Printing From A Line-Engraved Steel Plate

The finished steel plate, ready for the printer, presents a perfectly smooth, highly polished surface (sometimes chromium-plated) in which the lines to be printed are recessed. To ink this plate, a well-inked swab is smeared over its entire surface and well rubbed in so that every minute line will receive its full share of ink. The surplus ink remaining on the surface of the plate is carefully removed and, finally, the operator burnishes the plate, sometimes with the palms of his hands. The plate now seems to be without ink. In fact, however, every line, every tiny scratch, is filled to its surface with ink. The plate is now ready to print. A piece of moistened paper is carefully laid over the plate and both are passed under a felt roller under pressure. The paper is forced into the crevices of the plate and picks up the ink. The sheet of paper is now laid carefully aside to dry. Eventually it is pressed flat and made ready for the perforating machines. If produced in a rotary press, the paper is dry and all of the operations described are done mechanically, the finished stamps coming from the presses in a continuous roll.

This method of printing leaves lines of ink in varying depths - as they may have been engraved by the engraver on the original die - and because of this third dimension, the result is particularly pleasing. The tones and shadows are deeper and richer than can possibly be obtained from any method of relief or letterpress printing. This in itself is a considerable safeguard against the counterfeiter for he cannot duplicate this depth of ink without, in fact, actually using the identical method of printing. It is readily seen how difficult such a process would be. He cannot successfully reproduce the original die for this is completely handwork and, as every student of art is well aware, each artist leaves some mannerism peculiar to his work on each engraving he does.

Large rotary
Photo by Bureau of Engraving and Printing - Large rotary press.

For this reason the line-engraved steel-plate process is used almost exclusively by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at Washington, D. C, and by a select group of bank-note engravers who manufacture postage stamps and money for governments, and other securities where the utmost protection against counterfeiting is required. The number of expert engravers in the world is very small and their work is well known to all serious philatelists as well as to all others in the trade. Once a steel die has been cut, it is a permanent affair that, if kept carefully, will outlast the ages. This method of printing finds very little use in commercial channels and when so used the printing is done from the original dies usually on copper. The author knows of no instance where the multiple-subject plate method developed by Perkins is used in ordinary commercial channels.