Lithography facts for kids

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Lautrec moulin rouge, la goulue (poster) 1891
Toulouse-Lautrec: La Goulou at the Moulin Rouge, a colour lithographed poster (1891)

Lithography (from Greek λίθος - lithos, 'stone' + γράφω - graphο, 'to write') is a method for printing using a stone (lithographic limestone) or a metal (steel or aluminium) plate with a completely smooth surface.

Lithography was invented in 1796 by Bavarian author Alois Senefelder as a low-cost method of publishing theatrical works. Lithography can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or other suitable material.

Introduction

Lithography originally used an image drawn in wax or other oily substance applied to a lithographic stone as the medium to transfer ink to the printed sheet. In modern times, the image is often made of polymer applied to a flexible aluminium plate.

The flat surface of the plate or stone is slightly roughened, or etched, and divided into hydrophilic (= water-loving) regions that accept a film of water and repel the greasy ink, and hydrophobic regions which repel water and accept ink. The image may be printed directly from the stone or plate (in which case it is reversed from the original image) or may be offset by transfer to a flexible sheet, usually rubber, for transfer to the printed article.

This process is different from gravure or intaglio printing where a plate is engraved, etched or stippled to make cavities to contain the printing ink, and in woodblock printing and letterpress where ink is applied to the raised surfaces of letters or images.

In the early days of lithography, a smooth piece of limestone was used (hence the name "lithography"—"lithos" (λιθος) is the ancient Greek word for stone). After the oil-based image was put on the surface, a solution of gum arabic in water was applied, the gum sticking only to the non-oily surface. During printing, water adhered to the gum arabic surfaces and avoided the oily parts, while the oily ink used for printing did the opposite.

The principle of lithography

Lithography uses simple chemical processes to create an image. For instance, the positive part of an image is a water-repelling ("hydrophobic") substance, while the negative image would be water-retaining ("hydrophilic"). Thus, when the plate is introduced to a compatible printing ink and water mixture, the ink will adhere to the positive image and the water will clean the negative image. This allows a flat print plate to be used, enabling much longer and more detailed print runs than the older physical methods of printing (e.g., intaglio printing, letterpress printing).

Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1796. In the early days of lithography, a smooth piece of limestone was used (hence the name "lithography": "lithos" (λιθος) is the ancient Greek word for stone). After the oil-based image was put on the surface, a solution of gum arabic in water was applied, the gum sticking only to the non-oily surface. During printing, water adhered to the gum arabic surfaces and was repelled by the oily parts, while the oily ink used for printing did the opposite.

Lithography on limestone

Litography negative stone and positive paper
Lithography stone and mirror image print of a map of Munich

Lithography works because of the mutual repulsion of oil and water. The image is drawn on the surface of the print plate with a fat or oil-based medium (hydrophobic) such as a wax crayon, which may be pigmented to make the drawing visible. A wide range of oil-based media is available, but the durability of the image on the stone depends on the lipid content of the material being used, and its ability to withstand water and acid. After the drawing of the image, an aqueous solution of gum arabic, weakly acidified with nitric acid HNO3 is applied to the stone. The function of this solution is to create a hydrophilic layer of calcium nitrate salt, Ca(NO3)2, and gum arabic on all non-image surfaces. The gum solution penetrates into the pores of the stone, completely surrounding the original image with a hydrophilic layer that will not accept the printing ink. Using lithographic turpentine, the printer then removes any excess of the greasy drawing material, but a hydrophobic molecular film of it remains tightly bonded to the surface of the stone, rejecting the gum arabic and water, but ready to accept the oily ink.

When printing, the stone is kept wet with water. Naturally the water is attracted to the layer of gum and salt created by the acid wash. Printing ink based on drying oils such as linseed oil and varnish loaded with pigment is then rolled over the surface. The water repels the greasy ink but the hydrophobic areas left by the original drawing material accept it. When the hydrophobic image is loaded with ink, the stone and paper are run through a press that applies even pressure over the surface, transferring the ink to the paper and off the stone.

Senefelder had experimented during the early 19th century with multicolor lithography; in his 1819 book, he predicted that the process would eventually be perfected and used to reproduce paintings. Multi-color printing was introduced by a new process developed by Godefroy Engelmann (France) in 1837 known as chromolithography. A separate stone was used for each color, and a print went through the press separately for each stone. The main challenge was to keep the images aligned (in register). This method lent itself to images consisting of large areas of flat color, and resulted in the characteristic poster designs of this period.

"Lithography, or printing from soft stone, largely took the place of engraving in the production of English commercial maps after about 1852. It was a quick, cheap process and had been used to print British army maps during the Peninsula War. Most of the commercial maps of the second half of the 19th century were lithographed and unattractive, though accurate enough."

Modern lithographic process

Gubernie zachodnie krolestwo polskie 1902
A 1902 lithograph map (original size 33×24 cm)

High-volume lithography is used presently to produce posters, maps, books, newspapers, and packaging—just about any smooth, mass-produced item with print and graphics on it. Most books, indeed all types of high-volume text, are now printed using offset lithography.

For offset lithography, which depends on photographic processes, flexible aluminum, polyester, mylar or paper printing plates are used instead of stone tablets. Modern printing plates have a brushed or roughened texture and are covered with a photosensitive emulsion. A photographic negative of the desired image is placed in contact with the emulsion and the plate is exposed to ultraviolet light. After development, the emulsion shows a reverse of the negative image, which is thus a duplicate of the original (positive) image. The image on the plate emulsion can also be created by direct laser imaging in a CTP (Computer-To-Plate) device known as a platesetter. The positive image is the emulsion that remains after imaging. Non-image portions of the emulsion have traditionally been removed by a chemical process, though in recent times plates have come available that do not require such processing.

Litography press with map of Moosburg 02
Lithography press for printing maps in Munich
Lithography machine in Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Lithography machine in Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The plate is affixed to a cylinder on a printing press. Dampening rollers apply water, which covers the blank portions of the plate but is repelled by the emulsion of the image area. Hydrophobic ink, which is repelled by the water and only adheres to the emulsion of the image area, is then applied by the inking rollers.

If this image were transferred directly to paper, it would create a mirror-type image and the paper would become too wet. Instead, the plate rolls against a cylinder covered with a rubber blanket, which squeezes away the water, picks up the ink and transfers it to the paper with uniform pressure. The paper passes between the blanket cylinder and a counter-pressure or impression cylinder and the image is transferred to the paper. Because the image is first transferred, or offset to the rubber blanket cylinder, this reproduction method is known as offset lithography or offset printing.

Many innovations and technical refinements have been made in printing processes and presses over the years, including the development of presses with multiple units (each containing one printing plate) that can print multi-color images in one pass on both sides of the sheet, and presses that accommodate continuous rolls (webs) of paper, known as web presses. Another innovation was the continuous dampening system first introduced by Dahlgren, instead of the old method (conventional dampening) which is still used on older presses, using rollers covered with molleton (cloth) that absorbs the water. This increased control of the water flow to the plate and allowed for better ink and water balance. Current dampening systems include a "delta effect or vario," which slows the roller in contact with the plate, thus creating a sweeping movement over the ink image to clean impurities known as "hickies".

Litography archive of the Bayerisches Vermessungsamt
Archive of lithographic stones in Munich

This press is also called an ink pyramid because the ink is transferred through several layers of rollers with different purposes. Fast lithographic 'web' printing presses are commonly used in newspaper production.

The advent of desktop publishing made it possible for type and images to be modified easily on personal computers for eventual printing by desktop or commercial presses. The development of digital imagesetters enabled print shops to produce negatives for platemaking directly from digital input, skipping the intermediate step of photographing an actual page layout. The development of the digital platesetter during the late 20th century eliminated film negatives altogether by exposing printing plates directly from digital input, a process known as computer to plate printing.

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