How To: Build Your Own Letterpress

Every spring, the wheels of the reprehensibly-shiesty wedding industry begin turning. Planning my own nuptials went smoothly. But if I had to do it over again, I would have tried crafting my own letterpress invitations and save-the-dates instead of outsourcing to an online digital printing service. Sure you can pick up a little bulb-operated Gocco, but going deep into pre-20th Century techniques seems appealing (even if you don't get into historical garb). I'm not alone... In the last five years, there's been a surge of renewed interest in letterpress (just check Etsy or any artsy-fartsy card shop). Evidently, a lot of new-old printers are women. According to the folks at Boxcar Press (hint: amazing resource/supplier), nine out of ten (!) of their new customers are female -specifically, these are ladies looking to print DIY wedding invitations. I'm not going to invoke a battle of the sexes, because that's just silly (plus, the one pro letterpresser I know is a dude). Still, consider this: Benjamin Franklin got into printing when he was 12. So if letterpress is downright American. Building your own press could be construed as civic duty. We found two homemade models -a lever-based rig and a screw press - and probed our pro presser for some advice/critique, after the jump... [Above image from JWG] Lever Press Resembles: C&P Pilot Press Parts: galvanized pipe, pipe fittings, shelf board, parchment paper, rubber bands, foam strips, etching board Cost: $$ (~$200) Difficulty: Easy Pro presser says: * "It's very possible to grab a press like this for $200-$400 if you don't mind moving it, possibly putting in some time to clean/fix it up and have somewhere to put it." * "The flex when pressure is applied seems like this whole thing could break if you got real crazy forceful." * "This one uses excess backing behind the print in order to achieve a better impression but chances are that backing will eventually wear down and putting in a new piece does not seem that easy -- you would have to re-do all your original registration in order to change the backing."
Screw Press (via Instructables) Resembles: Copy Press Parts: six 12"x12" cuts of plywood, nuts, washers, veneer press screw Cost: $ Difficulty: Moderate Pro presser says: * "You tend to see this style of press used more for the gluing of book bindings, but it seems lightweight, solid, and much easier to move and store." * "Adding a Boxcar base would dramatically help for precision alignment. It's a cast piece of aluminum with grid lines. $150 for the smallest one, but worth it if you plan to print often." * "You'd probably get less movement and more control than with a gerry-rigged lever. If so, the impressions could wind up being darker and clearer. Sidenote: old-school letterpress guys try to print with the least amount of indentations on the paper, which is called a kiss-off. These days, though, an indentation is desirable since it shows it's handmade." * "My main problem with both presses is that inking all those prints by hand with a brayer would drive me crazy! It's also really hard to ink polymer plates with a brayer -- it's only easy if your brayer is always bigger than the design on the polymer plate." TIP: Use Crisco for all your initial clean up with presses, rollers, brayers, etc. Saves you from having to use expensive solvents 2-3 times. Instead, clean first with Crisco and then do a round of cleaning the heavier-duty, toxic solvents. Getting your images print-ready: Platen presses like these require plates (duh). Unless your press is magnetic (neither of the above ones are), then you need to pay for a custom photopolymer plate. Boxcar Press can create plates from PDF or even artwork you snailmail up to 12 x 17 inches (though they do charge for the time to scan). A small plate might cost $30; ink would be $14-20; paper varies. Not a huge savings, but on the other hand, you can wall mount your plate after printing as a thoughtful, post-wedding gift to your sweetheart. Additional resources: Boxcar Press - Supplies, Ink, Paper Briar Press - Forum & Free Classifieds NA Graphics - General Supplies, Plates & Spare Parts for Classic Presses College & University Letterpress Printer's Association Forumla Pantone Guide (for mixing inks)
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16 Responses to How To: Build Your Own Letterpress

  1. jmullan says:

    Awesome! I have a strong desire to roll my own letterpress now. However, maybe I should share some knowledge that I have gained by being in the vicinity of greatness:

    If you’re in Minneapolis, you could look up the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, where they have classes and presses in their studio.

    If you’re in the Bay Area, you could check out the San Francisco Center for the Book, which also has classes and a studio with presses.

    Even if you build your own press, these places can be great resources and even better places to meet other people doing the same stuff (besides, you know, the internet).

    Here’s a bit of a shameless promotion for the business cards that my friend Chandler designed and printed for me. I helped (a little) by turning the crank (for some of them).

    Seeing the imprinted image was several orders of magnitude more exciting than just cutting cards out of plain old laser printed cardstock.

  2. clockbound says:

    Also don’t forget the Museum of Printing!

  3. blaisepascal says:

    It seems to me that the stiffness of the lever design could be enhanced greatly by putting a 2×4 on edge under both sides.

  4. bardfinn says:

    The Scribe’s & Engraver’s Guild will be along shortly to demand that this post be taken down, because movable type infringes their natural rights.

  5. Bevatron Repairman says:

    Yeah, Letterpress! My grandfather was a printer in SF for nearly 50 years. Typeset a lot of books and things for Ansel Adams, among others.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Angel Bomb… Local letterpress printers seem to be everywhere now – – among others, ME! Kyle Van Horn will print for you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Couldn’t a bottle jack shop press be modified to make something like this?

  8. coolerator says:

    You are right about lots of letter presses on etsy, my friend eva has one: that I know of.

  9. Jacksonbaker323 says:

    My missus is a paper maker/presser/etc. in training. I too noticed that most of the people in her area were ladies.

    Very cool resources, I have a feeling I will be building one of these in the near future.

  10. jmullan says:

    Note: a steamroller also works in a pinch

  11. adamrice says:

    My wife and I actually inherited a letterpress with our house. And my wife, who has a background in graphic design, has indeed been cranking out projects on it.

    Tabletop letterpresses (like the Chandler & Price “Pilot”) are in extremely high demand, and go for roughly $3000 on ebay. There’s even a small outfit in Japan, Robundo, making new tabletop presses, also for a lot of money. But full-size presses, like the one we wound up with, are selling for little more than their value as scrap metal. If you’ve got room in your garage for one (a major consideration), they can be had surprisingly cheaply.

  12. Angel Bomb says:

    Ahhhhh man, as a letterpress designer and printer, you’re killing my business! Not really, it was very cool to see your post on building your own letterpress. I love the history behind it and the quality of print this method achieves. Should anyone not want to build there own, call up a local letterpress operator – they’re generally pretty congenial and have them help you out.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Anyone need an antique wooden screw press?
    It’s in great condition. It was donated the theatre program at the university I work at and we’re trying to sell stuff off that’s never been used to recoup some of the money we’ve lost in recent budget cuts.

    The screw mechanism works great and has all of it’s threads. I wish i could post a picture with this but i’d be happy to send it to anyone who is interested.
    I’d love to see it go to someone who’d really appreciate it for what it is and maybe even use it.

    If anyone has any suggestions on other places I could post as well as help with where I could look to try to determine it’s value I’d appreciate it. I’ve already done some web searches but not come up with prices for anything that looks remotely like it.

    Oh- It’s located in Irvine (southern) CA
    Marshal Kesler- 949-573-0809

  14. John_S says:

    > Couldn’t a bottle jack shop press be modified to make something like this?

    Yes, with a 4 to 8 ton bottlejack. Works fine.

    PDF here:

    and here:

  15. vert says:

    John S. beat me to the punch on link to Charles Morgan’s original bottle jack design.

    Interestingly enough, Readymade published instructions for building a nearly identical model in issue 32 (and a web-based follow up can be seen here:

    Also, you don’t have to order polymer plates for any of these. they’ll print any relief form that doesn’t require a screaming buttload of pressure (no etching, intaglio, or litho, IOW). Lino or rubber won’t give the same level of bite that polymer, wood, or metal will; but they’ll still look really nice.

    Aside from carving your own wood or lino, you could also get clever with rubber stamps.

  16. clockbound says:

    You can always go crazy and dive into the mighty world of Vandercook!

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