The Amish Inkjet

What’s an Amish inkjet?

Amish_InkjetIn this case I’m referring to an obsolete 24″ Epson Stylus Pro 7500 that I picked up for free about a year ago. Once a commercial printer sporting 5 colors plus black, it’s still a sturdy machine, if a little cranky and low-res by today’s standards.

But this printer has been set up to do something that was never intended. The original inks have been replaced with a set that I mixed up myself, using examples others have posted online, and using special software created by an enthusiast. This custom inkset is made using a commercial carbon black ink that has been diluted with a home-made base solution to create five shades of grey. The result can only print in black and white– but the output is very light-fast and chemically stable. And since the printer can now use shades of grey instead of dithering to to make a printed area less dark, the effective resolution has gone way up.

512px-Old_Fordson_Tractor_at_See_Canyon_Fruit_RanchHow’s that Amish? Well, a little background: A few generations ago, one part of my family was Old Order Mennonite. If you saw them, you’d call them Amish, as they dressed plain and drove horses and buggies. But if you looked carefully you might have noticed that they used tractors on the farm, instead of just horses. Gasoline tractors were just becoming widely available, and promised better quality of life. So they were allowed– with a restriction: the tractors could only use steel wheels. You see, steel wheels worked fine on the farm, but were unwieldy and slow on paved roads. And this clarified the the difference between a gasoline tractor and the automobile, which already symbolized all that was “englisher” or outside to the plain Mennonites and Amish. The steel wheeled tractor was a way to adopt a technology while maintaining their emphasis on small communities and separation from the world at large.

So for me, there’s a funny resonance in crippling this old inkjet printer by replacing it’s bright color inks with grays. There’s a separation from the world at large– I can no longer go and buy ink cartridges from the store if I run out. Instead I have to mix dilutions of ink and refill the ones I already have. And in a virtual sense, a community is reinforced, as I learn from the group of people who have made this same conversion and who share their successes and frustrations via the internet. And I’m working to produce prints with carbon pigment and quality cotton rag paper, true archival materials. In art market terms, that’s kind of like the moral high ground that my ancestors thought so important. And it feels right.

Of course, as with any technology, this is all changing very rapidly. The specific church that I refer to here has split many times, as new decisions had to be made and things got murky. I’m sure that my decision to use this particular set-up in my studio will be just as unclear in the long run.

But for now, I’m just excited to see what it can do!

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An experimental print of the painting “Bear-lithia” using carbon ink