Labor Day: Blackout

Not working on Labor Day seems in congruous. Here's the story of an experiment conducted at the studio earlier this summer...

For several years I have been thinking about the many pre-1800 broken books that can be found in the back rooms of bookshops, that they're rarely worth the cost of restoring (if it's even possible), but also that they can't just be put in the recycling bin. So they pile up.

At the same time I've watched the supply of good (handmade) paper dwindle. Reg is retired now, and every time a package of Barcham Green turns up it causes a frenzy. And so, I wondered how the beautiful papers in broken books could be recycled.

Simply pulping the pages to make new sheets could be done, but the fibers would be quite short by the time they went through a beater a second time, plus the ink would still be there, so pure white sheets wouldn't happen, plus there's the potential for impurities to cause degradation. All in all, not worth the effort.

Instead of pulping the sheets, I wondered about just printing on them. It could be possible to print over existing text blocks, perhaps using larger type printed in a vibrant color that stands out from the printed background. But there's still be a lot of visual interference that would work against extended reading.

Then I wondered about obscuring the existing text, creating a new (blank) field to print on. The easiest solution would be to make the white parts of the paper match the black (printed) parts - i.e. to create a black sheet - and then use metallic inks for printing.

This past summer I finally got around to conducting a few experiments. I found an incomplete copy of Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (volume 2 only), printed in Edinburgh in 1828. Half of the remaining text block was badly foxed, but I harvested the cleanest pages. The paper is a laid sheet of approximately 90 g weight.

My first thought was to try dyeing the sheets. I got two 1-oz jars of Procion MX dye, one jet black and one navy (the shop had only one jar of black, so I went with the next dark color on hand; I doubted one jar would be enough, and assumed the black would overpower the blue).

I dyed the sheets in the same plastic tub I use for damping paper. The sheets were submerged, left soaking for about 10 minutes, then removed & stacked between sheets of waste paper to absorb the excess water.

Drying the sheets down took several days and was very messy. I probably should have pressed them, but didn't have a way to deal with the run-off. When dry, the sheets had a distinctly blue hue, and the text remained unobscured (above).

Even if I could get a dye solution that was intense enough to make the sheets a pure, deep black (and I doubted I could), it would be a messy and time-consuming process. So I turned to my second idea, using HM's new etching press.
A sheet of Plexiglass larger than the book pages was inked with black relief ink.* A page was laid over the inked plate, followed by a piece of Mylar (covering all of the inked portions of the plate, beyond the edges of the page), and then the press blanket. The bed was run through the press, and the page peeled off the Plexiglass. After one side of all the pages was printed, the same was done to the verso.

(* I used rubber-based ink, because I knew the experiment would consume a lot of ink and I didn't want to waste my good (oil-based) ink. I should have, however, thought that miserly idea through: rubber ink dries by absorption, oil by oxidation. Since a dense layer of ink was applied across the entire surface of a 200-year-old sheet of relatively thin paper, it took a long time to dry. Oxidation would have been a more efficient process. Plus rubber ink stinks, while oil has a lovely aroma. Remember: ink should be sticky, not bouncy.)

With enough ink applied to the plate, the text was completely occluded, although the impression remained. However, once the sheets had fully dried, they no longer had the feel of paper: they felt like a thin sheets of rubber. So, from the perspective of processing the paper in a way that retained its essential qualities, the method was a failure.

Nonetheless, to test how these sheets printed, I printed four haiku from an ongoing exchange between two authors of my acquaintance (they were copying me on their exchange, for archiving if nothing else). The text was set in 12-, 18- & 36-pt Perpetua.

There seemed no point in damping the pages for printing: the paper was as floppy and soft as waterleaf. One author's parts were printed in silver, the other's in gold. A few lines were printed in black. Adjusting the inking for the processed paper took some doing: the gold is a much looser ink than the silver and it was easy to over-ink.

I bound up 10 press-numbered copies, having found some lovely Japanese papers in gold and silver versions, and sent the entire edition to the authors. (There also were four A.P. copies, which I used for trial bindings.) That's where the experimenting has stalled to date.

Screen printing might be a faster method for laying down fields of obliterating color, but I think it would still eliminate the paper's fundamental tactile qualities. I'm inclined to think the answer lies with dye: I just have to find the right kind and intensity. Once dyed, the paper could even be re-sized. I'll keep playing and let you know.