It all started with a wooden spoon.
To create a print, you ‘ink up’ your carved lino, lay the paper on top and apply pressure. Back in 2019 when I first took up the craft, the best tool I had for the job was a wooden spoon. They are surprisingly effective - providing more pressure than a push of the palm and you can target stubborn areas where the ink won’t transfer (and there are ALWAYS stubborn areas!). They are also cheap and egalitarian and most people have a spare in the kitchen drawer.
Quite quickly, I realised that I’d found a new passion in lino printing. It sat comfortably with my work as a photographer, enjoyable to pick up after a long day’s shoot and soothing to return to whenever I had free time. I soon decided to buy myself a lino printing set with a few essential extras, including a Baren. A Baren is a round, disc shaped tool with a handle on the back - a traditional piece of printer’s kit which provides a larger surface area than a spoon and applies less pressure to lift the ink to the paper. This worked well and was extremely satisfying to use but by now, I was itching for a book press…..
Fate intervened and after a photo shoot in Henley, I popped into an antique shop for a quick browse. And there it was - a French ‘Nipping Press’. Traditionally used by book binders to create hinges on covers of hardback books, it was exactly what I was looking for. This press was not large and would only take 10x8cm paper but that was all I needed. The best price was £110 - a considerable investment for a hobbyist printmaker but a purchase I have never regretted. The press appealed to me on so many levels - it was weighty, solid and functional but also a thing of beauty. It spoke of a time gone by, an analogue era when everything was handmade because it had to be. The press had scars which spoke of a previous life of service, a simple, useful life where the printmaker or bookbinder carried out the same manual action, day after day…until technology moved on. I loved using this press and I still do. A piece of hardboard goes on the base, then the carved block, next the paper, then a printer’s blanket. It feels as if you are becoming part of the mechanism yourself - looming over the press, turning the handle with both hands, which winds the screw to push the plate down (adding an extra quarter turn for the final bit of pressure) then removing your print. Simple, efficient and functional and it takes pride of place in my studio.
During 2020, life slowed down for us all and I found myself with more time to devote to the craft of lino printing. I spent many hours revisiting my homeland in my mind, creating Cornish seaside prints alongside lino cuts of everyday retro classics. I became aware via instagram of a young entrepreneur called Tim, who had designed a small, affordable printing press and was making them himself from a borrowed workshop in the Forest of Dean. The Pooki Press was the next step in my printmaking journey - a fantastic bit of kit, larger than my Nipping Press at A3 but still portable and lightweight. I heartily recommend these presses to anyone starting out in printmaking, excellent value for money and also perfect to take along to my printmaking workshops.
I was delighted that my prints proved rather popular and soon, my ‘side hustle’ became not just a passion but a second profession. As I created more and more limited edition linoprints from my Oxfordshire studio, I was soon considering investing in a much larger press. In fact, I was gunning for a Gunning….
The Gunning family’s printing press business is aptly located in Ironbridge, aka ‘The Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ and home to the famous Ironbridge itself. Is was in the 1980’s that celebrated printmaker Dave Gunning hand-built himself a press, which evolved into a business now run by his daughters Sarah and Jenny. Their printing presses (still hand built) are hugely popular with professional artists and would enable me be both more productive and consistent with my printmaking. A considerable step to take but an exciting one and I took delivery of my Gunning press in 2022, the day of the death of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Myself and Bess (as my printing press is fondly known in memory of our late Queen) can now produce a whole edition of 50 prints in around a day - a task that would have taken me much longer before. Printing on a Gunning press is designed to be effortless - you do not ‘heave’ the wheel or crank the levers. Rather the press gently asks for a light touch and responds to the turn of the wheel with a smooth, analogue action which quietly produces beautifully consistent prints. Ironbridge itself, built in 1779 is a grand feat of engineering but appears surprisingly delicate when viewed from across the estuary, linking each side of the river with an intricate cobwebbed arc of metal. There are parallels to be drawn with the Gunning Press - beautiful and functional, its hard stainless steel cylinders must gently apply the correct amount of pressure to the print but not squeeze the block and make the ink bleed. The mechanism must ‘kiss’ the paper with a delicate touch. It’s a pleasure to use.
I visited Ironbridge myself for a 1:1 lesson with Jenny Mason-Gunning which was invaluable to me as a printmaker (and a wonderful experience as a photographer!). There’s a real art to printmaking that does not end when you lay down your carving tools. Rather, that is just the start of the process and I’m still learning. I would encourage anyone who wants to try printmaking to give it a go - after all, all you really need is a wooden spoon……