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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