How To: DIY Letterpress

DIY wedding letterpress

I need to preface this post by saying that I love paper.

When I was a kid, I would go to the bookstore and spend my allowance on nice journals even though I rarely wrote in them.  I used to sit in the library and read quietly, deeply inhaling that musty-old-book smell.  I was that kid who EAGERLY AWAITED back-to school shopping so that I could go home, unwrap everything, and neatly equip all my school binders.  If you already think I’m nutzo, you probably don’t want to attempt any of the following.  Like most other wedding DIY guides, this post should have an ONLY IF YOU REALLY LOVE IT warning sticker slapped on it. (Editor’s note: And oh, hey! Look! We already do!)

When I got engaged, I began my investigation into wedding stationery and found that letterpress was considered to be the Best of Wedding Paper (Editor’s note: Though as discussed earlier this week, Letterpress isn’t Jesus, and it’s not what your grandma thinks is fancy, though it is an art form). It’s one of those things I had never heard of before I planned my wedding, like charger plates and chiavari chairs. The portfolios of letterpress studios were absolutely breathtaking.  I immediately knew that was what I wanted, but I felt ashamed when the indie wedding world accused, “Why would you spend so much money on something that people will just throw away?”  I didn’t have a suitable answer for them, and it was no matter because I didn’t have five grand to drop on paper goods anyway.

I started resigning myself to Kinko’s when somehow, I learned that my school, Dartmouth College, had its own letterpress studio in the basement of the library.  The best part?  All students and members of the community were granted access to the studio, its instructors, and its materials FOR FREE.

So in short, I spent several weeks, when I had the time, going to the studio each evening after classes and spending three hours at a time designing, typesetting, and pressing 100 save-the-dates, invitations, reception cards (which I ended up redoing since our reception site changed over the summer), response cards, and thank-you notes.  I would leave the studio with my feet aching, my fingertips dry, gritty, and splotched, but feeling like I had accomplished something superb.

A true step-by-step post probably wouldn’t be productive for two big reasons; first, I didn’t take step-by-step pictures while I was doing my pressing (and you really need visuals to explain this), and second, because it’s a rather technical process and I don’t want to bore you all.  So instead, I’m just going to give you the gist of the process and several pointers and takeaways:


  • The first step in letterpressing is setting the type.  You need very good eyes and a sh*t-ton of patience for this.  In most studios, type is organized in drawers, letter by letter.  A single piece of type is basically a block of lead with a raised letter on it, so that it can make an impression on the paper.  You pick out each letter at a time and spell every word of your invitation.  The type can be very big or very small.  We used a 10 pt. font for most of our invitation and each piece of type was probably no bigger than the length of my thumbnail.  Once you have everything spelled out and organized the way you want it (centered, aligned, etc) you have to use very small slivers of lead to get the type very tight within the form (a rectangular frame that holds the type in place).  If some of the letters are the least bit wobbly and there is any space between them, once the press hits the type to ink it, your typeset can shatter and letters will go everywhere.  Typesetting is the biggest pain in the ass during the whole process and it easily takes the longest time.

  • Inking the press.  Letterpress ink is very thick and tacky. At my studio, they had color swatches to choose from, and instructions on how to mix your desired ink color from the available base colors.  Once you mix it thoroughly, you ink the press.  Presses are all different.  Some run on electricity; most of the ones I used had foot-cranks.  They are often mechanically complex.  Essentially, a roller spreads the ink out evenly over your type so you are ready to make an impression.
  • Printing.  Again, all presses are different, but essentially, you place your paper onto the press and it will make the impression on the paper.  This is easily the quickest part of the process; it only takes a few seconds to make one impression.  Most any paper will work, but if you really want that deep inverse-braille run-your-hands-along-it impression, I would recommend something thicker.  I used Crane’s Lettra paper and it turned out beautifully.

Pointers and Takeaways:

  • You may have come across small personal “letterpress” machines available to purchase online.  I can’t recommend or not recommend these, but honestly I would look up classes in your area first.  These machines can get to be several hundred dollars and really, how often will you use it after the wedding?  Also, these machines may be limited in the variety of fonts and type sizes that are included.  I’d first recommend researching colleges in your area for book arts classes.  I got lucky when I found out mine was free, and I’m sure it’s not the only one of its kind.  (These book arts departments may also offer classes in book binding.  HINT: wedding albums!)  If you can’t find any in your area, try finding smaller letterpress studios.  They may be willing to provide instruction, and the thing about letterpress is that you really need an instructor.  I did so many projects at the studio and every time I needed to ask someone for help.
  • Enlist your partner’s help, even if they can’t bring themselves to care about invitations.  My husband would probably have been cool with e-vites.  But he loves making things and he loves working with his hands, so he ended up getting as excited about letterpress as I did.  (It helps if you let them use the big press.  Big presses make you feel bad*ss.)
  • The time commitment can be great, depending on how many projects you want to tackle.  If I had to estimate, for my invitations alone (not including the response or reception cards), I probably spent about 7-8 hours designing, typesetting, printing, and cleaning up.
  • Go into the studio with some idea of what you want.  This took me forever.  At my studio, they had a book with all of their different available types and all of their different pictures and flourishes.  I was not very good at taking these disjointed pieces of information and putting them together in my head to create my own design.  Plus there are SO many different options (formalities; different sizes; different alignments) that they just made my head spin.  In short, I ended up copying designs that I saw online and really liked.  My save-the-dates, for example, were a design I had coveted online that would have cost around $200 for 100 flat-printed.  I pressed them myself for a fraction of my $50 ream of paper.
  • Letterpressing things yourself feels organic.  When you order letterpressed invitations from a large commercial studio, it’s often not pieces of type painstakingly fit together, but a solid metal plate that was created from an electronic template.  And don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing wrong with that. (Editors note: Not only is there nothing wrong with that, sometimes it’s very necessary. We letterpressed our invites, and they had Hebrew on them, so they needed to be created with a template.) It achieves the same results in a much smaller amount of time.  But there’s just something about the typesetting experience; the musty smell, the gritty type, the ink stains on your fingers.  It feels like you fought for it.  And it feels really good.

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  • Wow. Those invitations are FREAKING amazing. Totally stunning.

    And I love how you say DIY letterpress should have a big warning sticker on it. You clearly have infinitely more patience than I!

  • Great job!
    Fitting real metal type together is so much fun, once you can get past the whole handling lead with your bare hands thing.
    Like Meg said, if you’re not into laying out the type yourself or it doesn’t suit your design, there are companies that will make acrylic plates (more common than metal for custom work) out of your design and you can print with them at almost any studio. A lot of people use Boxcar for this, they’re in upstate NY but will ship wherever and are very nice to beginners.
    Also, is a great resource for info on letterpress, and they have a lot of really great ornaments that you can download and use in your invitations.

  • Wow, what a ton of work, but they are gorgeous! I’m impressed that you were able to produce something so stylish without much in the way of graphic elements. I don’t think I could have been nearly so creative with just text, but your designs all look amazing!

  • Amazing! I’m in complete awe!! GORGEOUS!!!

    I love, love stationery too & I gaze longingly at the letterpress machines in the craft store. I’m going to see if I can find some letterpress classes/studios in NYC. I’m past the wedding invitation stage but I’d still love to learn the craft.

    • Zoe Huertas

      I know I’m a little late on this, but I thought I’d recommend the Center for Book Arts here in NYC. That’s where I got my start learning the art of Letterpress (hey look, I rhymed!). Classes are a bit pricey, but at the end you’ll be able to print on your own on the Centers’ presses, which means you can create whatever and whenever you want!

  • ka

    “When I was a kid, I would go to the bookstore and spend my allowance on nice journals even though I rarely wrote in them. I used to sit in the library and read quietly, deeply inhaling that musty-old-book smell. I was that kid who EAGERLY AWAITED back-to school shopping so that I could go home, unwrap everything, and neatly equip all my school binders.”

    You’re not nutzo. Or well, if you are, then I am too because I did all of this too. :)

    Letterpressing sounds exquisite. It sounds like the hours I spent in the photo lab in high school developing film and prints. (Imagine that!) You have to concentrate so hard you forget about everything else, and in the end you’re left with something you made with your own hands.

    • Jo

      Haha, ME TOO!

    • Yes, exactly. The love of stationary, and the memories of the photo lab in high school.

  • Jo

    Yay, Mary! I’ve been waiting for this one!! :D

    So wonderfully written and because I love paper and books so much it makes me want to try it. Good thing I’m way too lazy…


    Printing presses ARE magic.

  • Okay. I need to go back in time. I need to go back in time and go to Dartmouth, just for this reason. I wasn’t fussed over letterpress, but if I knew that business would be available to me fo’ freeeeee? Just the cost of my time?

    Pfftt. Would’ve been all over that tish.

  • Jeannine

    beauty earned through labor–you’ve done such lovely work here, mary.
    also, as a ’99 who spent a lot of time in the wood-working studio, thanks for the morning nostalgia.

  • soooo pretty Mary. I’m awed! Definitely never occurred to me when I was looking at invitation options, that there might be little letterpress studios hidden away in college library basements.. I guess that’s why You went to Dartmouth and I didn’t. ;)

  • Ashley B

    I would love to have letterpress invitations, but the prices are scary. After looking around on the internets, I’m interested in playing with the QuickKutz Letterpress machine. I read an interesting article from Boxcar Press on how to make adjustments to the machine in order to get higher quality prints. I figure I can start super ahead of time and worst case scenario, if it all goes horribly wrong, I’ll just go to plan B.

    • I’ve had friends play around with that before and it’s decent. You’re going to have to buy a plate for each piece and each color that works with this type of machine, I’m not sure exactly how much they cost but normal letterpress plates run around $50 and up depending on the size. From what I’ve heard it works decently well, you can’t print as quickly as with a windmill press but as long as you’re not planning on sending out 200 invites or something that won’t be a big deal. The main drawback to this machine and all modern at home presses is the weight. There’s a reason why most presses are metal and extremely heavy, you have to get enough weight and pressure on the form to make that beautiful deep impression. With this one being plastic, you just can’t expect it to make the same impression as a professional or even an antique, metal small press. That being said, if you just want the look of letterpress and aren’t really picky this is probably your cheapest option. I definitely recommend doing a one color run. Plate alignment is tricky and a major headache.

      • I had one that I bought on the day they came out and I ended up selling it. It is not great. Try and find a Paper Source or similar store that will let you play with one before buying it.

  • Wow, I am thoroughly impressed by the quality of the invitations. As a graphic designer that has a little experience in letterpress I have to say that it is truly more difficult than even you make it sound and to have a project like that come from your first experience with the medium is amazing!

    I must reiterate what has already been said, letterpress invitations are extremely expensive because it is an art form that is amazing and amazingly expensive. The machinery alone weighs tons sometimes and is extremely expensive, as is the metal and wood type and the ink and the paper, and all the other parts that go along with it. Even trying to DIY letterpress invitations isn’t going to make it much cheeper, if not more expensive. Mary lucked out in that her school provided the instruction, ink, type, furniture and the presses. While it can be done and she did it beautifully, I would really recommend that if you haven’t had any experience in at least art and typesetting cut back other parts of the budget and pay a professional or even find a student in a design/book arts program to do it for you. I’ve been up for three days straight with a press run that was probably much smaller that what you would send for invitations and it’s just not worth it to add that to the stress of wedding planning unless you have some serious, expert help.

  • I too am a paper junkie, but unlike you letterpress printed cards and paper have been on my radar for years. When I got engaged I knew that somehow I had to make letterpress part of my wedding stationery. It is expensive so I got creative and combined letterpress with gocco printing (that part I did myself). I found that for what I needed and wanted Paper Source was a great option for a reasonable price (considering what letterpress can run you). I was extremely pleased and my invitations looked beautiful.

  • These look fab! We too are letter-pressing our invitations, and if you don’t want to set type, you can do it using a plate. Basically, you send in your design and get back a plastic plate that you can re-use.

    And if anyone is in NYC, you can do letter-pressing at The ARM in Williamsburg.
    They make you take a class, or prove that you can use the machines, but after that, its really fairly affordable, relatively speaking, and fun! They have type that you can use, or you can get your own plates made.

  • So pretty! And thank you for explaining it- I had been wondering about the process.

  • Kate

    Ahh – I was reading this post and reflecting fondly on my time in the Dartmouth Letterpress Studio while I was an undergrad and then I saw you’re an alum and printed them on campus!

    I think the Letterpress Studio is one of the best kept secrets on campus, and it’s sad more people don’t take advantage of it. It is time consuming but it also produces amazing finished products. It’s an incredible resource for the College to have and I’ve often thought about going back up to Hanover to do my wedding invites some day too. :)

    D ’05

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