Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

11. Pottery Technology 2

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11.9 Transfer Printing

Transfer printing was a technique to raise consistency and productivity in painting pottery, both under and overglaze. It allowed mass production techniques to be applied to ceramic decoration as the process could be carried out by workers with lesser skills than the artists. As it is suitable for curved surfaces it can be used on all body shapes. The designers would produce the design they required for the decoration of the item. Transfer printing was originally based on a copper plate that artists carefully engraved with the desired pattern or scene.

”Ted” engraving a copper plate - courtesy Worcester Porcelain Museum

”Ted” engraving a copper plate
- courtesy Worcester Porcelain Museum

One engraved copper plate was required for each separate colour or for gilding. To reduce costs it was usual to have one underglaze transfer print colour, mainly cobalt blue, and then subsequent overglaze transfer prints or hand painting could be used to complete the decoration such as for flowers, leaves and clothing. Initially the paint or gold was rubbed hard into the incisions in the copper plate by hand. Later on the paint was often mixed with oil and heated to allow it to “flow” easier into the engraving, and then the excess would be removed.  A sheet of tissue paper, sometimes gummed, was dampened with soapy water and pressed onto the plate to pick up the colour pattern from it, assisted by passing paper and plate through heated rollers. When carefully peeled off, the reverse image of the pattern in paint was transferred onto the paper.  

Obtaining a transfer print from an engraved plate - courtesy Worcester Porcelain Museum

Obtaining a transfer print from an engraved plate
- courtesy Worcester Porcelain Museum

The tissue paper was then carefully cut into appropriate pieces. The biscuit or first-glazed ceramic object was warmed and a sticky varnish applied where the print was to be located. Each piece was applied, sometimes using a device shaped like a bat or gummed white fabric, to the pottery body and rubbed hard. The print had to be very carefully applied to the item, as, once placed, it was impossible to move the pattern to relocate it. It was clearly a very skilful process. When the paint was dry the tissue paper would then be washed off with a wet sponge leaving the paint transfer adhering to the body. If it was on a biscuit body, that is underglaze, then it would be glazed over and fired in the glaze kilns, whereas overglaze prints would be fired in the muffle kilns. Early on, the quality was not very good with patterns becoming smeared, probably because the paper was too inflexible. Early overglaze transfer printing used black, red and brown colours. Initially these overglaze patterns tended to wear off, but this was soon overcome. The early transfer printing process was quite time consuming and hence relatively expensive. Transfer printing was first used in England at Bow and in 1757 at Worcester. Polychrome transfer printing started in 1760 in Liverpool, and became common in the early 19th century, and also included gilding.

The process of preparing the copper plate progressed to use photolithography, which was based on coating the plate with a photosensitive material (resist), and exposing it to light in the form of the desired pattern. This hardened the exposed resist but not where it was unexposed. Then the unexposed resist was dissolved away and the copper so exposed etched with a copper etch such as ferric chloride to form the transfer printing plate.

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