SHOW+TELL: A Look at the Letterpress

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With the weather turning gloomy it’s becoming less practical (and pleasant) to work outside, but I have had more chances to work more with my lovely letterpress. It dawned on me (while I was listening to the clunking and whirring of the machine) that I haven’t ever shared my adventures with this 126-year-old guy, even though he takes up a huge space in my heart (and my bedroom.)

I thought I’d show you a couple of behind the scenes shots, and talk about my printing process.

An old etching of the letterpress model I work with, in the amazing American Wood Type book my mom passed down to me. Synchronicity?

There are a lot of great resources for learning about the history of printing (I’ve listed some resources below) so I won’t get too much into a subject that I’m learning more about all the time.

My first experience printing was at the University of Texas, on a Vandercook press using antique wood type (from the Rob Roy Kelly collection) and modern polymer plates. I eventually acquired a small table-top platen press (a Craftsmen Imperial) and started printing greeting cards and more using the same method I use today on my floor-standing platen press.

Nearly two years ago we moved the one-ton California Reliable into a corner of our bedroom, and it has become a my go-to for printing with love.

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Polymer plates before they are aligned on the aluminum base for printing.

While I still use lead type and wood type occasionally, I mainly print with polymer plates on an aluminum base. I draw up the artwork, scan it, clean it up and prep it for the plates, then send the artwork out to have plates made. The plates are somewhat similar to the clear sticky stamp sheets some people use with a clear block; however the material is much harder which allows for much more detail and lets it stand up to the high pressure of the letterpress. The height of the material has to be just right to bring it up to type high on the aluminum block and allow for the ink rollers to roll, and the printer to print.

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Hand carved linoleum blocks being printed on a small tabletop press.

Occasionally I get a wild hair and print from hand-carved linoleum blocks. There’s less perfection in this mode, but you can end up with really great results with lots of character. There’s a trick to raising the blocks up to the right height, but it’s definitely possible.

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There’s a long list of things I love about letterpress printing, but color is at the top. I love how each color I print is one solid color instead of being made up of a pointillistic nightmare of Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black. (There’s no room in my blue for little pink dots.) Each color on a letterpress print is printed separately; each color has its own plate. I’m a somewhat inexact ink mixer, but I always seem to end up at the right color (and I try not to get ink everywhere.)

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Printing the first color of a leafy card.

Alignment (registration) is something that has taken a little getting used to, but I’ve come up with a method that works great for me. Here you can see a couple of polymer plates on my aluminum base, printing the first color of a two-color card.


The opening and closing action on this Gordon-style press is powered by a flywheel and a foot-powered treadle. There is a single magical dance that inks the rollers on the ink plate, rolls them across the printing plate, then presses the paper into that plate to make a print. (I’m learning a little more all the time about the mechanics of this magic, but the first lesson was DON’T LEAVE YOUR HAND IN THERE.) I’m responsible for pumping with my foot/ankle/hip and feeding paper.

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Printing on paper handmade from the scraps of other cards.

One of the nicest things about the letterpress is that with a little ingenuity you can print on just about anything flat. Most of my pieces are printed on thick cover stocks, often 100% cotton. I’ve started printing more and more on sheets of handmade paper that I make from the trimmings of those other cards. I love the texture and softness of the paper I make, and I adore the fact that it means I’m contributing less to the landfills. (Want to know more about making paper? 1 2 3)

I’ve also just started to experiment with printing on fabric…. I have ideas….

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So that’s my old guy. Our love is still new, but I think it’s made to last.

Time will pass– I will get more ragged and he will get less, and he’ll always have new things to press.
I’ll keep learning.

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Resources and Links

Briar Press: A never ending resource for letterpress parts and printers
Letterpress Commons: Developed by Boxcar Press with articles and resources
Boxcar Press: My usual source for polymer plates and some other materials and supplies
Reich Savoy: One of the papers I print on.
Van Son Rubber Base Plus Ink: My preferred ink

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