Printing a Patriotic Eagle on an Envelope Flap

My CutCardStock blogging colleagues have been sharing some fun ways of modifying envelopes this month. With Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July holidays coming soon, I incorporated a very handsome copper stereotype engraving into a back flap envelope return address design and am sharing the process with you today.

My post addresses some of the challenges that letterpress printers face when printing return address information on envelopes, and I am calling on my first edition of Ralph W. Polk’s Elementary Platen Presswork to make sure I get it right! I will be using some elegant Savoy Bright White 100% Cotton A2 Envelopes, a copper stereotype patriotic cut and some well-used but still attractive 80-year-old Canterbury metal types for this project that I printed in my shop, The Norlu Press.

The form consists of a copper sterotype cut and two lines of address text set in 24 point and 18 point Canterbury.

The venerable Polk (if you have a platen-style press and you do not have his book, you need to obtain a copy) wrote that there were two challenges printers faced when dealing with envelopes: (1) The construction of envelopes generally requires that they be fed upside-down to obtain the truest edge for the gripper and (2) The varying thicknesses of paper that an envelope presents require careful makeready to obtain an even amount of impression. This post will address both issues. (Note: Since you will be creating makeready, ensure that you have two smooth draw sheets (often called tympans) on your platen before you begin. The top draw sheet is for acquiring position, while the second draw sheet provides a surface for mounting the makeready. Also, to protect your type, remove some of your normal packing, since envelopes are thicker than many paper stocks.)

The best edge of a converted (cut, folded and glued together) envelope for a gripper (the part of the form furthest away from you when you are feeding the press) guide is the bottom. Since there may be a bulge or springy aspect in the envelope, this position provides the most stable surface. It requires, however, a lockup that produces an image that is rotated 180- degrees from what you usually see on your platen. You will, in effect, be printing upside-down (see photo below.)

When printing an address on the back flap on an envelope, rotate your form 180 degrees from the usual position, which presents an “upside-down” image on the platen.

Once you get beyond the non-standard appearance of your form on the top tympan sheet of your platen, obtain position and set your gauge pins as you normally would. Seal the gauge pins in position before moving forward with the next step. Since you are printing on multiple layers of paper that may have a bulge or springy aspect, you will want to align your grippers to hold the envelope firmly in place. To do this, you may need to add an extension gripper finger or stretch a rubber band across the grippers. In either case, be careful to avoid the image area of the form. The idea is to have the envelope lie flat on the platen when the form comes in contact with it on impression. My circa 1863 Gordon Old Style Jobber does not have grippers, so I have added a fourth gauge pin to the side, which is not part of traditional platen work, to flatten the flap (see photo below.)

When your press does not have grippers, using a fourth gauge pin on the side helps to keep the envelope flap down and in a flat position for impression. Press the tongue down as tight against the envelope as you are able. Add it after you acquire position, and be sue to back it off a bit from the true side guide so you do not disrupt position.

Now that we have addressed the challenge of obtaining a flat surface on our envelope flap, it is time to tackle the problem of the various thicknesses of an envelope. When printing a return address on the back flap, one usually only has to make ready on two thicknesses, but if you are “cornering” an envelope (that is, printing a return address on the front top-left area), the process can be a bit trickier, as there are multiple overlapping and glued sections in the corners. Today’s job is relatively easy, since it requires printing on the back flap. You can see the difference in impression with no makeready in the photo below.

The effect of printing on two thicknesses of paper can be seen in this photo of the envelope in position without any makeready. Note that the address line has too much impression. In addition to being visually unappealing and unprofessional, too much of this deep impression will ruin metal types.

Polk describes the process of envelope makeready as a combination of overlays (to build up thin areas) and cut-outs (to take away thick areas). Since our envelope has the address information printing on threelayers and the name and eagle cut printing on just two, start by cutting away one layer of the double-thick surface as shown in the photo below.

Cut away one thickness of paper to even the impression across the envelope. Other sections may require overlays to build up the surface, even after the cut-away is completed. This is especially true when printing with multiple kinds of type and with engravings or dies (commonly known as cuts.)

When you are satisfied that your makeready has evened all impression, moisten the glue on the flap and seal the envelope. Close down the front platen bale over your tympan and place the made-ready envelope in printing position on the platen, ensuring it is properly aligned on the gauge pins. Then, on the right side of the envelope, use an overlay or makeready knife (most of us use an X-Acto or similar knife these days) to stab a triangle into the envelope so that the apex points into the envelope and the triangle is approximately halfway on the envelope and halfway on the top tympan draw sheet. This stab should be no more than 1/4 to 3/8 inches in size, and only needs to be made with enough pressure to cut through the envelope and into the bottom draw sheet. Repeat the process along the horizontal edge of the envelope that is closest to you (see photographs below.)

Stabbing the envelope makeready when it is in position establishes points that allow the makeready to be be registered to the second draw sheet, underneath the top (printing surface) draw sheet.

Reopen the platen bale closest to you, apply glue around the margins of the the makeready, avoiding all printed areas and align the notches in the makeready to the corresponding stabs on the lower draw sheet. Affix the makeready to the lower draw sheet and place all existing packing (since your impression is correct, do not add any at this point) on top of the lower draw sheet as shown in the photos below.

Aligning the notched makeready with the stab marks in the lower draw sheet (left) and the makeready in position before adding packing on top of it (right).
Replacing the existing packing on top of the makeready. Note also that I have added a piece of tissue paper as an overlay on the eagle and name portion of the envelope to improve the consistency of the printed surface.

As in many cases, the hardest work on this job was the preparation. The high quality 100% Cotton Savoy envelopes from took the black ink produced by SouthernInk beautifully on press, and the result will be ready just in time for Memorial Day, Flag Day and Fourth of July note writing. Do you print envelopes in your shop? Is your process similar to Polk, or have you found a better method? I would be very interested in knowing, so please leave a comment, and as always, thank you for visiting the CutCardstock blog! (And also, please comment if you figured out who Jack Straw is!)

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