What is the oldest printing press technology?

Learn a little bit about the history of the printing press and printmaking, starting with the earliest printing press.

What is the oldest printing press technology?
Once upon a time, what was the earliest method of creating a printed document? Photo by Srdjan Ivankovic on Unsplash

Many of you will think that wood or copper engraving is the oldest printing press, and you would be right. But that's not the case. Screen printing is one of the newest ways to make copies of images. However, it has its roots in stencil printing, one of the oldest ways to make copies of pictures or silhouettes.

The earliest examples of stencil printing are the "leftovers" from Palaeolithic cave paintings. These paintings of antelope and graffiti of the human hand show that the hand was used as a stencil and paint was blown onto it. The Maros-Pangkep sandstone cave system on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is where the oldest hand shapes have been found so far. The carvings are thought to be about 43,000 years old.

As ancient societies grew, so did the ways they kept track of pictures, signs of belonging, and ideas. In the Fiji Islands, banana leaf stencils were used to print fabric, which is one of the oldest ways to use stencils.

The Tang Dynasty and the Stencil Screen: The Dynamic Idea behind the Net

China's Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 607 to 907, was a time of great political and cultural growth. China was growing quickly, and paper banknotes were introduced. Before Gutenberg, someone came up with the printing typeset. Along with the old Chinese religions of Taoism and Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism spread quickly.

It postulated that one's spiritual growth was closely linked to the practice of copying the Buddha image exactly. Emperors could build giant statues of the Buddha, and noblemen could commission xylograph boards to print in one or more colors, but the common man, who also wanted to experience spiritual growth, multiplied the Buddha's presence in the world with stencils.

The stencil screen is believed to have been invented in China. It should be stressed here, however, that the technological idea behind this screen, or rather the net, was different from the screen printing we know today.

The more complicated the stencil got, the more connecting bridges were needed to hold the parts together. These didn't make the image better in the end.

The human hair was attached to the wooden frame in both the horizontal and vertical directions, leaving 0.5 cm between each piece. On this hair net, the parts of the template were stuck. When the paint was put on, this net didn't leave much of a mark.

Early Printing Techniques: The Nara Period and the Origin of a Japanese Culture

During the Nara period in Japan, which lasted from 646 to 794 AD, Chinese customs, religion, art, and architecture were copied and adopted in a big way. Buddhist ideas also affected Setoku, the 48th ruler of Japan. She decided to print a million Buddhist sutras and send them all over the country. Trying to spread religious ideas helped the Japanese printing industry grow, which in turn led to the rise of a Shinto-inspired culture of looking at things closely.

The building of workshops got the Japanese excited, which led them to try out new ways to print that was better, faster, or more creative. There were a lot of strange ideas, like kirasuri, which is printing with mica powder, and gofunzuri, which is printing with opaque white ink on mica-coated paper. Kongriev, or relief duka, was popular, as was printing with xylograph blocks without using ink, yaki-e, which is burning a design with heated metal clichés, and fuki-e, which is spraying ink on the surface to be printed through a stencil.

Of course, the Japanese polychrome xylographic technique ukiyo-e is the one with the most history. Mountain cherry wood was used to make the boards, and blunt horse hair brushes were used to put the ink on. In addition to these different ways of printing, screen printing was used in the katazome as a cheaper alternative or as a way to print a lot of textiles at once.

Screen printing was often used with xylography. In the Kappazuri-e technique, the background was made with a stencil, and the lines were made with a wooden cliché.

After being closed off for 265 years, Japan showed a lot of art and architecture at the 1867 Paris International Exposition. The people of the West were able to see how Japan has been printing for hundreds of years. Post-impressionist painters, such as Vincent van Gogh, were blown away by Japanese art, especially works made with the ukiyo-e xylographic technique.

Screen Printing Technologies: The Early Years

But if you think back to the time and place when screen printing started, there were still several things that had to come together. Screen printing is thought to have started in the United States. Graphic signs and signs of all kinds, posters, designs for public events, and marketing materials were all big markets that needed a lot of them and often huge sizes from the manufacturer.

After one another, different places and people came up with new ways to use screen printing for different tasks. From 1830 on, Switzerland started making silk gauze, which was mostly used to sift flour. The squeegee is one of the most important tools in screen printing. It is used to pull the ink over a stencil, clean surfaces, or remove excess moisture. It started to be used slowly around the middle of the 19th century, but Ettore Stekone didn't patent the so-called Chicago squeegee, which is a spatula with a rubber squeegee, until 1937.

Samuel Simon of Manchester, England, got the first patent for screen printing in 1907. In this method, stencils are put over a frame and printed through silk gauze. But the USA is where screen printing really takes off as a business.

Usually, only one or two colors were used to print posters with text as the main part. Large-format screen printing was a very cheap way to make decorations for parties, campaign signs, and advertising banners. Let's think for a moment about O'Henry's eclectic world. The visual setting of America was the mass production of silk-screen workshops.

In the quest for quantity and profit, the quality of the work was often overlooked. As a result, the labor-intensive method of stencil cutting was replaced by lithography. In this method, the drawing was put on the screen with oily lithographic ink, and then glue was spread over the surface of the screen. After the glue had dried, the ink and glue that had been put on the oily pattern were washed off with kerosene.

The Development of Screen Printing Techniques

In the second decade of the 20th century, tests were done with chemicals that changed color when exposed to light. Roy Beck, Charles Peter, and Edward Owen studied chromic salt and did experiments with it to make photo-reactive stencils with sensitized emulsions. This invention changed commercial printing because it made it possible to put a photograph next to a letter stencil.

Since the 1950s, synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and metal meshes have been used instead of silk screen fabrics because they are more durable.

Screen printing has a lot of benefits, such as being able to print on almost any surface material and shape and in a wide range of print sizes. Another benefit is that the ink can be thicker. Depending on how dense the screen is, this can be done with a thickness of between 8 and 1000 micrometers. In offset printing, on the other hand, the thickness of the ink is limited to 1-2 µm. So, screen printing makes a color tone that is much stronger and more saturated.

Screen printing techniques have come a long way in just a few decades, and the printing industry has never had such a wide range of tonal expressions before. This is a natural reason for artists to be interested in screen printing. Thanks to the efforts of Anthony Velonis of the New York Municipal Projects Department, screen printing as an artistic genre was admitted to the experimental subsection of the Graphic Arts Department.

By 1942, screen printing had become the most popular way to make prints in the United States, even though the big events and big names were still to come. The two Marilyn Monroe paintings that Andy Warhol made in 1962 are often called "icon on the icon." Screen printing, along with the work of Pop Art artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Harry Gottlieb, has given our world a lot more color and vibrancy.