With the advent of printing from
moveable type, came the dominance of paper over vellum as the material of
choice for books. I am sure that the high cost of vellum compared to that
of paper probably contributed to its decline as well. Even so,
proportionally, more books were printed on vellum in the first fifty years
of printing than at any other time, in part, because fifteenth-century
printers were actively competing with the manuscript. In every great
period of printing, a few copies of an extraordinary edition, usually
presentation copies, were often printed on vellum. Christopher Plantin’s
eight-volume polyglot Bible, produced between 1569 and 1572, aptly
illustrates this point. There were 1,200 sets on a variety of papers and
twelve on vellum, although for financial reasons, in eleven of the vellum
sets, two of the eight volumes were printed on paper. Each vellum copy
required more than 2,300 skins. A few contemporary handpress printers have
experimented with printing on vellum, most likely influenced by William
Morris’s decision to issue some of his editions on vellum as well as
paper. For example, his The Works of
Geoffrey Chaucer (1896) was in an edition of 425 copies of which
thirteen were on vellum.
In the pre-twentieth-century printer’s
manuals I have examined, the only one that even mentions printing on
vellum is Harpel’s Typograph
(1870, p.234) by Oscar Henry Harpel. The extent of Harpel’s comments on
vellum is brief: “Printing on parchment is sometimes troublesome because
of the animal fat that remains in the parchment. By rubbing the sheet over
with a piece of cotton, dampened with purified benzine, previous to
printing, a good impression can be had. But generally, if high grade ink
is used, with little or no reduction by varnish, it will print parchment
well.” W.W. Pasko, in his American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmaking (1894, p.427),
mentions that “one out of four skins is spoiled upon the press.” Not a
very encouraging statistic. It is not my intention to dampen your
enthusiasm, but I should also point out that vellum today costs
approximately ten times more than the finest grade of handmade paper.
One of the most informative statements
about printing on vellum appears in the following letter of instructions,
dated January 6, 1902, which William H. Bowden, an overseer at the
Kelmscott Press, sent to Horace Hart at the Oxford University Press:
In the first place, it is necessary
that the vellum should have just a little more than a suspicion of
dampness (not enough to make the sheet cockle) and this is best got by the
Well wet down
half a ream of good stout white paper (equivalent in weight to 60lb.
demy). This should be well turned for about 3 or 4 days, and kept in a
vellums are to be printed, this paper should be brought out, and a skin
put in about the middle; a flat board should be placed on top, and, on top
of that, a ream of paper to act as a weight. Only put in one skin at a
After the skin
has been between the damp sheets from 30 to 45 seconds, according to the
thickness of the skins, it should be printed at once and not waved in the
air more than can be helped.
printing, the skins should be interleaved with dry paper (and not kept
damp), and the same process gone through in printing the re-iteration.
This allows of perfect register being got.
Print the rough
side of the vellum first on the inner forme. This is important as the
skins spoil on the rough side more frequently than on the smooth.
Always print one
more vellum than the number required, in case of accident; and if there
are any heavy borders or large initials, two should be pulled. This will
be found in the end to be a great saving.
As hardly two
skins are of the same thickness, the Pressman must use judgment as to the
impression. The impression should be rather dwelt on.
It is best to
work off both sides of the skin in black first, before printing the red,
as red ink has a great tendency to run on damp skin. The red should be
printed when the skin is quite dry.
Anyone wanting to print seriously on
vellum should consult The Mystique
of Vellum (1984) by Richard Bigus. Bigus is one of the few
contemporary printers who has actually printed books on vellum. There are
also two other shorter, but very informative, publications on vellum that
would be of interest to handpress printers: Decherd Turner’s
introduction to the exhibition catalog, One Text, Two Results (1991), at Southern Methodist University, and
Penny Jenkins’s article “Printing on Parchment and Vellum” in The
Paper Conservator, v.16 (1992, pp.31–39).
Here is a short list of things to
remember when printing on vellum:
vellum has a
hair and a flesh side alternate the sides the same as you would with wire
and felt sides of paper separate the skins into piles by weight be sure
the skins have been degreased vellum requires very little, if any,
dampening prepricking the holes for the points is recommended run
sufficient tests on the ink to find the one best suited for vellum