Last week I started preparing plates for a new series of etchings for the “7 Printmakers” exhibit in San Diego in October. I wondered as I worked how many non-etchers know what goes into preparing metal plates to create an original etching?
Etchings are original prints, printed on paper from a plate that was created by the artist, and inked and printed by hand by the artist or a master printer. See Intaglio Printmaking Technique for a little more information about etching the image and printing the plate.
Before the image-making work can even begin, there is work to prepare the plate for the process. I work on zinc, which is milled in such a way that the plate is smooth and flat, but it has a dull surface with a vague pattern from the milling. If inked and printed without any prep work, the plate would produce a uniform dirty grey tone.
In order to create a surface that will wipe clean for printing (remain white in the final print), it is necessary to polish the surface of the plate to nearly a mirror shine. I start by polishing the surface with a fine sandpaper, and then use progressively finer sanding films. The last few polishes are done using very fine polishing compounds on a soft cloth. #0000 steel wool is used to buff a nice shine.
The purpose of all this polishing is to create a very slick surface that will not hold ink when the plate is wiped for printing. It is important to create this surface before creating the image in the plate, as the act of polishing would alter the etched image. (Note the dull finish of the plate in the photo at left, and the mirror like shine in the photo at right. The pencil is used here just to illustrate the reflectivity of the two plates.)
The second important step in plate preparation is beveling the plate to remove the sharp edges and corners so that the plate will go through the press without tearing the paper and the felt blankets. Sometimes I (impatiently) skip this step until I am ready for proofing the plate, but it is safer to bevel the plate before the image is created! A slip of the beveling tool could damage the image, I have learned to my dismay!
I was taught to bevel etching plates using a metal file, but I get better results using an edging tool made for beveling plexiglass. It allows me to shave the edges of the plate into a nice rounded bevel. (Beveling tool is pictured at the bottom of the photo of supplies.) The plate is clamped overhanging the edge of a table, and the tool is repeatedly scraped down the length of the plate until the desired bevel is achieved.
The scraping leaves scratch marks that can hold ink, so the bevel will need to be burnished and polished before edition printing. I usually wait until all of the etching of the plate is complete before finishing the beveled edge to a smooth shine.
Next time I will write more about how the design is etched into the plate.