Monday, September 13, 2010

Scratchboard Technique for Letterpress

I wanted to produce some very high contrast artwork for Letterpress use. I can't think of a higher contrast media than Scratchboard, or "Clayboard". This is a media that I used with my first Letterpress operation "Heirloom Press" in Palm Harbor, Florida. Back then, the images were shot using high contrast line film by Southern Engravers. These days, this sort of thing is scanned and processed as a vector image, then sent to a plater for a Letterpress die.

The above subject is a Golding Pearl Old Series No. 3. I used both the photocopy of a 19th century engraving and my own 1909 Pearl. Hence, some differences.

Clayboard, or Scratchboard, is traditionally a stiff paper or board [in my case, tempered masonite] layered with a white clay or chalk substance, then covered with an even coating of black India ink. The idea is to scratch through the ink to expose the white clay beneath. The result is essentially an engraving, which can very much take on the personality of a woodcut or wood engraving. The size of the above piece is 5x7 inches.

Here is a close-up. You can see that I am not yet finished, I have yet to do the ink disk and flywheel. Then, I'll "open" up the white background to create a black border. Now, this is my first crack at doing this in twenty-odd years, so the old hand-eye factor is a bit rusty. Critical evaluation tells me that this particular image may not be so well suited for plating, the lines on much of the shading are really too thin, and will not reproduce well as a vector. If I send a high pixel image (1200 dpi or higher) to be reproduced photographically it would be a trick to keep the very shallow lines from filling in. So my next attempt will be less "shaded" and more "woodcut" looking.

I will add that Clayboards can be touched up with pen and ink. Just as the ink is scratched away, corrections and additions can be made by re-applying ink, letting it dry, and doing a re-work of any given area. I will probably take a Rapidograph pen to some small parts of this piece.

I want to create a Kelmscott Press looking Book Plate. I think this technique can provide a good artboard resource.

That's it for this installment. And as always, Best of Providence in your Letterpress endeavours!


  1. Nice work. Been a while since I worked a clay board. Looks like you haven't lost any ground. Or at least you were so good before that you could afford the sabbatical.

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  3. Heh, thanks, Justin. I'll take that compliment and run with it! I really need, however, to get some regular scratchboard tools. The Exacto knife is fine . . . but it tends to want to pull to one side or other