dampening paper

Anyone want to explain their paper dampening techniques? I can’t remember. I never do it, but I should. Do you just run every other sheet quickly under water and then stack them and let them sit overnight?

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re damp paper

Where I worked, we had an apprentice who was told to dampen the stack of (newsprint) paper for the proof press. He immersed the stack in a tub of water, read a comic for 20 mintues, and then brought the paper back to the comp room. We had to take steps to make it possible to use the paper, we put a few wet sheets onto a greater quantity of dry sheets, alternately till we thought it would be right. Like many things, dampening paper is a skill rather than a science. The best dampening was when the stack was left for a time, possibly overnight, making the dampening relatively consistent.


Lewis Allen in his book ‘Printing on the Handpress’ recommended using a sponge to dampen sheets, I use a pump sprayer which puts out a fine mist. The paper you are using is important, usually only mould-made, or hand-made papers benefit from dampening. Machine made papers have fibers that are too short, and dampening can make the paper fall apart. As for interleaving sheets, it depends on the paper thickness and how the moisture penetrates the paper. It usually takes a bit of experimenting to get it right. As the old-timers used to say, a properly dampened sheet feels dry to the touch, and cool to the cheek.


The paper I’m talking about is usually Reich Savoy.

What’s a “pump sprayer”? Do you mean an ordinary plastic bottle with mist attachment?

The sprayer I use was purchased from Hiromi Paper; it is a small steel tank with a pressure pump on top that creates a fine mist when the handle is pulled. I think it is typically used for bonsai trees, but works very well for paper dampening.



I use the “dip and dunk” method.

I take a sheet of paper and run it through a tray of clean tap water. I put that single sheet on a stack of three undampened sheets, then follow it with three to five more sheets, then a wet sheet and three to five dry, and so forth until the paper for the entire next day is dampened.

I put it all in a large plastic bag and let it come to some equilibrim, maybe an hour, and then put a piece of large plywood on the top of the bag with a fairly full case of type on top to weigh it down. I let it sit that way overnight, and by morning the moisture has gravitated through the whole stack of stock.

As Paul mentioned, the paper should be a bit limp and not wet, but just cool to the touch.

I find this easier than the sponge or spray method, but have used both of these for smaller sheets and shorter time line.

Dampening makes a very BIG difference in the way ink lays down on the sheets if they have any hard surface or sizing on the surface. I think everyone should try it just to see what good it can do, and keep it in your “bag of tricks” for difficult papers and designs. Many commercial machine-made papers also will benefit from the dampening techniques, and most will not fall apart in the process.

After printing, I place the sheets between blotters to dry for a while, then put a little weight on top to flatten as well.

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press

Hello careyj,

The object is to make every square millimeter of the paper uniformly damp. I do pretty much what Lewis Allen recommends:

1. Sponge one side of a sheet with distilled water, taking care to sponge evenly. Your sponge should be wet but not dripping.

2. Lay your sheet on a flat surface and place a dry sheet on top of it. Sponge another sheet and place it on the dry sheet. Continue layering wet and dry sheets with the rest of your paper.

3. Place another flat surface on top of the top sheet, something like a large plastic cutting board.

4. Drape a wet towel over the top board so that it makes a sort of tent over your paper.

5. After about four hours, put your stack of paper in a plastic bag and sandwich it between the two boards.

6. Place heavy weights evenly on the top board — 30 or 40 pounds worth. Anything will do — bricks, cat litter, canned goods, books, etc.

7. Turn the stack every four to six hours over a 24-hour period.

8. Your paper should be evenly damp. It should be nicely limp, but not feel wet at all. It should feel a little cooler than the dry paper, especially when touched to the cheek or neck.

9. If you’re making multiple runs as for two-color or back-to-back printing, keep the paper damp as you print by keeping it in a humidor. Lewis has instructions for making large humidors from wood, but I’ve gotten by with camping coolers with wet foam rubber in the bottom on which sits a rack and then a piece of Plexiglas.

I’ve never had a problem with the paper warping as it dries, but some people dry the paper under weights.


Like Paul, I use a dahlia sprayer. These seem to be favored by most of the hand press printers I know who dampen regularly as they give a fine, even, consistent mist for dampening.

Tala’s online sells them in two sizes, the smaller one is easier to handle, the bigger one holds more water so you don’t have to refill. I use distilled water to reduce the risk of algae/mold getting on the paper, but this might be a bit fussy for most people.

I cut my paper to size, hold the sheet vertically (outside is good if it is warm, otherwise, over the bathtub keeps the house from getting all wet) lightly spray front and back with about a one second pass over each side, and then stack as uniformly as possible. I then put the stack between two sheets of plexiglas and put in a large plastic sack. Use the first sheet of plexiglas to build your stack on since it will keep the paper clean. Ziplock sells XL bags on amazon that work ideally for this. I do not press under weights. I mostly use Arches, Rives, and Saunders Waterford, and none of these seem to cockle badly as they are mould made papers. Once between the sheets of plexiglas and inside the ziplock, I leave overnight (dampen at 8pm, print at 8am — or thereabouts) and it is ready to print.

One final thought, if you can see moisture standing on the paper (reflective spots) the next morning you over-dampened. In actuality, you need very little dampness to achieve the benefit, it definitely shouldn’t be sopping wet, just cool to the touch and more flexible than usual.


I am right there with John Henry’s comments. I totally immerse a sheet under clean water (in a deep sink) hold it up for a minute on edge until most of the water has dripped off and generally lay down one wet sheet with 5 or 6 dry ones on top and repeat the process. I stack everthing on a thick glass plate and then cover the pile when done with another plate. Enclose the whole works in a plastc bag and tape shut. Put weights on top and let sit evernight. All the moisture will evenly migrate through the pile.

This will not work at all on coated papers, just to state the obvious.

This is all done by “feel” and you will soon discover how wet of a sheet and many dry sheets to interleave. Once you get the hang of it and print on dampened paper you will discover that there is nothing like it. ENJOY!


I once had a job to print on a small sheet of machine-made japanese paper (with fairly long fibers). A reverse type logo that I needed to print on the paper would not print cleanly; I breathed heavily onto the sheet and it printed perfectly. Obviously I couldn’t do that for the requisite 500+ sheets, so I set up an electric cup warmer on a stool under the feed-board of my C&P, microwaved a cup of water and momentarily held each sheet over the steeping cup before printing. The piece printed very slowly, but perfectly.


When you first said you breathed on the sheet i wondered if it might have something to do with alcohol content in the breath??

Moxon (1683) described the pressman drawing a quire of paper at a time through “a tray full of fair water”: “this drawing the quire through the water he performs either nimbly or slowly; if the paper be weak and spungy, he performs it quickly; if strong and stubborn, slowly.” When the token [day’s worth of paper for one press] had all been wetted and placed between wooden boards he placed “about half a hundred weight” [56 lbs] on it and left it overnight.

Savage (1841) also described wetting paper a quire at a time or part of a quire at a time “in a large trough lined with lead, containing clean water”, in which he “draws it quickly through the water”, different sorts of paper beign drawn “through the weter as aoften as necessary”, stating that “it is impossible to form regular judgement of how many dips in each quire all sorts of paper require, therefore the wetter must be cautious in examining while wetting, whether each sort is of a soft, or spongy, middling, hard or harsh nature, also to conside rwhether it be for a light or a heavy form, and dip each sort accordingly.” He did not state how long the damped paper shoul;d be left stacked or pressed but noted that “for fine work”, “he turns the paper as often as he thinks necessary, pressing it at each turning, and common work would look better if the paper were turned.” he concluded by stating that “in large establishements the pressmen do not wet the paper, but there is one or more peronss appointed to that duty solely, who also turn it and press it, so that it is delivered to the pressmen to print, more uniformly in good condition, thatn when they wet it.”

to Alan Dye, careyj and others

It seems that there is much consensus about dampening paper; and only slightly damp.

I am thinking of labour-saving. Is there a method which requires less handling of the paper? And perhaps someone may describe a machine which shifts paper automatically from one place to another, like a windmill press, and puts a fine spray of a little water one each sheet (or should that be arranged to skip so that each second or each third sheet is dampened?). Whatever, it seems that the paper needs to have some time (hours) for the water to soak through the fibres.

And for using distilled water, an alternative may be to boil tap water for five minutes, then let it cool for a few hours, in a covered container; that may be enough to kill any nasties in the water? Cost, if a consideration, should take into account the time spent for each method? Much of discussion seems to ignore the number of hours needed to achieve the final result.

I have a [way-out] visualisation of a machine with a stack of paper (about a quire) in it, and a tube passing down the side of the stack, with tiny jets of air blowing air which will lift the paper, and the air carrying some mist of water; can anyone else visualise similarly?


When the early treatises on printing were written paper was made by hand from linen fibers and sized with hide glue. It took more soaking to soften the sizing to make the paper more receptive to taking ink. That method is still good for most handmade papers. Not having used Reich Savoy I assume that it is a mould-made paper made from primarily cotton fibers which absorb quite a bit of moisture, but are also short, making the paper very easy to over-dampen. I personally like the sprayer/mister method because it is easier to control the amount of moisture on the sheet, and if during an interrupted run the edges dry faster, they can be touched up easily. It is worth reading several descriptions of paper dampening to find a method which suits your own situation and needs. Richard-Gabriel Rummonds book, ‘Nineteenth-Century Printing Practices & the Iron Handpress’ has 23 descriptions of paper dampening taken from printer’s manuals. Machines for dampening are also described. It’s definitely worth a read.

Using tap water, even if boiled, can introduce iron and chemicals to the paper, which can create premature foxing to the paper. Distilled water is not that expensive, and is a good investment for keeping your paper in good condition.


Search the archives for humidors. I have in mind a simple wooden box with top. Nylon fish line is strung across the top in rows about 1/2” apart . Two spring style clothes pins are strung on each pass of the line. A steam iron is placed in the bottom of the box arranged to steam constantly. Paper is attached to the nylon lines with the spring clothes pins.
Steam until appropriately humidified.

Thank you everyone for explaining your methods! I have one one design in particular gives me grief every time I print. It’s an a2 card with a repeating, dropped-out pattern. Not an easy task to get it to look good, and every time I print it, I basically dread it.

Because all of the designs in this series have large solids, they would all benefit from dampened paper.

Does anyone dampen the parent sheets before cutting, or do you cut to size and then dampen?

The one thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is that the dampening/drying (expanding and shrinking) is going to mean that your paper is not going to stay flat all by itself. It will either have to be pressed flat when dried (not the best option) or kept flat under pressure when still slightly damp so that the fibers will keep that shape when allowed to completely dry.


One of the better things to flatten it with is sheetrock with interleaving layers of newsprint.
If you can find a construction company that does interiors, often they will give away small scraps (20x48, for example) if you are willing to haul; why pay to throw away when someone will take it from you?

Then you can dust all these scraps off, tape the edges with some masking tape or gum tape to keep them from crumbling, and stack them on a table.
It also helps to put some strips or offcuts of paper in stacks on each shelf, to keep the weight of so many sheets from pressing down on the bottom ‘shelves’, or keep it in short stacks if you have the tablespace.

Why? Because a stack of about 8 or 9 pieces of sheetrock can actually cause enough pressure to make the ink offset to the slipsheet on the bottom 2 or 3 shelves- and since these sheets will be shrinking, this becomes a problem as the ink will ‘drag’ and slur across the surface.

I have a book press and can use that to press the paper, if I cut them first. But again, do people usually dampen the parent or the cut sheets?

You’ll want to cut the paper first, careyj, since dampening a parent sheet would be a bit unwieldy and since keeping sheets damp while you cut would require a huge humidor. You want to maintain the level of dampness from beginning to end; adding a cutting step would allow the paper to dry out. (It doesn’t take long for properly dampened paper to dry when exposed to air.)

When I’m printing multiple passes, I quickly open one humidor, whisk out a sheet, and close it within a second or two. When the print comes off the press it goes into the second humidor with equal speed.

Another thing to consider is that the paper swells when damp. If you dampened a parent sheet and then started cutting, the sheets you cut toward the end will end up bigger than the ones you cut first since the paper will have begun to shrink.


Thank you, Barbara!


You would dampen the cut sheets, how else would you cut the dampened parent sheets to size?

The paper has to relax under a somewhat natural pressure. Not a book press. HavenPress mentioned sheetrock as a way to add pressure. I was taught to use asbestos sheeting, as it absorbs the moisture. Not that anyone would use it today, but it worked. So will thick acetate, but it won’t absorb moisture.

The main thing is pay attention to the needs of the paper. It’s organic. It has to do things in its own time. You cannot force it. The best references in this regard are Lewis Allen and William Everson. Refer to them, not us. Do the homework.