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Industrial Transfers and the Art of Decalcomania

Production of Transfers

The chromolithographic transfer technique used to produce most of the decals in the Museum’s collection facilitated the reproduction of the multicolour decorations, lettering and numbers on any surface including glass, metal or wood, offering a less expensive alternative to hand painting and brushwork.

The process of preparing transfers, though less expensive than the alternatives, was nevertheless quite complicated and required artistic skills and knowledge of printing techniques. First, the customer provided a master copy of the image to be reproduced. This copy usually included a detailed description of the design, size and colour dyes. Transfer manufacturers were allowed very little creative change to the master design, especially in the case of the coats of arms approved by the College of Heraldry. In some cases, however, artistic expression had to be compromised with function — the process of transferring imposed limitations on design and some elements of an image had to be simplified. After the master image was finalized, it was given to an artist-craftsman who was responsible for engraving it onto lithographic stones.

Instructions for the coat of arms of the Lancaster Company from Buenos Aires disclose handwritten descriptions of colours (“shaded gray and green”, “gold”, “green line”), and dated approvals of changes to the master design. (750129.389)

A rare coat of arms of the P & O Company; the extensive design and the blend of colours and shades was expensive to reproduce and difficult to transfer, and the arms were quickly abandoned by the company. (750129.406)

The image was first reproduced on a “key stone” that was not used for printing itself, but rather served as an outline, a lithographic “master copy,” for other imprints. Next the artist made one engraving for each colour used in the design. The colours and shades used on the image were carefully examined in order to prepare matching dyes. The image from a key stone was then impressed upon lithographic stones, producing as many duplicate plates as were required to print the colour image. Each area that required a different colour was engraved on a separate stone. The colour was inked in and preserved with a thin layer of gum arabic.

The application of the dyes followed a specific order of the transparent colours first and opaque last, which is the reverse of standard painting. The colour plates were then given to a pressman, who proceeded with the process of lithographic printing. The first imprint, done on an inexpensive paper, was called a proof; it was inspected for errors, colours were matched against the original design, and any alternations or directions were handwritten and signed by the lithographer.

Proof of the number 2 prepared by Tearne & Sons for the Great Eastern Railway (AK114.320)
The letters FCT, a monogram of the Taltal Railway Company, produced in reverse in order to transfer right side up (750129.364)

The creation of transfers required a high degree of skill. The image was impressed on the paper in reverse, in order for it to transfer right side up on the surface. Every stone had to be carefully aligned to complement perfectly succeeding colours, and with each added dye the face of the image was less visible to the pressman, making the process very time-consuming. The parts of the design that were to be filled with pure gold or silver were left empty until all the other colours were ready, at which point a coat of liquid metal was applied over the entire design.

Tearne & Sons transfers coated with gold leaf (AK114.854)

The transfer paper was very sensitive to environmental changes, expanding and shrinking with even slight variations in temperature and humidity, making it impossible to align the colours and complete the decal. As a result, many transfer shops were equipped with environmental control units. In fact, the Palm Brothers Decalcomania Company plant in Norwood, Ohio, was the earliest air conditioned building in the state.

The preparation of the decal paper was the most expensive part of the transfer making. Decal paper, classified as gummed paper, was not manufactured in mills but was prepared by transfer makers themselves or converters, also called coaters, who specialized in finish applications. One of the better-known coaters was Tullis Russell Brittains, a company that supplied paper to Tearne & Sons in England and Commercial Decal Incorporated in the United States.

An image of the Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway coat of arms printed directly onto a simplex paper; a single layer made the process of transferring difficult and the paper was later replaced by a duplex paper, which was easily separated from the image. (AK114.318)

There were two categories of decal paper: an older type “simplex,” or “single paper” that consisted of a single layer of a heavy water-penetrable paper sheet, and newer “duplex,” or “double paper,” made up of a non-porous paper and a thin tissue attached to it semi-permanently. The final image imprinted on both types of paper looked identical, and the two could be told apart only by carefully examining the edges of the transfer paper. The edge of the simplex was smooth, but the duplex often revealed the thin tissue separating the backings.

The surface of the transfer paper was coated with three layers. An undercoat was made of a starch filling evenly applied over the surface. When this coat was dry, the sheets of paper were polished between hot rollers. Then came a coat of glycerine that made the sheet pliant and prevented fractures in the starched surface. The last layer, called a transfer surface, consisted of starch, albumen and a solution of gum arabic. The sheets were then stored at a constant temperature, and allowed to season between each layer for up to thirty days. These special coats allowed the image to separate easily from the paper when transferred.