Two years ago, whilst making the first of our CRTV films (now featured on the CR iPad app), Hugh Frost of Landfill Editions introduced us to the ‘Risograph digital duplicator’ with which he was producing artist books and zines as well as prints from his studio in east London.
Frost explained how this mysterious machine worked. “It kind of looks like a photocopier but actually works more like screenprinting,” he explained. “You print one colour at a time and reprint over the top to build up colours. In the last few years it’s become more popular with graphic artists who love the flat colours it produces. It’s got an aesthetic similar to screenprinting but with much less set-up time.”
The photocopier-like Risograph printers were first invented and produced in the 1980s by Japanese company Riso – the same company that had given the creative community the Print Gocco 1977, a toy-like desktop screenprinting device that is sadly no longer made despite online campaigns to save it.
In 1984 Riso launched the Risograph 007, “a full-auto duplicator-printer with a built-in master-making mechanism”, which was the first duplicator that didn’t require any manual fooling about to load a stencil onto a print cylinder. The machine produced the master (stencil) internally and applied it to the print drum. It was designed to print in large volumes at high speed with low running costs and be as easy to use as a photocopier. However, despite the fact that Risograph printers have been around since the 80s, it’s only relatively recently that the technology has been embraced by the graphic art community.
“Over the last 20 years, churches, schools, printers and political parties have been the biggest buyers and users of Risograph printers,” says Nigel Pane, proprietor of Apple Office Supplies in Southampton, which is one of the UK’s largest sellers of Risograph machines, both new and fully refurbished. “These new art-based buyers and users of Risograph printers have only really materialised in the last two or three years,” he says.
And this Riso boom is by no means limited to the UK. Groups devoted to incorporating Riso into their practice have sprung up all over the world from Ditto Press in London, to Rizzeria in Sydney and the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild, Chez Rosi in Brussels, Risographique in Berlin, and Barriobajero in Stockholm.
“Riso printing is definitely booming,” maintains Charlie Hood, manager of east London bookshop, gallery and coffee shop, Beach London. “About 90% of the publications and prints we sell at the moment are Riso printed. In a way Riso is nicer than screenprinting and up-and-coming artists find it a bit more accessible. All you need is one, albeit quite big, machine (compared to all the stuff you need for screenprinting). It’s got this sort of chemically, machined look to it but it also retains a real handmade quality. A lot of the time it’s quite difficult to align the different colour layers (compared to screenprinting) and it’s a little bit unpredictable in terms of results, which can yield nice and unplanned effects.”
A Risograph printer creates a master from PDF artwork (or by a photocopy-style scanning process). This image is then sent to a thermal print head which melts and thus perforates the polyethylene (PE) layer of a master film which consists of a PE and hemp paper laminate. The master is then transferred, PE side out, to a drum that contains the printing ink. The ink is pulled up into the hemp layer of the master and pressed through the perforated PE at the moment a sheet of paper passes over the rotating drum that contains the ink. The perforations in the master allow ink to pass, thus forming the image on the paper.
Each master can be used up to around 8,000 times before wearing out, and the drum can be changed easily to load up a different colour. There are currently around 20 colours in the Riso soya-based colour ink range although it is possible to have your own bespoke colour made up as long as you’re ordering around 20 colour tubes, according to Page. The Lib Dems, apparently, have their own ‘Liberal Democrat Gold’.
“They’re quite sturdy machines,” adds Page, “though they can go wrong – they misfeed from time to time, although it really depends on the volume of work the machine is doing. I’m far more likely to get a call from the Lib Dems, who use their Riso machine a lot for printing internal communications and their Focus magazines, to service a Riso than I am from one of the new breed of arty users.”
So what is it about Riso printing that makes it an attractive print option for graphic artists?
Well, they’re cheap and reliable, as Elliott Denny of Victory Press explains. “A Riso costs next to nothing to run. Ink costs around £60 for two tubes with each one capable of doing around 10,000 prints at 5% coverage, so it really is properly cheap to print stuff. I guess because the process uses spot colours, the closest types of printing to it would be screenprinting or litho. The Riso provides a perfect middle ground because I can do a run of ten to a few thousand relatively easily. With litho you have to commit to at least 500 copies of something before it becomes cost effective or even affordable.”
Subtle and dappled
Riso print also has a certain quality all of its own, says Anna Fidalgo, one half of design duo Crispin Finn who work with London-based Ditto Press to create various products which they design and sell as part of their practice. “A Riso print holds its ground next to a screenprint,” she says. “It achieves a subtle, dappled, old printed quality that is sort of reminiscent of old printed matchbooks. The colours often have a slight transparency but also the finish is a beautiful matt that sits somewhere between ‘on’ and ‘in’ the paper.”
Tom Edwards cites another reason he and fellow illustrators like Riso: because unlike digital printing, it’s not a particularly consistent process, which means, he says, “that every print or book is slightly different which is always a good thing”.
“The machine isn’t at all perfect,” explains Denny. “You do get mis-registering and it doesn’t always perfectly print large areas of block colour, and if there’s too much ink on the front edge of the print, it might jam … but for me it’s an interesting process because of these idiosyncrasies.”
Denny is also interested in using his Riso printer beyond its stipulated functionality. His printing of Edwards’ A3 format Riso book, Nine Tales, caused much excitement among Riso fans when it was released earlier this year through Beach London because of its size. Risos can only take sheets up to A3 and yet Edwards’ book looked as though it must have been printed on A2 paper. “If you fold the paper, you can fool the machine into thinking it’s taking A3,” Denny says by way of explanation. “Actually, you can do this all the way up to A1,” he says. “You just can’t put anything through that adds up to more than 400gsm. As soon as I got my first A4 Riso as a student for £70 on Gumtree I worked out I could print A2 by folding the sheet in four. You can’t print over the creases so you have to design around them and I think all that stuff is interesting. I’m also interested in how I can combine Riso printing with screenprinting, even with using my old mimeograph to add things that Riso can’t do like metallic inks or spot varnishes.”
Cheap but sophisticated
Quite why it’s taken the world of graphic art 20-something years to embrace the Risograph is a mystery, but the combination of cheap running costs, spot colour printing, and ever more sophisticated machines being brought out by Riso (some recent models have two colour drums so can print two colours in one pass) means that more and more design studios and illustration collectives are looking to acquire one. A reconditioned second hand machine from Page’s Apple Office Supplies will cost between £1,200 and £1,500 with a brand new one costing around £3,000. Of course, potential purchasers can do as Denny did a couple of years ago and look for a second hand bargain on a website such as Gumtree or eBay.