If you are interested in learning how to get started with letterpress printing or troubleshoot problems that you’re having with your press or your prints, these self-directed resources will help get you up and rolling! Every fall semester, I teach a Letterpress course at the University of South Florida— please inquire if you are interested in attending a workshop! I have a lot of experience with Chandler & Price platen presses (7×11, 8×12, 10×15, 14×22), and tabletop platens as well. Below are thorough instructional processes for a variety of letterpress-printing endeavors. Expand the information from the headlining links. And contact me if you have any questions!
Where To Buy
— Letterpress–Specific Supplies: Boxcar Press, Letterpress Things, NA Graphics, Ramco Rollers, Bindery Tools
— Photopolymer Plates: Concord Engraving, Boxcar Press
— Paper: PaperPapers, LCI Papers, Mohawk, Neenah, Legion, Announcement Converters, MacPapers, Paper Connection, French, and Amazon
— General (Store): Dick Blick, Michaels, Home Depot, Jo-Ann
— General (Online): Amazon, Utrecht, Artist Craftsman, Cheap Joes
— Crane’s Lettra, Reich Savoy, and Neenah Cotton are recommended papers for Letterpress
— Crane’s Lettra 110lb Cover or 220lb DTC
— Reich Savoy 118lb Cover or 236lb DTC
— Neenah Cotton 110lb Cover or 220 DTC
— Check out other assorted papers like Mohawk, French, and ColorPlan
— Paper Suppliers: PaperPapers, Legion, LCI, MacPapers, Announcement Converters, Paper Connection, Morgan Conservatory (handmade), and Amazon
— Invest in Paper Swatch Books for reference
Misc Letterpress Supplies
— Rollers: Adrian and Jayne from Ramco Rollers or Fritz from NA Graphics can refurbish or fabricate rollers for your press
— Press Parts: Paul from Bindery Tools
— Boxcar Base: Deep Relief for K152 Photopolymer Plates
— Henry Gauge Pins (reuse):
Letterpress Things: http://www.letterpressthings.com/individual-items-426-jg-work-copy-copy-1
— Ink Knife: https://www.boxcarpress.com/shop/ink-knife/
— VanSon Ink: Red, Yellow, Blue, Black, White Opaque, White Transparent, Metallics, and Neons
Available Through Boxcar: www.boxcarpress.com/choosing-letterpress-ink/
— Concord Engraving is cheapest (for photopolymer platemaking) that I’ve found:
— Plates Tips: http://www.concordengraving.com/services/letterpress/
— All Letterpress Photopolymers cost $0.50 a square inch, with a $10.00 minimum order
— K152 photopolymer plate fits the recommended Deep Relief base from Boxcar
— Gang files up and save space. Call or Email Shelly Otto (owner), and let her know how she can cut them down to save monies on shipping too.
— It’s good habit to check with Shelly first to review your plate and see if she thinks everything looks good!
— Artist Tape
— Painters Tape
— Cellophane Packaging Tape and/or Masking Tape
— X-Acto Knife #11 + Replacement Blades
— Cutting Mat (Large)
— Cork-Backed Metal Ruler
— Bone Folder
— Mineral Spirits
— Disposable Nitrile Gloves
— 10+ Priority Mail Flat Rate Chipboard Envelopes
— Text–weight copy paper
— PVA Glue
— Double Sided Tape
Bed: The flat surface on which the type is place for printing.
Boxcar Base: Gridded metal plate onto which you print photopolymer plates.
Brass: Thin space, 1 point thick, used for kerning type. Also called “coppers” or “thins.”
Cabinet (Type Cabinet, Stand): The support for dustless cases, with a tilted top for one or two cases.
Case (Type Case): A drawer, but don’t ever call it a drawer, with compartments (“boxes”) for storage of type. The original design has a lip at the front; later dustless cases were designed without a lip and in a tighter-fitting stand to keep dust and debris out of the cases.
Composing Stick: Shallow, adjustable tray in which type is set or arranged before It is locked into the chase.
Copper: Thin space ½ point thick, used for kerning type. See also “brass.”
Display Fonts: Sized approx. 16pt and over.
Distribute: The term for returning type to the case after printing. In England, they “diss” type. You can diss your type if you prefer it that way. Just don’t create any hard feelings.
Em: One square unit of your point size.
En: ½ unit of your point size.
Family: An entire family of type (ex. Regular, medium, italic, bold, etc.).
Font: In letterpress, refers to the set of type, not the actual design of it.
Form: Type and/or cuts, plus spacing material, assembled and locked in a chase and ready for printing.
Furniture: Hardwood or metal blocks in specific lengths and widths (measured in picas), used to fill in the space around the type on the bed.
Galley (Galley Tray): Metal (steel or brass) tray on which to store set type or forms.
Grain: The direction of the paper fibers, try not to work against them.
Grippers: On a cylinder press, round pieces operated by a foot pedal that grab the paper. They release only when the press is taken all the way to the end of the bed.
Hell Box: A case where random type was thrown to be sorted later.
Kerning: A component of letters pacing, used to remedy problems between letter pairs.
Leading: Space between lines of type.
Lead Sandwich: Handset type between strips of lead, not easily digested.
Letterspace: The space between individual letters.
Ligature: A combination of letters to form one piece. Fonts usually come with ff, fi, ffl, fi, ffi, and may have others for style (such as ct or st) or for other languages (such as ae or ce).
Make-Ready: Any packing used to adjust impression and printing through the control of pressure, therefore making the impression more even. More informally, the act to of making sure all parts of the form print evenly.
Nick: The indention on the top side of type used to identify the correct orientation in the composing stick.
Ornament: A small decorative element cast into type metal like type. They can be intended for solo use or in a line to make a border. Some com in multiple parts to create a two or three-color image.
Packing Paper: That is stacked behind the top sheet or tympan to achieve the desired amount of pressure.
Pica: 12 points; 6 picas to the inch. Sometimes referred to as “line,” in reference to wood type. Unit of measure for line length.
Pied Type: Unsorted type, usually as a result of its having spilled or dumped (its best to avoid this).
Point: 72 points to the inch; 12 to the pica. Unit of measure for type.
Punch: Used to stamp an impression of the letterform into a softer brass matrix.
Quads: Non-printing units of metal used to create space between text characters.
Quoin: Sliding wedges or expansion units that lock type and furniture into place.
Quoin Key: Tool to tighten and loosen quoins.
Reglet: Small furniture.
RREU: Right Reading Emulsion Up. The kind of film you are requesting to make a photopolymer plate.
Sans Serif: Without serifs (more modern). Helvetica is an example of a sans serif typeface.
Serif: The terminating lines at the top and bottom of letters. They aid your eye in reading along the lines of type. Baskerville is an example of a serif-ed typeface.
Shoulder: The sloping edge of the printing surface on your type, look for crisp tight shoulders as opposed to rounded curved over used ones.
Slug: Strip of spacing material 6 points thick and greater.
Sort: A letter or character that is one element of a typeface.
Text: Text sizes are those about 14 points or smaller.
Tympan Paper: The stiff (yellow) paper that is used atop packing on the press. It covers the packing and makeready and also allows the image to be printed and then wiped off, leaving a ghost image that can be used for registration.
Typeface: The design of the characters.
Type High: Press bed printing height. In the us and England, .918 Inches. Continental Europe uses taller type, but foundries there will often plane it down for American and English printers.
Type Mold: Used for casting the individual letters.
Work and Turn: Efficient maneuver during printing process to maximize paper use.
— Type generally no smaller than 9pt (of course depends on the font and x-height)
— Stroke detail should be .35 point or .007″ thickness (or larger). Anything less than this will not expose on the plate.
— Dots should be 1.25 point diameter or more to expose on the plate. Make sure this includes checking dots of “i’s” and “j’s”or periods. Undersized dots will be missing on your plate.
— Remember, this is ink embossed on paper, so it will have depth and spread slightly. Thus, don’t track type super tight or have really bold/black type that will bleed/fill the counterforms or junctures.
— Make sure your design/plate will fit on the Boxcar base used in the press. If you want to print something larger than the base area, see if you're able to break the design up and print different areas separately.
— You may consider putting "Bearer Bars" on the left/right sides of your design to help even out the rollers if your design is unevenly weighted from left to right
— Your image can only have solid on/off form. If you want grayscale for a color, you will need to bitmap the image.
— Bitmap res no more than 300dpi; Test print halftones on laser printer to see what it will look like: It’s often preferable to have a more intentionally “notice-able” 150dpi or less (chonky) halftone dot pattern, especially when your overlaying halftones)
— CMYK color mode
— K=100% (NOT a rich black, so leave C, M, and Y at 0%). NO color other than 100% K
— Right-reading (correct reading)
— Outline your type (no fonts, make vectors)
— Expand your strokes (make fills)
— Clean up vectors by merging paths and making counterforms (i.e. holes are NOT white shapes)
— Halftone or Theshold Bitmap and Save as .TIFF (LZW compression) for any pixel-based images in Photoshop
— If this applies for 2+ halftones, follow these angles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screen_angle
— Separate each color of your design onto a separate plate (file)
— Front + backs will also be two separate plates (files)
— Try considering secondary color made by overlapping forms from two different plates/colors (i.e. yellow on light blue makes green)
— You may consider using a “blind emboss” whereby you print the plate using no ink (just see the impression)
— Gang everything onto one artboard and conserve space (you’re paying by the square inch). But don’t put things too too tight together that you can’t cut them apart later. Leave a little blank border)
— If applicable, make sure you export only one artboard at a time (in Save As Dialog Box, Check “Use Artboards” and select “Range” and type in the artboard numbers)
— You usually do not need crop marks, save space and monies! (I’ll show you how to register onto your paper correctly during the print process). However, if printing 2+ colors crop marks may be helpful to easily see your registration.
— Gang up multiple files with your friends! Let Shelley (from Concord Engraving) know where she can cut the plate down to save you on plate and shipping costs
— Compile everything in Illustrator and export a “Press Quality” Print .EPS file
— Check out Boxcar Press for some good print-ready rules: https://www.boxcarpress.com/file-preparation
— Call or email Shelley at Concord Engraving to double check that your design and file is good to go!
— K152 photopolymer plate. (Works with Deep Relief Base)
— I highly recommend sending your files out to platemakers to be made, such as Concord Engraving (recommended) or Boxcar (pricier).
— After you purchase blank photopolymer plates and print your own film, it costs about the same. Secondly, it is very hard to get fine detail with the limited darkroom setup we have when making your own plates. We do not have a traditional platemaker "bot."
— However, if you would like to experiment with this, you can call Boxcar to see if they have any scraps they can sell for cheap. Film can be printed on an Epson inkjet using Pictorico transparency. Tips below:
— Making your own film: RREU = Reading Right Emulsion Up (referring to the film emulsion meaning ink-side up). Light = hardens transparent parts through film onto plate. No Light = black parts on film, what washes out on your plate. So, invert the color for your design for film (dark parts become transparent and vice versa). Make sure you peal the backing off of your plate before exposing it!
— Exposing your own plate: Emulsion to Emulsion Sandwich
============= (PLATE) Emulsion Side Down
——————————— (FILM) Ink Side Up
^^^^^^^^^^^^^ (LIGHT FROM EXPOSING UNIT)
— Expose film for ~5 min (big light table)
This time is subject to change depending on the image and the age of our light bulbs (light units)
— Scrub plate for 10 min (soft bristle kids toothbrush)
— Sponge it off gently
— Hair Dry Hot for 10 min
— Bake to harden plate for 1-2 min
— Add sticker backing.
— If fail, try again with fresh plate and adjust exposure time and scrub force.
1. Make sure you have your complete edition of paper (+15-20 extras) and plates trimmed to print-ready size.
2. Laser print a copy of each plate design. Cut down each print to the exact size of the paper it will be printed on. Align the print to the plate precisely and then tape (double-sided loops) the print to the plate. This technique will help with aligning the plate to your paper (registration).
3. Gather Materials: Plates, Paper, Scrap Paper, Inks, Ink Knife, Brayer, Plexi (For Mixing), Disposable Nitrile Gloves, Henry Gauge Pins, Artist Tape, Masking Or Packaging Tape, Scissors, X-Acto, Pencil, Mineral Spirits, Super Lube, Rags, Priority Mail Flat Rate Chipboard Envelope, Packing Paper, Press Rollers+Trucks, Boxcar Base, Quioins+Key, Furntiture
4. Mix small batches of ink colors.
5. Gently wipe down rollers, inking plate, and Boxcar Base using a rag with mineral spirits to get off any dust.
6. Assemble Boxcar Base or wood type into the Chase using furniture + quoins.
7. Assemble your packing. Use loose Xerox paper inside USPS Flat Rate envelope (makes it easy to add or remove packing later). Tape the envelope on the left and right edge to the platen using masking or packaging tape.
8. Position your paper in the middle of the platen.
9. Apply 4 Henry Gauge pins on top + left side of your paper.
10. Take the backing off of your photopolymer plate.
11. Place your Plate (with attached/registered Laser Print) onto the platen and aligned to your Henry Gauge pins. While in "print mode" with the lever, turn the flywheel slowly until you feel the plate stick onto the Boxcar Base (do NOT do a complete revolution of the wheel). Your photopolymer plate should now be on the base and aligned perfectly to the paper. Remove laser print from plate. Put the lever back to "trip mode"
12. Insert rollers into roller hooks. If they are labeled, follow the correct order.
13. While the rollers are down, apply your ink carefully to the inking plate using your ink knife. Do NOT scratch the inking plate with your knife. Spread the ink out evenly and extend to each side. Do NOT over ink the press. It is easier to add more ink than to remove ink. A little goes a long way.
14. Remove the chase (containing your Boxcar Base + plate) from the chase bed using the chase latch (when inking your press, you do not want to ink your plate)
15. While in "trip mode" with the lever, start inking the press: Pull the flywheel towards you to get the press moving. Then, use the footpedal to continue the momentum. Use a step stool to stand on if necessary. This step will take 3-5 minutes depending on your ink.
16. With your rollers situated as far down as possible (giving you the most room), re-insert your chase.
17. Position your paper using the Henry Gauge pins. Use scrap paper first
18. While in "trip mode," ink the plate 2-4 times depending upon the image so that your plate looks evenly inked. Make sure you get some momentum before you print the image. Pull the lever into "print mode" to print the image, and back to "trip mode" when complete. Slow down the press using the foot pedal.
19. Make sure your fingers are clean before removing your paper/print from the platen. For drying, you can stack your prints vertically using a small bin or tray.
20. Evaluate the print! Please see "Troubleshooting Print Errors" handout for tips. You may need to add/remove packing, adjust roller height, adjust registration, clean your plate or rollers, add/remove ink, remix colors, lube the press, etc. Use/re-use scrap paper for testing.
21. Once you calibrate your press for your job, start printing your edition! For now, go slow. Do NOT try to do back-to-back printing keeping the momentum going. Please pause between prints to remove print and reload with new paper. It's helpful to have two people, one to feed the press and one to run the press.
22. Let your prints dry. Depending on how inky your image is, you may need anywhere from 1-48 hours before running your next plate. Try finger smudge test to ball-park gauge.
23. Remove rollers + clean with rag + mineral spirits. Place rollers into grooved box so that the rollers don't rest on any part of their rubber (if you do not do this, they will flatten and not roll evenly). Stow on feed table.
24. Clean the inking plate with rag + mineral spirits.
25. Clean your polymer plate with dry rag (use alcohol if needed), remove from the base, and put the backing on.
26. Clean the Boxcar base with rag + mineral spirits.
27. Clean your ink knife, brayer, plexi, and anything else that came in contact with ink using rag + mineral spirits
28. Drape tarp over press.
Work and Turn
— Efficiency with maneuvering during the printing process to maximize paper use and least amount of hits. Be smart with how you use your plate and paper spaces: How can you gang up multiple copies and/or front-to-back hits?
— “2-up” “4-up” “8-up” etc. refers to the number of copies you can fit to one page/plate/print
Workflow 2-Up Example
1. When designing your plate, place front and back side designs of the same color at 180° to each other.
2. Cut paper down to work-turn size leaving .25” Border
3. Your image/print must land at exact center of paper.
4. Print 1 side of your paper. You may choose to print all of the front sides first so that they have some dry time while you finish printing the rest of your paper.
5. Stack printed paper vertically to dry in a shoebox bin on the paper tray so you don’t have to walk back and forth to a drying rack. Keep paper within arm’s reach!
6. Flip your paper over so that you get 1 front paired with 1 back and orientation is correct.
7. Print the 2nd side of your paper.
8. This workflow only works for 1-color at a time.
9. You must be precise or you risk misaligning everything
— Get in the habit of ganging production tasks:
1. If you have multiple jobs that use black ink on the press, do that color for all of your jobs first.
2. If you have multiple plates to make (such as your entire class group) send them out together and save $ being efficient with plate space and shipping costs. You can also save $ by eliminating crop marks if you don’t need them.
3. Print with a friend: It goes faster!
Evaluate your print before making the edition! Use/re-use scrap paper for testing. Review these tips for guidance.
— Do you have enough ink? Add a little ink at a time.
— Are the rollers are inking your plate? If not, add packing behind the base or remove tape on truck rails to adjust your roller height.
— On the tabletop platen press you can adjust the screws behind the platen with a flat-edged screw driver to raise the platen.
— On the cylinder proofing press you can use the allen key on the roller height adjuster. Left or counter-clockwise = lower (L = L)
— Do NOT adjust the platen height on the C&P platen press
— Do you have enough packing on the platen? If not, add.
— If laser engraved alt plate, check that type-high is 0.918" (on C&P and Kelsey) and .968 (on the Asbern) and using a calliper. If not, add packing behind base.
— Do you have too much ink? Remove ink by placing a sheet of Xerox paper on the inking plate and slowly move the rollers back and forth over the paper on the ink plate to soak up some of the excess.
— Are the rollers too tight to your plate and over-inking it? If so, add artist tape to the truck rails to adjust your roller height.
— On the tabletop platen press you can adjust the screws behind the platen with a flat-edged screw driver to lower the platen.
— On the cylinder proofing press you can use the allen key on the roller height adjuster. Right or clockwise = raise (R = R)
— Do NOT adjust the platen height on the C&P platen press
— Do you have too much packing? If so, remove.
— If an alt plate made from laser engraving, you may have to sand the bottom of the base
— If you're printing the second color when your first isn't completely dry, the second impression may cause your first to bleed or get ruined.
— The nature of your design can cause the plate to print unevenly. Using your test print as a guide, add custom-shaped slivers of packing behind the low lying areas.
— Do you have a heavier application of ink on one side versus the other? You can add tape to one of the truck rails to adjust your roller height.
— You may consider adding "bearer bars" flanking the left and right sides of your design. These are thin strips on the plate that run along the sides of your image to
help the rollers maintain a consistent level as they ink.
— With wood or metal type, check the tightness of your quoin. Over tightening can cause buckling. Some wood or metal type may also be unevely worn. Bump up each letter with packing behind the letter or find a substitute whenever possible.
— The solvents in ink will change over time. The longer the ink is on the press, the tackier it will become and may equalize itself.
— Sometimes your plate design might be too difficult to print all at once. Try cutting it apart and print 1 part at a time.
Wrong Color Ink
Oil, metallic, and rubber-based inks are all used for letterpress. It is important to be cognizant of the ink's texture as well being aware of its color as it appears smeared on your paper. T he color of the ink on the plate will most likely not look the same as how it sits on your paper stock. Using your finger, smear a dab of the ink on the paper, and look at the lightest area. This is the most reliable indication of how it will print. As for the texture, compare a long ink vs. short ink. Test the runniness of the ink by holding your spatula upside down. You can add magnesium carbonate (chalk) to make it thicker/tackier, and linseed oil to loosen.
— Do you have an inaccurate alignment or relative positioning of a print to the edge of the paper or of a second or subsequent color with a previously printed color? You will have to adjust the placement/positioning of the paper to the plate.
— You may choose to shift the paper and henry gauge pins on the platen. Move paper in the direction of the error. For instance, if the print is too close to the top edge, move the paper/pins higher up.
— If the print is cockeyed you may either shift the paper/pins on the platen, or try again with placing the plate on the platen.
— The most important thing with registering 2+ color or front/back prints is consistency. Land the print on the same place of the paper every time.
— Also, make sure you land the print dead center on your paper. This will help with aligning multiple plates.
— Do you have clean hands? Go wash them!
— Do your rollers have dust or hardened ink blobs? You may need to spot-clean your rollers with a lint-free rag
— You may add ink directly onto the inking plate. Make sure to thoroughly mix in new ink while in "trip mode."
Offset on Tympan
— Oops! Did you forget you were in "print mode" and accidentally offset ink onto your platen base? You can fix this by adding a thin sliver of paper over your mistake. Otherwise, the misprint on the platen will offset onto the backs of your prints.
Offset on Print
— If you print the back side of your print when the front side isn't completely dry, you may cause your first to bleed onto your platen and ruin your subsequent prints.
— If you want a "kiss impression" use less packing
— If you want a "deep impression" use more packing
— If the flywheel is struggling to make a full cycle, you have way too much packing and will damage the press. Stop immediately. Remove excess packing.
— Spray the oil holes with "Super Lube" so that the press can run smoothly.
— Sometimes it can take 10-15 prints for problems to work themselves out.
— Do not change everything at once. Make one minor adjustment at a time and see how it prints.
— Subsequent adjustments can alter the effects of prior modifications.
— Make sure you pick the right press for the job.
— Kelsey 5x8 can fit a 3.75” x 6.5” max plate size with 4.25” X 7” base. C&P 8x12 can fit 5.5” x 8.5” max plate size with 6” X 9” base. Asbern can print 15" x 19" paper.
So make sure your artwork is no larger than this.
— Tabletop presses cannot handle images with large color-fields using lots of ink or large-scale images.
— USF's cylinder proofing press cannot handle fine detail with fidelity.
— The C&P platen cannot easily do rainbow rolls.
Recap: Things to Consider Adjusting
— Amount of ink
— Roller height
— Platen height or Platen packing
— Plate height or packing behind the base
— Paper/Plate Registration
— Dry time
— Oil holes on press