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Split Fountain Printing

By Richard Sheaff

Split fountain printing is a time-honored technique for printing in two or several colors in one pass. It was a way to have more colorful pieces without the expense of full color. Modern printing presses have ink trays, or “fountains”, situated above the press sheet. Rollers below then spread the ink evenly across the width of the job. To print split fountain, multi-color in one pass using just one ink tray, the operator carefully places the different colored inks next to each other in the tray, and as the job runs all of the colors appear, bleeding into each other somewhat where they border.

The principle was basically the same in times past (and now) with other printing processes . . . letterpress, lithography, silkscreen or even steel engraving (though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the technique on steel or copperplate engraving, but imagine that it likely has been proposed or used as a security measure). However the job was physically inked, the different colors were arranged to be touching each other for printing in one impression. (Note: printing several non-touching inks in one pass, differential inking, is also done, but that is another subject.)

This reward of merit shows an early baseball game scene on the left. According to Al Malpa, a partial uncut sheet bears the imprint at the bottom of printer Bassett, Church Street, New Haven.

Split fountain technique was sometimes used within type characters . . .

Specimen advertisement in a promotional book out by the Baltimore Sun in1876. The type examples were to demonstrate the capabilities of their Chromatic Press, which is discussed at some length in the text. It was a split fountain arrangement, which printed this page in three abutting colors in one impression. Below is a woodcut of that printing plant.

The Crump Label promotional piece below, interestingly, shows faux split fountain printing: looks like split fountain but is not.

Split fountain printing has been used in all sorts of ways.

The psychedelic poster designers of the 1960’s reveled in split fountain.

And nowadays it pops up in all sorts of places . . .