Refresher Course

Appreciate the beautiful detail of recess-printed postage stamps

By Janet Klug

When asked to name a favorite stamp, many stamp collectors will select one that was recess printed. Recess printing goes by a lot of names: engraved, intaglio, line engraving, dry point, etched or gravure. These terms all refer to the initial process used to create the printing plates.

Figure 1. The canal steamer Juno as shown on a 1979 Swedish stamp. The design was engraved by Czeslaw Slania.
Figure 2. A close-up of design details in the line-engraved Swedish stamp shown in Figure 1. Magnified, the work of the engraver can be fully appreciated.
Figure 3. The National Postal Museum’s Arago website allows visitors to zoom in on every U.S. postage stamp and see the details. This is the 1948 Fort Bliss stamp.
Figure 4. Arago website zoomed in on the chicks shown on the 1957 Whooping Crane stamp that was printed in multiple colors on the Giori press.

There is much more to the printing process than that initial first step, but the first step is where the artistry occurs.

At its most basic form, an engraved stamp begins with a design carved into a soft metal plate by an engraver who uses a variety of tools to achieve the effects being sought. For a postage stamp, the design is small and thus the work is painstaking, requiring much skill, a steady hand and a great deal of patience. One wrong slip could ruin hours of work.

When the engraver has completed the work, the soft metal plate is hardened using a heat process. The next step is to create a roller die, which is a wheel of soft metal that is pressed into the hardened die, thus picking up the design in relief. The roller is then hardened and becomes the transfer roll.

The printing plate is made by using great pressure to rock the transfer roll into a soft metal plate as many times as needed to complete each image on the plate. The plate is hardened and used for printing the stamps. If more than one color is used, a plate for each color had to be made. The process was costly and tedious but it produced spectacular stamps that we collectors love to own.

Printing from the plates on hand-operated presses was also a tedious process. The engraved plate was affixed to the bed of the printer. The plate was inked and then the excess ink was removed so that the only ink remaining on the plate was the ink that settled into the engraved recesses. A sheet of paper was moistened and positioned over the plate. The press applied pressure that pushed the paper against the plate, thus picking up the ink that was in the grooves. When the press arm was released the paper was removed and set aside to dry.

As printing evolved, newer technologies changed recess printing. Some engraved stamps have fancy scroll work created by a mechanical process using a lathe to reproduce scrolling and geometric patterns. This saved time and still made beautiful stamps.

Nowadays, platemaking is computerized. The plates are usually cylindrical, not flat. High-speed presses can make hundreds of thousands of stamps in the time it took a hand press to make a single sheet of 100 images. And even with all of the technology involved, recess printing is still a costly way to produce postage stamps.

The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum produced a video in 1993 showing how stamps are printed. Although the Bureau of Engraving and Printing no longer prints postage stamps, it is still a treat to be able to see the steps taken to make a stamp. Search for the video title Printing Postage Stamps on www.youtube.com. You will see an engraver at work, a siderographer crafting the printing cylinders and the high-speed presses making stamps.

Even with all the modern technology involved, the postage stamps that trace their origins to etched plates are still a thing of beauty. Czeslaw Slania was arguably the most skilled engraver of our time. He left a legacy of stunning stamps that are unquestionably miniature works of art.

Figure 1 shows a Swedish 1.15-kroner stamp (Scott 1285) issued in 1979. It was engraved by Slania and features the historic canal steamer Juno. The details are so sharp that the image looks like it could be a photograph.

Figure 2 shows an enlargement of the stamp design that exposes the exquisite detail in the foliage, the boat and even the reflections in the water. Every detail was created by the master engraver making a perfectly placed gouge in a steel die. Once you have examined such a stamp under a magnifying glass, you can really appreciate the art and craft of engraving.

You can see many more of Slania's stamps by visiting the website www.slaniastamps-heindorffhus.com. There is a checklist on the site for those who wish to collect these miniature works of art.

The idea of looking at stamps closely to appreciate details that can go unnoticed is worth doing. All you need is a magnifying glass that will give you a good, crisp image. One that has a light that will shine on the image is even better, particularly if the light provides even illumination across the entire image. It isn't difficult to find a good magnifier, but you should try them out before you commit to buying.

Lacking a magnifying glass, you can zoom in on your favorite U.S. stamps by visiting the Arago website produced by the National Postal Museum. Arago has a close-up image of every U.S. stamp with zoom capabilities. You can really zero in on tiny details of each stamp. Try it yourself at www.arago.si.edu. You will be surprised at how fast time flies when you are zooming all the stamps as big as they will go.

A fun stamp to look at closely is the 3¢ Fort Bliss commemorative stamp (Scott 876) issued in 1948. It is a fun stamp because the triangular frame around the central rocket image is full of tiny surprises, such as a camel, horses, a stagecoach, a tank, perhaps everything except the proverbial kitchen sink. Figure 3 shows what the Fort Bliss stamp looks like zoomed on a computer screen to 100 percent, courtesy of Arago.

In 1957, a new printing press came on line at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that revolutionized recess printing, allowing for multiple colors to be used in the same press run. The first U.S. stamp to be printed on the Giori press was the 4¢ Old Glory stamp (Scott 1094), but the stamp that really showed off the abilities of the Giori press came out in November 1957: the 3¢ Whooping Crane stamp (1098).

A zoomed image from Arago of the stamp is shown in Figure 4. Zoomed on your own computer screen, you'll see that every detail of the chicks in the vignette is crisp and clear.

When is the last time you really looked at your stamps? If it has been a while, get out your magnifier or zoom to Arago and appreciate anew your favorite stamps. It took a lot of people with a lot of talent a lot of time to make them.