Problems of the Penny Plates
A brief study by John A. McCulloch

From the beginning of the Penny Black Plate 1, through Plate 131, the creation of the plates depended entirely upon the skill of the platemaker. Very little in the way of mechanical aids had yet been developed, and as a result, most of the plates show markings which aid in assigning a copy to its printing plate.Plate 71
A block from Plate 71.
This is a brief overview of the process of creating the printing plates used for the Line Engraved stamps. Understanding of the 'what' and 'how' involved will aid in examining the examples that follow. While most areas of interest have been enlarged, some images can be viewed in a larger format, for example, the block at left.

The Die

Plating Index

Plated Examples
G.B. Stamps

Printing Method

In 'line-engraving' or 'intaglio' printing those details which are to appear in color are cut or 'recessed' into the printing plate. During the printing process, the printer covers the whole of the plate with the appropriate color of ink, and works it into the recesses of the design. He then 'wipes' the flat surface clear of the excess ink, leaving the proper amounts of ink in the recesses. Dampened paper is then laid onto the plate, and passed beneath a roller under heavy pressure. This action forces the paper into the recessed design, causing the ink to adhere to the paper. On the finished product, the ink is raised from the 'flat' surface of the paper. This gives the texture so well associated with engravings.

The Master Die

The 'die' or Master Impression is cut into a block of 'soft' steel somewhat larger than the finished design. The engraving work may be done by machine or by hand. in the case of the first stamps, the curled background was produced on the "ROSE" machine, an invention of Mr. Perkins. The area to contain the Queen's bust was 'cleared' of the background and entered by the Heaths, a father and son team. The Heaths also engraved the corners, 'stars' and the "POSTAGE" and "ONE PENNY" tablets. After proofing and acceptance, the die was 'hardened' and made ready for processing the transfer rollers.

Transfer Rollers

The transfer rollers were made from softened steel cylinders and were approximately one and one-half inches wide by three and one-half inches in diameter. Each roller could take up to seven impressions, or reversed copies of the master die. These impressions were made by rocking the roller along the design area of the flat die. Pressure between the roller and the die was slowly increased until the softer steel of the roller had formed ridges to exactly fit the recesses in the master die.

The rollers were then subjected to the hardening treatment, and were ready to make the actual printing plates. Until the inclusion of the plate numbers in the design, the transfer rollers were used for several plates in succession, until damage or wear made then unservicable. This is confirmed by the presence of several minor or progressing flaws, which begin in one plate and are continued to others. These flaws are of prime importance to students of these plates, as they narrow the stamp being examined down to a group of plates, or in some cases to a single plate. Most of the flaws were the result of the breaking off of a ridge of metal carrying the design. If this were noticed, the transfer roller would be rotated to the next unused impression on the roller, and the laying down of the plate would continue. It would have to be a relatively large flaw to be seen during the 'rocking in' process, and would most likely be discovered when the 'proof sheet' was taken of the nearly finished plate. If the flaw were sufficently objectionable, the impression(s) on the plate might be erased, and a new impression made. These corrected impressions are termed 'Fresh Entries'. The same process would be used to correct a major mis-alignment of the impression, especially where its position would infringe upon the space required by the adjoining impression. Impressions corrected or repaired by use of a roller, after the plate had been approved and put to press, are called 'Re-Entries'.

All of the flaws mentioned to this point would appear as clear or white areas, but colored flaws do exist. Colored flaws stem from a piece of foreign matter adhering to the transfer roller or laying on the surface of the plate. When the roller was rocked into the plate, this substance would act just like a ridge on the roller, and create a recess in the plate in the same manner as the design. Other colored marks might be caused by the incomplete erasure of a faulty impression and are signs of a Fresh Entry or a Re-Entry.

Printing Plates

The printing plates were also begun with softened steel, of a size that would accomodate the required 240 impressions. To enter each of these impressions, the plate was lightly marked in a grid fashion, twelve units by twenty. The roller was aligned by eye over the position for the impression and slowly rocked into the plate. Again, just as in the taking of the transfer roller impression, the softer steel of the plate gave way before the harder ridges of the roller. Pressure was increased with each rocking until the design was completed.

Because of the forcing of the roller ridges into the plate metal, small bulges of metal called 'burrs' were pushed up at the top and bottom of the design. These bulges were usually burnished out by hand in the touching up process. In the beginning the exact method of laying down the impressions was not consistant, as some of the plates were laid out from bottom to top in vertical columns, some in horizontal rows, and others were worked from the middle out. This was a time of trial and error to find the most workable method of manufacture.

Check Letters

The small letters in the corners of these stamps were intended as a precaution to forgery attempts. Each stamp in the plate carried an unique combination of check letters. The top left stamp, as printed, began with "AA". That is to say the "A" row, on the "A" column. A combination of "GB" would be the second stamp in on the seventh row. These check letters were punched in by hand after the plate was otherwise completed. The space allotted, the physical size of the punch and holder, and the lighting conditions combined to give inaccurate positioning of the letters. For the specialist in this area, exact measurement of these letters can provide a major clue to the identification of the subject's plate number. Noted flaws and other markings complete the identification.

Three distinct sets of letters were used in this punching process and a fourth style was engraved by hand on two plates. There were multiple punches of each set of letters, with some having flaws of their own, causing sub-varieties. The linked pages of examples deal with only the first set of punches, commonly termed Alphabet I. These appear on all the 'black' plates (1-10), and on the subsequent 'red' plates through Plate 131. (Plate 11 was first pressed in red, and thus it is truly part of the second group of plates!)

Plated Examples
G.B. Stamps