Lesson #13: Keeping the paper in order ...
(contributed by David Bull)
I read an article about printmaking quite some time ago in which the writer (who I think was an etcher), spoke quite disparagingly about woodblock printmaking. In his mind, it was a very unsophisticated craft, and I remember that one of the reasons he gave for his dislike was the variability of the materials used - the paper and wood. During the printing process they won't 'stand still' but are always expanding and contracting. It seems he wanted a bit more stability.
For me too, back when I had less experience, this variability was a huge problem. Every time I picked up a block it seemed to be a different size, and as the moisture in the paper decreased during the process, the sheets of course got smaller.
As I gained experience, I gradually got better at maintaining a constant level of moisture in the paper, but the blocks are more difficult to control. During a run of a hundred sheets or so, the wood absorbs moisture and inevitably starts to expand. Putting water on the back side helps keep it flat, but won't stop the general expansion. It is thus very common that in any batch of prints, the printed area on the later sheets in the batch is wider than that on the early sheets, and this difference can sometimes be quite considerable.
When one moves to the next block, it is important to keep this difference in mind, and to watch carefully as the printing progresses. The early sheets should register with no problems, but at some point during the run the difference will start to become apparent, and it will be necessary to adjust the position of the kento slightly, 'pulling' it back to account for the slightly wider paper. It may be necessary to do this a few times during the run.
It is thus vitally important that the order of the sheets in the stack is not disturbed. If they are mixed up at all, with 'wide' sheets being shuffled together with 'narrow' ones, proper registration of further colours will be completely impossible.
Before I learned this, I was in the habit of taking spoiled sheets from their proper place and putting them at the front of the pile, thus thinking that I would use these defective sheets as 'pioneers', as Fletcher calls them. Maybe on some images, those without critical registration, this is possible, but for delicate work - 'everybody in his place' is the rule to follow ...