BFK, Arches 88, and other cold press, artisan papers — which were often doused over night and rolled out on blotter paper before printing.

Send us pictures of your improved soft packing and finished product if it does work!

James Beard
Vrooooom Press

I have tried this sort of thing and found it a lot of fun. I used a little nolan proof press, felt blankets and I beveled the edges of the wood. I made a cutout in some plywood that my carved block sat in. It was about an 1/8 of an inch taller that the plywood jig and with the beveled edge the roller went over pretty nicely. I varnished the wood so I could wipe the ink off easier and so the damp paper wouldn’t affect the block. It was hard to pull the print as it needed a good amount of force to pull the ink out but I thought it worked out nice.
Here are a couple of links to the prints.
I hope they work.



Nice work.


Preston, try an offset blanket on your impression cylinder, Dick G.

Thank you Gerald :)