The Iron Frog Press: “It’s allowed me to contribute to the advancement of printmaking”

Even now, three or four years into my printing life, I’m still trying to find the right tools for the craft. My baren – the actual thing you press and smooth the paper onto the plate with – leaves a lot to be desired.

I know people use wooden spoons for home printing, but I can’t really get with that, so I use one of those ‘my first baren’ things that’s crude, plastic and will probably break very soon. Plus the angle it requires from my wrist is all wrong.

But other printers I meet have all manner of solutions for the task of actually getting good ink coverage from a handprint, from home presses to rolling pins and more.

A good baren can make all the difference, so I was intrigued by the US company, The Iron Frog Press, and its dedicated quest to bring better ones to the printing community. Formed by husband and wife Sharon and Matt Bagley, the pair make high quality, hand blown glass barens aimed squarely at the printer.

For full disclosure, I don’t own one of these, I just wanted to know more.

Although, my 40th birthday is just round the corner guys…

 

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Hi Matt. before you created the Print Frog, were you both printers?

Sort of. Sharon is a professional photographer but she’s gotten a lot more involved with printmaking as a result of the Print Frog. I jokingly say she’s a printmaker through marriage. Actually, we did meet in the printmaking studio at university. All the photo majors were required to take printmaking and when Sharon took it I was the lab monitor.

I’ve been a printmaker for over 25 years. I studied printmaking at the University of North Texas. After graduation, I worked as a press operator for several years. I ran a Webtron flexographic press. I printed mostly food and chemical labels, but every now and then I got the chance to print my own artwork. In 2008, I started Iron Frog Press to encourage more fine art printing in our Dallas community. The Print Frog was initiated in 2012.

How did the idea come about?

I had a project where I was having difficultly printing an image cut into a twisted cherry block. The only way I could pull a complete impression was using my trusty old wooden drawer pull baren. I was dreading the edition process because I have fairly severe repetitive strain injuries all over my right arm.

In a conversation about my problem, a friend made a crack, “Well, if you knew a glass blower…” I did, and he owed me a favor. I asked him to make one but he made me about 40. They performed way above expectations. We quickly sold out and I never intended to have more made. But printmakers wanted them and I was being asked from people around the globe when they could get a Print Frog.

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Was there simply nothing good enough on the market?

Yes. Finding high-performing tools for hand printing was non existent. Most printmakers learned to print with with a wooden spoon. They’re cheap and work well, but are uncomfortable and very inefficient for editioning. Any barens that were available were usually cheap plastic toys. And expensive Japanese ball bearing and traditional Hon barens could be ordered, yet they had limitations too.

So most of my colleagues who seriously hand printed made their own barens or retrofitted household objects like doorknobs, baby food jars, drawer pulls, metal bowls and so on. These all worked, but quickly became tedious and painful for larger or multi-block editions. I used two drawer pulls glued together for over 20 years and now I’m suffering for it. So by the time the Print Frog originated I was well aware that an efficient, comfortable and some what affordable baren was not available.

They’re very beautiful looking things – I assume this was intentional?

No, not at all. I was just being open minded to what the best material for a baren could be. Glass is beautiful, but it posses so many other properties that make it the ideal hand printing tool. It’s smooth, heavy and glides across the paper so easily that a 5-year old can quickly master it. Glass is impervious to all inks, and chemicals and solvents can be easily wiped off.

Our ‘Studio’ models are made of recycled glass and are hand blown. Our ‘Pro’ models are hand-crafted from borosilicate glass. Borosilicate glass is a much higher quality material and has the added bonus of being heatproof. It’s the perfect tool for encaustic monoprinting. The overall shape harmonised with the wonderful properties of glass, the Print Frog is an outstanding example of Gestalt…

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What are the benefits?

I actually get to use the baren of my dreams! I do have a 48”x72” Conrad monoprinting press in the studio. It’s an awesome press for large woodblocks, but I still tend to print most of my color multi block small pieces with the Print Frog. It effortlessly prints on mulberry and kozo type papers, but it can also be used on a variety of substrates such heavy etching paper, vellum, copy paper and transparent silk.

After developing the Print Frog I discovered it was an extremely versatile printmaking tool. As well as printing, I use it in paper-making, for chine-collé, folding heavy paper, tagging paper for registration and anywhere you need an extremely clean weight. Some users have given reports of it working on intaglio and bleed-edge lithography too. Eric E. Coleman, who teaches at Penland School of Crafts, used the Print Frog to help cutout a head-gasket for a VW engine!

It’s been a great way for me to connect with the international printmaking community. Printmaking is an inherently collaborative medium, since there are many steps, completing projects often involve more than one person. Printmakers face many of the same challenges and dilemmas. There’s a fellowship of the medium and printmakers are eager to share ideas, solutions and even artwork.

The Print Frog has allowed me to contribute to the advancement of printmaking. It encourages printmakers to continue their craft, because you can setup a print shop anywhere. Setting up a small low cost home studio or travel print shop is now feasible. Also, due to its versatility, it’s quickly being recognised as an indispensable tool in any print shop.

It’s opened up educational opportunities for me as well. Since the Print Frog is so easy to master and very portable, it makes an ideal tool for teaching printmaking to children. Back in my early career, I never considered being an instructor. But now, in addition to teaching, I’ve developed methods for teaching printmaking to early elementary age kids. I also teach to art instructors these methods. Teaching printmaking to our future printmakers is the most rewarding benefit that I have gotten from the Print Frog.

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What sort of range do you offer?

The ‘Pro’ model is made of borosilicate glass which is the same glass that cookware and scientific equipment is made of. It can be crafted precisely to fit ideal design specs. They’re handmade and vary a little bit in size and shape, but artists vary too. It has an extremely comfortable handle that’s stout and allows for a neutral hand position. I can easily print a hundred impressions in one day with almost no RSI aggravation. The ‘Pro’ model is our highest quality baren, at $130.

Then there’s the ‘Studio’ model in clear/turquoise which is hand blown out of recycled glass and varies more in size, shape and coloor. It performs almost as good as the ‘Pro’ but costs $85. Finally, there’s the ‘Studio’ model in Cobalt which is the same as the other “Studio” model, but is a deep blue and have the Print Frog logo stamped on the handle, which is $80.

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Where can people buy them?

You can get them from our store section on our website and we also have an Etsy store.

We ship most places in the world and if your country is not on our list we will gladly add it. But the most enjoyable way we like to sell is at printmaking events. People can come by our booth or demos and actually try it for themselves. We’re looking into attending some printmaking events in the UK soon.

Also, be sure to check out our social media pages for more updates, videos and other fun stuff. We’re on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.

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