Woodburytype Prints:
Redeveloping a 19th century print process

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The woodburytype process was a photo-mechanical process pioneered at the end of the nineteenth century by Walter. B. Woodbury.
As the first and only photographic printing method that renders an image as continuous tone it is unique in its capability to replicate the subtleties and details of a tonal image. The process involves casting warm gelatine mixed with pigment into a relief mould. Under the pressure of the press the excess gelatine is displaced, and once set, the gelatine is peeled off the mould revealing the image. Depth and tone correspond absolutely: the deeper the section of the relief, the deeper the gelatine and the darker the resultant tone.

Yet, despite its celebrated qualities, within a couple of decades of its invention the woodburytype was almost completely superseded by more commercially viable printing processes. At Factum Arte we wanted to resurrect this process with new technologies and develop contemporary applications. Walter Woodbury made his moulds by embossing bichromate gelatine into lead using a hydraulic press. The hydraulic presses used at the time would have been room-sized. Rethinking this initial stage of the process we have developed a way of precision milling the shallow relief moulds in aluminium. This method has the advantage of giving greater control over the depth of the relief and we have experimented with a range of Z depths. We are interested in the possibilities of being able to extenuate the relief surface visible on the print, as well as replicating the tonal process of the traditional prints. .

Arthur Prior devised a method of milling the plates

Removing the air bubbles from the gelatine ink mixture with a vacuum plumb before printing

Printing using gelatine as the ' ink' took a period of trial and error guided mainly from sources from the 1860s in order to find the right concentrations and the right papers.

Slowly pulling the paper and the set gelatine away from the mould. Note the corresponding relief surface of the print.

The printing stage has been realised by customising an old book press with engineer grade flat stones to ensure the precision of the relief is not distorted.

A test plate and corresponding print

Making of video

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