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Printing Presses

Published July 05, 2024 Updated July 20, 2024

Antique printing presses from the Turnhout Playing Card Museum collection.

Belgium Innovation Lithography Printing Steam-power Add to Collection

Above: Leonardo da Vinci's design for a printing press c.1480, Codex Atlanticus fol.995

The Turnhout Playing Card Museum has an impressive collection of antique printing machinery ranging from early hand-operated letterpress and lithographic to steam powered or electric lithographic and offset printing presses. While card making was still done by hand well into the 18th century, various graphical techniques for printing had already been developed in parallel, such as etching or copperplate printing. The new technologies introduced in the second half of the 19th century ultimately led to the triumph of chromolithography. As technology progressed the output and speed increased exponentially, paving the way for Turnhout's leading role in the industry with exports worldwide. There are plenty of information leaflets available in the museum which explain everything and the curator is very knowledgeable.

The earliest presses were built from wood and used woodblocks to print from. This way of working did not essentially change until the late 18th century: printed sheets of playing cards were produced manually by pressing the paper onto the blocks after the ink had been rolled on. However, these methods were superceded by innovations. Presses and the blocks began to be made from metal so that higher pressure could be exerted and work could proceed at a faster pace. Even so, a team of two workers produced printed sheets one at a time, working all day. In the early days output was around 500 sheets per day.

Early hand operated printing press from Turnhout Museum of Playing Cards
Early hand operated printing press from Turnhout Museum of Playing Cards

Above: increasing knowledge of mechanics and metallurgy brought innovations in the construction of printing presses so that it became possible to work faster. Images courtesy of the Turnhout Playing Card Museum, Belgium.


The Industrial Revolution brought innovations which made the old manual printing presses obsolete. Following the invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder in the years 1796-1798, printed matter including playing cards was transformed. To begin with, these machines were manually operated, but when connected to a steam engine the machines ran uninterruptedly, even at night-time. Water and ink were automatically spread over the lithographic stone with rollers and much larger print runs became possible, bringing higher profits to the owner. Another advantage of lithography is that if a proof was taken and seen to be defective, the artwork on the stone could be re-touched until everything was ready to go ahead.

How does a lithographic hand press work?

  • The printing form (the stone) was put on the wagon.
  • The stone was wetted and then inked.
  • A sheet of paper was put on the stone, with a few cover sheets for protection.
  • The scraper plate was brought down.
  • The printer then turned the capstan and pulled the wagon under the scraper.
  • The lithographer opened the scraper, the wagon was pulled back and the paper that was now printed was carefully taken off the stone.
  • The printed paper was hung up to dry.
Hand operated lithographic press with some handy tools
Lithographic printing press
Lithographic stone for Chinese cards for export to Far Eastern countries
Lithography press with drive belt coonecting to the line shaft Several lithographic machines

Offset printing machine

Above: all images courtesy of the Turnhout Playing Card Museum, Belgium.


Photographic Archives

With the steam engine it became possible to use bigger machines that were too heavy to be powered manually. The steam engine was often accommodated within a separate building with a boiler and a tall chimney. A large driving wheel was connected to the various machines via a drive shaft and belts. Much of the traditional craftsmanship and artisan skill disappeared to be replaced by engineers, technicians and machine minders. Inside the factory environment - typically a large hall - the machinery was aligned as directly as possible with the energy source.

Van Genechten, 1937

The Steam Engine

The steam engine provided many benefits to the playing card factory, such as heating and the drying of printed paper. The whistle, also powered by steam, marked the beginning and end of working hours. The steam engine was the force behind the so-called Industrial Revolution. Without it, industrialisation would not have been possible. Later on it also enabled the generation of electric power. See the steam engine

The Steam Engine Brepols, 1911 Machine workshop

Above: all images by kind permission of the Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart / Turnhout Playing Card Museum, Druivenstraat 18 B-2300 Turnhout, Belgium.

References

Museum information sheets:
  • Turnhout, City of Playing Cards
  • Woodcuts
  • Printing Presses
  • Lithography
  • Steam Engines
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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.


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