Letterpress Printing I: Project Research

I have a commission to do an event poster for a festival coming up this fall. Rather than do the obvious and design it on the computer and then print it by any of the obvious high-tech methods, I thought I would look into what it would take to set up a homemade letterpress printing press and print the posters myself using relatively primitive technology similar to the methods used by poster printers like Hatch Press but on a more modest scale. I figured this process might be of interest to others so I’m writing it up.

My basic plan is to try to produce a press capable of printing in sizes up to 17x22in using inexpensive materials and basic carpentry and mechanical skills. The objective is to do this in a low-tech way with minimal cost and moderate quality with high volume and high speed not really priorities. I only need to print short runs of maybe 100 posters at a rate of maybe 10 copies an hour. What I need is the extra size which you can’t get cheaply for short runs by other methods and one of the goals is to keep the price competitive with silkscreening while using letterpress-style technology.

The first step was to do some basic research and the internet proved to be rich with resources. I clearly was far from the first person to have this idea and so I can benefit from the experiences of others. YouTube provided a number of excellent videos. Two of the best accompany this article. The first is a good overview of a small homemade press created very much using the kind of low cost and low tech methods I had in mind. The second is a DIY video on making your own polymer plates, which was very helpful in assessing whether that was an option I wanted to pursue. Also very useful was the letterpress community at briarpress.org which is a gathering place for letterpress fanatics and an excellent resource if you need advice, equipment, supplies or services. It’s got a large user base and though the site design is awkward the community is strong.

Now at this point I’m not even sure if the project is worth doing., but I’ve identified the two basic necessities. One is to build a press, which ought to be low cost and within my skills. The other is to produce usable plates for the press by some method which is both practical and inexpensive.

Given my past experience working with antique presses and my mechanical and woodworking skills I’m confident I can build a press. In fact I’m pretty sure that if sufficiently motivated I could build a mechanical press which used movable type and printed at a reasonable speed, though that’s way beyond my level of need or commitment for this project.

The bigger question is what do I print from? Movable type is right out unless I have some sort of windfall. Complete sets of the kinds of fonts I would want in wood or metal are prohibitively expensive and would take ages to find and acquire, and I’d still need to have custom pieces made for artwork and images. Worst of all I’d be stuck with the fonts I could find and wouldn’t be able to use any of my own designs. The alternative is to print from a single plate custom cut for the purpose. This can be done by hand. I could cut a whole plate myself in wood or rubber or linoleum if the job were simple and I had the time and patience, and I could do it from an original design which used my fonts, but it’s too much work if I want it to be of decent quality.

For speed, convenience and quality the third and most appealing option is to have a plate of some sort photoetched. Because of price and the fact that we don’t need the plate to last forever metal plates are out and the best option is a polymer plate. This is not something I’ve done before except on a very small scale, and my expectations (even after watching the accompanying video) is that doing the chemical etching myself to create a polymer plate is an iffy prospect. I’ve worked with photo silkscreening materials and had mixed and dubious results and I’m afraid the same concerns apply here. I’m still intrigued by the cost savings of doing it myself, but I lack confidence.

The easy alternative would be to spend some money and send a PDF of my design off to a professional platemaking company to be produced in polymer. This is a lot like the process for making a custom rubber address stamp but on a larger scale. The problem is that it’s not cheap. To be workable it needs to be around the same price it would cost to have the posters silkscreened and that means no more than a couple of hundred dollars, and even that is stretching the budget given the cost of paper, printing and the materials to make the press. Nonetheless this is the best combination of convenience and quality if the price is right.

In looking for sources the one which everyone seemed most pleased with was a company called Boxcar Press, but their prices were just too high. For the proposed 17×22 size their price was well over $200 just for the polymer plate and we’d be adding in another $25 or so for a film positive. More research turned up Elum which could do the plate for a tiny bit under $200. Really still too high, but getting into range. The final option was Nagraph which could get the price down a bit lower to about $170 including the cost of a film positive, with the apparent catch that the plate would come in several pieces – not really an issue since they would be reasonably large and easy to assemble. $170 wasn’t ideal, but it at least brought this option to within the realm of possibility, though it would mean a total production cost of perhaps as much as $3 per poster.

Thus far the accumulated research suggested that the project was at least feasible, but because of the cost it was necessary to go back and consider the question of whether I could successfully make my own polymer plate and save about $100 in the process. The next step was clearly to see if I could find materials either locally or online from a company like Boxcar Press and try making a polymer plate and see how painful the process was and what kind of quality I could produce. If I could do as well as the example in the DIY video I found on YouTube and with similarly low tech materials, then I’d be on my way.

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