How To Build A Letterpress (And How To Use It)

So here is how I learned to build a letterpress, and a step by step on how to use it.

a guide for building and using your own letterpress

As a sidenote: I am a pretty crafty, hands-on kind of girl.  But I have never printed anything before in my life, not even a carved-potato block print in middle school art class.  So don’t despair if you’ve never done this before!  The internet is also full of people sharing their printing knowledge.

1. Build the letterpress. Or in this case, ask your dad to build you the press for Christmas. We used this plan.  That guy really knows his stuff.  We bought all the materials that we needed at the Home Depot, except the tire jack which we ordered from Amazon.  Total material cost for the press was $80.

building your own letterpress2. Buy the rest of your supplies. I bought my paper and envelopes from (I used 100% cotton Crane Lettra 300gsm paper and envelopes, in Pearl.  It is just barely ivory.  If I could do it again, I would have bought the 600gsm just for the main invite, to allow for more paper thickness and a deeper impression). Then I bought my ink and the brayer (ink roller) online from Dick Blick – I used the Caligo Safe Wash ink, and it worked great, with easy cleanup.  I went with Prussian Blue so I didn’t have to mix colours.  I used a Speedball soft rubber brayer.  If possible, buy a brayer wide enough to easily cover the width of your plate in one roll – otherwise, there is the possibility your roller will dip into the recess area of the plate.

how to diy your own letterpress invitations

3. Oh yeah, design your invites (or buy a design from one of APW’s great sponsors.)*  I produced mine using a combo of AutoCAD for the drawing and template making, and Illustrator for the text and refinement.  You could easily use Photoshop as long as you rasterize all your text layers.  My invites are inspired by the architectural details of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where we are having the wedding, because I think it is just an amazing and intricate building.  I am obsessed with the lantern hanging in the portico, as well as the grate in the transom above the main door:  thus the design for both the save the date and invitation, plus thank you notes.

a metal door

4. Order your plates.  I worked with the extraordinarily helpful people of Elum Designs.  There are other companies out there as well that produce great quality photopolymer plates, notably Boxcar Press (a friend of mine used them and had a great experience, so I feel comfortable recommending them).  I called Elum and had a chat with their guy before I submitted the design, and then when I sent them the file and it wasn’t 100% right, they let me know and explained how I should fix it without just charging me the fee to fix it themselves.  The plate I ordered was a photopolymer deep relief plate (nicer for hand-presses because it makes it a little easier to get a deep impression, and added bonus:  it is harder to get ink in the void areas of your plate where you don’t want it.) and cost me about $45, with shipping, for the save-the-date plate.  The plate for the invites and thank-you notes, which was larger cost $75 with shipping.

diy letterpress tools and supplies

5. On printing day**, line up your supplies. You should have your press, a sliding board on which to attach your photopolymer plate (this slides in and out of the press, to make inking easier), a bowl of soap and water, (or whatever medium your ink needs for cleanup), your brayer and ink, a palette knife or other thing to scoop out ink if your ink is in a can, and something to use for packing.  Packing is what you put between your paper and the platen, the part of the press that moves down to crush your paper.  I made a big mistake with packing in my save the dates, and it is the reason my impression didn’t come out at all. When I printed the invitations I was able to get the blind impression sections to come through because I made this discovery:  hard packing = deep impression, soft packing = big mess.  The felt that I used the first time just encouraged the press to punch through the back of the paper, not to contain the impression within the paper itself.  What real printers use for packing is called pressboard, and it is stupidly expensive if you buy it from printing supply companies.  However, you can buy pressboard at any local office supply store – they use it to make heavy duty folders, and it usually is either mint green colour, or dark red.  I got some from my mom, who saved some pressboard folders from the trash at her office.

sample diy letterpress wedding programs

6. You’re ready to press! First, set yourself up for printing by acquiring a surface on which to roll out the ink.  Printers use glass because it gives a nice flat even surface,  I used the other half of the plexiglass sheet that I used as a sliding board because I had some lying around.  Take your palette knife and scoop a small amount of the ink out onto the board.  Work it around a little with the knife, trying to break up any lumpy bits, and generally to make it slightly more workable.  Printing ink is STICKY.  Then start to work it onto your roller – roll back and forth in various directions to get as even a coating on your roller as possible. You should keep rolling in a square motion (both up and down and left and right, to get an even coating) Try and spread it out thinly – I am reasonably sure I used too much ink to print my save the dates, which spoiled some of the fine detail of the lantern.  When I printed the invitations I mixed in an ink extender, and it worked MUCH better.

sample diy lettepress wedding RSVP cards

7.  Stick the plate down to your sliding board by exposing the adhesive that comes attached to your plate. I tried to measure the board to find out where the center of the press was coming down, and put it there.  Then apply the ink to your plate by rolling your brayer over it back and forth in light and hopefully even coats.  For my invitations where I wanted a blind impression, I taped off areas of the plate before inking, then removed the tape before pressing.  This was tedious, I will not lie to you.  Sometimes I put too much ink on the roller and I got some interesting spatter in the void space of my plate.  I cleaned this up using a corner of a sponge and a bowl of warm soapy water.  Once you plate is coated, you place a sheet of paper onto the plate, hopefully smudging it as little as possible.  One of the upsides of the goopiness of the ink is that it doesn’t transfer onto anything that touches it unless you encourage it to, so you can actually lay the paper on top and take it off again, and {may} not have any ink transfer to the paper unless you pressed it in between. ***

DIY wedding letterpress

8. On top of the paper, lay your pressboard folder, or mat-board, or whatever hard-but-thin material you are using as packing. Your printing sandwich should look like this from the bottom up: sliding board, plate, ink, paper, packing.  Slide this whole sandwich onto the bed of the press.

9. Crank the press. After doing this twice, my best technique suggestion to get a deep impression is to press the paper medium-hard over and over rather than trying for one as-hard-as-possible crush – my final invitations were pressed lightly 10 times each.  It will take you a few tries to get the right amount of pressure on the plate.  There isn’t a good method of vertical alignment on this press, so you will have to gauge the pressure by feel every time.  Use common sense – don’t break your press.  Remember that car jack is capable of lifting a car!  Once you have pressed your paper, release the jack by turning the screw on the front just a little…if you turn it too much, you will leak the hydraulic fluid from inside the jack.  Take the printing board out, take the packing off, and carefully flip the paper off the printing plate so you don’t smudge the ink, et voila! Set the print aside to dry, for at least one hour, or longer if you used ink extender.

DIY wedding letterpress

10. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

I used my leftover paper, which ran through my printer (rear feed tray) beautifully, to print the RSVP and hotel enclosures – I only letterpressed the save the date cards, the invites, and the thank you cards.  And the whole package was thin/light enough that it didn’t even cost extra to post!

I am so happy.  Not the cheapest thing I could have done for sure, but I have nice invitations and the ink on my hands to prove I made them myself.  I loved this process so much that I am hoping, after the wedding is over, to be inspired by all of the shame-blasting APW power and turn this into a little business. {Editors note: Do it! I want to be first in line to get… something! I don’t even know what!}

DIY wedding letterpress

* a note about your design + colour – this press will really only let you print with one colour (or one colour plus blind embossing like I did for the invites. To do 2 colours, you would need to buy a second plate, but there is no good way of making sure you’re printing in the same place the second time through (that’s why people still use real letterpresses not not jerry-rigged tabletop ones). That’s why using 2 or more colours tends to cost more if you order letterpressed invites, because they need to make a second plate and run every print through the press twice.)

** I do mean a day, and if you’re lucky or have a small number of invites it will only take one whole day.  It is not so fun to be cleaning up the ink in between batches, so try and plan on doing a whole bunch at once to make getting the ink out worth it.  I did the 80 save the dates in one whole day, and the 80 invitations in 2 (they were a bit more of a disaster.)

*** One of the things I adjusted to get the impression I wanted was to dampen the paper before printing.  This additional step meant I had to be very careful putting the paper onto the inked plate, because if the paper was too damp the ink would run.  It took some trial and error to recognize when the paper was dry enough to use.


First photo by Gabriel Harber.

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  • Angela

    impressive! these are beautiful. thanks for sharing.

  • I am beyond impressed! Your invitations are beautiful! I can’t believe you built your letterpress machine, just amazing. The wheels are turning as I wonder if I could ever manage this feat . . .

    Keep us posted if you start your business!!!

  • These came out awesome Jenn!

    Leave it to you to somehow incorporate AutoCAD into your wedding invitation design :)

  • Yay Jenn! This is all very gorgeous and I think I just expanded my vocabulary by approx. 20%. And I am 100% with Meg on the business thing – dooooo it :)

  • Wow. That’s amazing. And I kind of want a letterpress now.

    It turned out beautifully, congratulations!

  • Oh, wow, what a fabulous how-to (and your invites are gorgeous, too!). It’s just the right combination of intriguing and scary. :) Now I’m dreaming about where I would keep such a thing in the studio….

  • Hilary

    Awesome. I am jealous. And in awe.

    We’re getting married at the Carnegie in November this year… we used a picture of the building from the ’50s for our save the dates, and I was hoping to incorporate it into the invitations too.

    The building really is inspiring!

    • Yay Carnegie! I still can’t believe I am going to get married in such a beautiful building, and that such a beautiful building appears to be the most cost effective venue downtown.

      • Hilary

        Jenn —

        If you ever want to talk Carnegie/vendors, let me know!

        Hilary (hcwoodward at gmail dot com)

  • marbella


  • gah. utterly amazing – and thank you for the link to those plans…i have a typography problem. combined with my manual hobbies problem, that means i have always wanted a letterpress. however, at the moment i will simply swoon and applaud you, as i think taking up any other hobby will be a detriment to my marriage and sanity.

  • I’ve been wanting to do this so badly! We were too busy to do it for the wedding, but I really want to try it out this summer. Thanks for this amazing tutorial!

  • anonymous

    this is not something i would ever, ever do — but I loved this post. the invitations are gorgeous, and I am in awe. please start a business and share your talents with the world!

  • This tutorial was pretty intense but AWESOME! Your invitations came out beautifully. I’m not brave enough to build my own press, but I will look on admiringly at those who can and do :)

  • Jen M

    holy f*ck those are gorgeous. Amazing. seriously. you had better turn this into a little business! Cuz I said so ;)

  • KA

    You lady, are a f*cking rock star.

  • YOU’RE AMAZING. that is all.

  • aww thanks so much for the nice comments you guys :) This made my day.

  • Vmed

    So awesome. Yeah, definitely not lazy girl DIY, but pretty much crafty rockstar girl DIY.

  • Jenn. You are like the intensest person I know. Also I love your invitation suite. OBVIOUSLY.

  • JEM

    that is freaking awesome! Gorgeous invitations.

    and p.s. I just put together that *you* were the Jenn from Sisterhood of the Traveling Dress and Sarah was the Sarah from the roadtrip for the Traveling Dress. I didn’t even think about it when we all met at Barcode for HH!

  • Love!!!

  • Kate K

    Ahh weddings…just bring out the crazy and awesomeness of us all! Great job, they are gorgeous!

  • ohhhh my lord those invites are GORGEOUS!!!


    Pew pew pew!

  • I sent this link off to my dad. Perhaps we could put this together as a little father-daughter project this summer. Fantastic!

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  • The Elizabeth of Oz

    Ohmygodohmygodohmygod! Yes! 

    I’ve been thinking very seriously about doing this ever since we started talking about weddings (as opposed to talking about marriage, which happened a lot earlier and involved a lot less letterpress. Letterpress, while the height of awesome, is – sadly – less relevant to marriage than to weddings…)

    I had actually seen another guide to building the machine itself at – but this how-to makes more sense to me. 

    Sigh. Now I want to call in sick, head to the hardware shop (ooooh, hardware!) and do this NOW. Just, you know, so I can practice. 

    And Meg? As many of these “hardcore how-tos” as you can get your mits on! I know it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but I can’t be the only one who did this shit for fun since I was about two years old. 

    (Srsly. There’s hard documentary evidence of the invites I handmade for my fifth birthday party. At college I once hand-drew individual posters for a spur of the moment afternoon tea for about four people. And if you think it was just youthful stupidity, I just recently won my office Christmas decoration competition with these lit and hung from the roof: along with these: and these in white strung on LED fairy-lights: Everyone else hung some tinsel. I get … um … over-excited about these things?)

    I fully anticipate that people will think I’ve gone arts and craft-mad for wedding reasons, and I’ll be all “Nooo! I was this crazy before! I once learned to crochet just so I could make a wool ferret! This is me being NORMAL!”

    • I found the Instructables version early on, and it actually convinced me that I didn’t care enough to try this…until I found this other guide to building the press.

      I know what you mean about thinking people will blame the crafty on the wedding, but I have also been like this, and anyone who has known me for more than about 5 minutes knows it. People will definitely appreciate all your hard work! Or they wont, but it doesn’t matter, because you do, and you would care regardless…and thats why we build DIY letterpresses to begin with.

      • The Elizabeth of Oz

        Haha! Totes! It is nice to get some kudos for the effort, but really not the point: the real objective is the extraordinary happiness that comes from hours (days? months?) spent elbow deep in glue-gun glue/paint/dress material/clay/two-by-fours/silk screens etc etc.

  • There are a few details that could be added about the letterpress. I built it almost according to the plans Jennifer referred to, but stiffened the beams up by using oak, because i build furniture so had some. Not sure that was critical, but worth considering if yours flexes, because flexion is a big deal here.
    Jennifer wanted the pattern to be embossed over the whole card, which I think was ~5″x7″. The first several didn’t emboss evenly. Wetting the paper helped, but the impression wasn’t all the way to the edges. We determined that something was flexing, reducing the pressure on the paper further from the centre of the jack. It turned out that the bottom board was flexing, even though it was heavily reinforced 1″ thick mdf. This was not obvious, and we tried several things before figuring this out.
    If you look in photo 2, there is a gray block inside the press. That is a marble slab. Any really flat stiff object will do. The plexiglass sheet and the bundle of pieces that J referred to in section 8 were placed on top of the marble slab, directly under the jack, before pressing. There is also a heavy (stiff) oak board that is transferring the pressure from the jack to the top platen, to make sure that the pressure on the top is even. That resolved the press not impressing over the whole piece of paper.
    One of the items that J did not emphasize in the article is the complexity of the design. Making the invites was reasonably tricky and had a lot of steps, but the design portion would be as complex, except that she is an Architect so thinks that way and doesn’t see it as such. I could (did) build the press and print them, after watching her, but I couldn’t design them.

  • I am pretty much completely in love with this post.

    And I am the least DIY person EVER. But, f*** yeah. Jenn, I bow down to your extreme awesomeness.

    One question, how did you get the red for the heart if you can only run it through in one color?

    • Haha good eye! I cheated and drew the hearts on with a gel pen. I wanted them to stand out a bit more.

  • Erin

    Um, so yeah. When will your business be open? Because even though I am crafty at heart, I don’t see this happening for our invites. Not because your directions aren’t beautiful. Or the end product. Because both are fantastic. Just because, well. You already did it. And they rock. Sooo, hopefully we’ll see a vendor post from you soon! : )

    • My fiance has requested that I try and wait until after the wedding (September) to launch any more projects (ha.) But I know I would make an exception if someone asked me to before then. I’m really dying for some more paper projects (I just made the invites to my own shower, for example.)

      • Heather


        Do you mind sharing what the cost of building your letterpress machine and the materials was? I just started a wedding planning business in FL and would love to do my own invitations for brides.

        Thank you,


      • Stephanie

        Wow, Jenn! Amazing! If you still have your press and would like a project, I would love to discuss your prices and options! I am getting married October 20, 2012 and need about 75 each of invites, rsvp cards, and thank you cards. I have a design direction but not an exact design. Please email me so we can discuss, Thanks, Stephanie

  • I am seriously impressed! I thought *watching* my Dad letterpress ours, was exhausting! and your invites came out beautifully, really, really, nice.

  • Corie

    This is kind of amazing! Am I crazy for wanting to do my own letterpress business cards now? Maybe I can get my dad to pick up letterpressing as a hobby :)

    p.s. I think it is so sweet that your dad posted a comment on APW!

  • Stephanie

    Wow. I am so impressed! Someday I want to be this crafty!

  • liz

    hey, GREAT JOB!!! i think i may do the same thing you did! but im looking into the paper and i see they send it in large sheets. how did you cut yours down to size? any tips?

    • I bought the Lettra paper, which they do sell precut to 8 1/2 x 11. Cutting down 22×30 is no fun. I think if you click Lettra in the left hand menu, they should give you the option to order packs of 100 sheets, precut, in the 300gsm weight. The matching envelopes are also really excellent quality.

  • I agree making and doing things on your own is quite fun. It gives you a sense of fulfillment and makes you feel happy.

  • I’m extremely not as well acquainted with this topic but I do like to check-out blogs for layout tips and interesting topics. You seriously described a topic that I typically really don’t care considerably about and produced it fairly fascinating. This is a great blog that I’ll take note of. I previously bookmarked it for future reference. Lung Cancer Symptoms

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  • rst

    May I just say what a relief to find person who actually understands exactly what they’re sharing on the internet. You definitely realize how to take a major issue to light and allow it to important. Even more people need to read it all and understand this particular side of the story. I cannot believe you are not very popular because you clearly have the gift.

  • autocad kursu

    awesome review thanks for your kind effort, great post.

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  • Amazing! Could you use it like a die cutting machine too?

    • dont know… but seems like a funny gadget for a designer.

  • bon

    You are to be commended. I am a talented and gifted architectural drafter certified in using AutoCad. I am also skilled at book binding which includes embossing and letter press. I have often used AutoCad to design the plates to be cut for gold foil embossing or letter stamping onto book covers. I have three old “lettering” machines and have spent many an hour ‘lathering, rinsing and repeating.” .

    “This was tedious, I will not lie to you.”

    Tedious it has always been for an individual and not much has changed even with the individual lettering machines.

    Very few are capable of doing what you just did! I could not successfully construct and use a home-made letter press (but my business partner could and he’s a mathematical genius).

    Thunderous applause! (and hefty congratulations to you both)

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  • Mack

    If you’re serious about the business get in touch with me. Am getting married September 2013 and would love to see if would do the invitations would need 75 – yours are so gorgeous!

    • Hi Mack,

      I did indeed start up my business! I’m listed in the APW vendor directory under Ribbons & Bluebirds, or you can email me at the email address above in the post :) I’d love to hear from you!

  • This is awesome. I’m a graphic designer and after 5 years of wedding announcements, I eventually quit because I wanted to print them myself and control the paper, the print quality, the ink, everything. My sister is getting married and I’ve designed her announcements, as I do for all family. I’ve been looking online to purchase a letterpress but can’t afford it right now. Maybe in 10 years? I hope sooner! So, my husband and father-in-law built this very same letterpress for me today!! (Well, wood glue is drying on some pieces so it’s not completely assembled yet.) Anyway, I’ve ordered the same Lettra paper/envelopes and ink as you. However, I need to know how you got the registration marks on your paper for cutting/trimming the edges? I noticed them in the above photo where your prints are laying out to dry. Were they included on your photopolymer plate? Oh, and speaking of plates, is there a reason you ordered from Elum instead of Boxcar Press? Hope you can respond soon! I’ll be ready to print as soon as my supplies arrive! Thanks soooooo much for posting all of this!


    • Becky,

      This is a little late but I wanted to follow up for you. I added the crop marks as part of the design file – you can do this in illustrator automatically or you can draw them in CAD like I did. if you need to you can probably ask Boxcar or Elum to do it for you, although they’d probably charge a fee.

      I ordered from Elum at the time because I thought their pricing was better – it really isn’t I’ve since ordered from Boxcar and can tell you they’re both great! Now I order only from Boxcar, as I’m on the east coast and so are they.

      Hope your invites turn out awesome!

  • Emily

    While doing research on letterpress machines, I ran into your article & I am inspired. If you don’t mind, I would love to “copy” your machine. I have a small start-up business and not really in any position to spend thousands of dollars on a machine. I just wanted to thank you for posting this. :-)

    • its not my design at all, so no worries! hope you have success with your press :)

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  • Andrea

    Hey! These cards are beautiful! I have been researching letterpress as I have a small one and Id like to make some custom cards/invites for friends and family and had a question for you..
    Did you get plates made for the whole invitation? or is any of it laser printed? If it is letterpressed, how was the plate making process? And how did you think those plates turned out? Did you receive one plate for the main invite with all the lettering? Thanks!!

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  • Hi,

    Thanks for this post. I bought the Fiskars “home machine” and before the day was over out grew it. I am a graphic designer and have a ton of plans. with those ton of plans I want to start smart so I am going to build the machine you did. My one question is did you have to re-ink the plate every time you used it?

    Thanks again,


  • Heather

    Thanks for the info about your press, I have an old Adana that I am learning on but already thinking bigger!

  • Gina

    I’ve just discovered you and am tremendously fascinated and impressed with your results! Thank you for sharing!

  • Daniel Kidd

    Your press and prints came out amazing. I must say I followed the instructions posted about building the press and not having access to tools or a woodshop cost of goods on building this press is close to about $200-250. I still have trouble with the calibration of even distribution of pressure and there are certainly sweet spots on my press I try to hit when printing. In your photo of your press what are you using as packing material, I see a black object sitting in your press, what is it? Again solid guide and it definitely takes some know how and tools to build one of these successfully!

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