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 letterpresspaper.com. (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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