Imitating Chromolithography for the Steam Hobby

Michigan man pours heart and soul into artwork

A Case 9-by-10 cylinder 15 hp simple traction engine painted by Dave Kemler.

A Case 9-by-10 cylinder 15 hp simple traction engine painted by Dave Kemler.

Don Voelker

Content Tools

It doesn’t take an artist to appreciate the beauty of early chromolithography produced for farm equipment manufacturers.

But it does take an artist to re-create that work, and that’s where Dave Kemler excels. A collector of vintage ephemera, the Stanton, Mich., man also creates hand-painted versions of those pieces.

One of Dave’s prized possessions is a very rare, one-of-a-kind oil painting featuring the Advance Thresher Co. “banner boy” on horseback. The 4-by-6-foot painting once hung in the home of Ammi Willard Wright, Alma, Mich. Wright was president of Advance Thresher Co., Battle Creek, Mich., from 1885 to 1912. The painting would be a gem in any collection, but what Dave really hankered for were promotional pieces.

“I wanted some of those lithographs to hang on my walls,” he explains. “But the cost was prohibitive and the chance of finding them is not good, so I made my own.” The result is nearly indistinguishable from the original, complete with achingly detailed lettering and logos. It’s work Dave seems to have been born for.

Rooted in tradition

Raised in a steam engine family, he’s long been captivated by a perfect blend of interests: old iron, history and art. “I was drawing steam engines and separators by the time I was 4,” he says. “I just kept on from there and never stopped. There were no lessons; I just painted.”

In college, Dave initially majored in history. But art remained a passion, and he ended up with a degree in art education. He went on to teach art in Indiana and later in Michigan. Old iron proved an enduring theme. Dave’s work includes paintings of threshing scenes (complete with steam engines) and pinstriping projects.

Meanwhile, he built a collection of early posters, brochures and trade cards produced by stone lithography, a printing technique of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a period corresponding to the glory days of the steam traction engine. More than 100 years later, the colors are strong and vibrant, and the pieces remain very collectible.

“Years ago it was quite common for people to keep these trade cards and posters in scrapbooks,” Dave says. “I have an image of the Advance ‘banner boy’ on a horse that had been pasted in a scrapbook, and some Port Huron information that has been cut out of an original catalog.”

Advent of chromolithography

Stone lithography (known as chromolithography when varied colors were used), a very exacting and beautiful form of printing, was popular between 1895 and 1915. An expensive and time-consuming process, it was soon replaced by offset lithography, a cheaper, quicker form of printing. “Stone print is special,” Dave says. “You can see the printer’s marks used to line up the paper as he went from one color to another.”

The chromolithography process was invented in Germany in about 1820. It made the leap to the U.S. in the 1840s. Before the Civil War, most steam-powered presses were imported from Europe. By the 1860s, however, some lithographic presses were being manufactured in the U.S.

A source for the high quality limestone needed for stone printing was not available in the U.S.; only stone imported from Bavaria met the requirements. Eventually lightweight zinc sheets replaced the stones; with proper preparation the sheets could be used to make large prints, such as posters.

Chromolithography was based on a “resist system” using separate slabs of stone for each color in the illustration. Wax or gum arabic was applied to those areas of the stone that were not to receive color. Ink was applied to the stone, paper was laid on top, rolled and printed. After the ink dried, the process was repeated and the paper was printed on another stone, applying a different hue. It was not unusual for more than two dozen stones to be used for a single image.

Labor-intensive craft

In the first step of the process, a sketch artist made a watercolor or oil painting according to the customer’s requirements. Next, a lithographic artist traced the illustration directly onto a lithographic stone with greasy ink or crayons, creating a black-and-white outline.

Transfer artists copied the outline on to as many lithographic stones as there were colors in the final image. The color (or stipple) artist decided on color and placement of ink and greased the stones accordingly.

The prover printed an image using the stones in a hand press to see if the image matched the original customer image. The pressman made the final work in a lithographic press; the paper was kept in alignment by small pins placed in holes along the edge of the sheet. Alignment was easily affected by temperature and humidity.

After the process was complete, special solutions were used to dissolve the images and the stones were sanded and readied for reuse.

“You can tell the difference between stone print and offset press by using a magnifying glass,” Dave says. “The stone print will have solid color while the offset press four-color process will show dots of color. Stone print is remarkable because of how precisely the artists did their work. There is nothing like it today. The color is very permanent and does not fade; it holds up extremely well.” FC

Read about the annual steam threshing event on Dave’s farm: “October Steam Day.”