The Transfer Printing Process for Ceramics

A plate with a blue transferprinted design showing buildings, flowers, people, and animals. The plate is broken and repaired, with some small fragments missing.
This Spode plate is decorated with a transferprint pattern called "Italian." It was found by archaeologists at Fort Vancouver.

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Transfer printed ceramics are a common artifact type found at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Ceramic fragments often comprise almost 25% of archaeological assemblages from the fur trade era of Fort Vancouver (1825-1860), and transfer printed ceramics typically dominate. The transfer printed ceramics recovered during archaeological excavations and now in the national park's museum collection are almost 90& from one manufacturer: the Spode Company of Great Britain. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), the fur trade company that operated Fort Vancouver, had a nearly exclusive contract with the Spode Company to import their ceramics to the HBC's sites in North America.

The transfer printing process, involving transferring a design from an engraved copper plate to a ceramic vessel, is detailed below. The patterns engraved on the copper plates were used repeatedly to produce numerous tablewares. Many of these patterns have names and dates of production, providing archaeologists today with a catalog of information that can be used for artifact identification and site interpretation.

The Transfer Printing Process

Transfer printing refers to the method of transferring a design onto an unglazed earthenware vessel after an initial firing.

To begin the process, an artist's drawing was engraved onto a copper plate. See pictures of copper plates used in the transfer printing process at the Spode Museum Trust here.

Then, color made from inorganic metallic oxides mixed with oils were rubbed into the hot copper plate, and the excess was carefully scraped off.

The copper plate cooled. Then, tissue paper specially prepared with a soap sizer was placed on the copper plate. The paper and copper plate were run through a press, forcing the paper into contact with every line of the drawing.

The copper plate was then heated once more, to dry the paper and soften the color. Then, the tissue paper was carefully pulled away from the engraving, now with the image of the engraving printed on it.

Sections of the tissue paper print were cut out and positioned on the ceramic vessel. The paper was held in place by the tackiness of the color. For a plate or bowl, the center design was placed first, then the border. The print was rubbed down with a brush lubricated with soft soap.

Scroll down to see what happened next!
Small round plate with matte finish and the image of a rural scene in brown on it.
This image shows a plate with the tissue paper attached to it.

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A small plate with a rural scene on it in dark brown.
Next, the item was immersed in water. The tissue paper was washed off, leaving just the print behind. This image shows a saucer with the tissue paper removed.

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A small plate with a rural scene on it. The color of the print is now light purple.
The item was then fired at a low temperature to "harden on" the print. This allowed the maker to dip the item in glaze without damaging the design. As you can see in this photograph, the appearance of the color changed after firing.

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A small plate with a rural scene on it. The color of the print is light purple. Half of the plate has been dipped in white glaze.
This photo shows a saucer after firing with glaze on one half only, to demonstrate how the white glaze completely covers the design. Note that the color is not yet blue.

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A small plate with a rural scene on it printed in blue. One half has been glazed and the colors are bright blues. The other half has not been glazed, and the colors are a duller blue.
The item was then fired to 1070 degrees centigrade. The brilliant blue part of this saucer has a final, clear glaze. The darker matte blue is an unglazed portion shown as a comparison.

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A small plate with a rural scene on it in bright blues.
The well-known and popular blue and white color is finally revealed! The reaction of the silica in the glaze with the cobalt in the color produced the famous Spode blue. This saucer was completely glazed, then fired to show a finished product. The pattern name is "Italian."

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Learn more about Spode!

See examples from the Fort Vancouver museum collection and learn more about Spode patterns.

Learn more

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: December 14, 2021