Letterpress Endeavors

I wanted to letterpress some of my poetry onto notecards. It was both a crafting project and a poetry one: figure out how a letterpress works and create a chapbook to distribute to friends and family. Unfortunately, I have yet been able to achieve a result I’m proud of and am on the verge of giving up the endeavor entirely. So here’s what I’ve tried and how it worked. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

My coworker had a desktop hobby-level letterpress machine from when he made his wedding invitations. (I think it’s this one, from We R Memory Keepers.) I ordered my custom plates from Boxcar Press (type KF 152, they have information about the difference between types of plates here), the only letterpress ink I could find on Amazon (this guy, also from We R Memory Keepers), and a 4″ hard speedball roller (this is sometimes called a brayer).

As far as I can tell, this is how you work this kind of letterpress: your letterpress plates (glorified stamps) have an adhesive backing, so you stick them to your plate, which is really two plates on a hinge. Your paper goes on the other side, so that you can close the plates together, your glorified stamp lines up with your paper. Then you run it through the actual letterpress, which is really just a way to apply even pressure, just a runway with a metal drum above it that you can spin to feed the plate through. Of course before you do this, you need to put ink on your letterpress plate, unless you’re just looking to emboss. To apply the ink, you squirt some out onto a flat piece of glass or plastic (VERY LITTLE, everyone on the internet keeps saying) and use a roller to spread it out thinly and evenly. Then, with the thin and even ink on your roller, you roll the ink onto your letterpress plate. Close the hinge, run it through the letterpress (man, everything seems to be called letterpress or plate in this process) and you get beautiful, hand-crafted printing.

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My set up! The letterpress machine is far left, the hinged plates in the center with a notecard on one side and the letterpress plate on the other, to its right are roller bearing strips (more on those later) and ink, farther right are rollers and a plate of acrylic with ink rolled out onto it.

This last part, beautiful printing, did not ever happen for me.

Boxcar Press has three blog posts about how to use these kinds of desktop presses. One two three. I read them after my first attempt failed. My attempt failed mainly in the evenness of the ink being applied to the letterpress plate and therefore the notecard. Here’s an example:

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The shadows in this image suck, but you can still tell how uneven the ink is applied.

After much effort and attention, I was able to reduce the splotchiness of the ink but not to a level I was happy with.

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I called Boxcar Press and they very nicely gave me some recommendations. They said to definitely stop using vegetable oil to clean everything. Letterpress ink is generally rubber or oil based, so water doesn’t work. For the most part I can wipe everything up with a rag but I used vegetable oil to remove ink that was giving me trouble. I was told that the vegetable oil will stick to my roller and plates instead of my ink, which would explain why parts of my plates wouldn’t pick up ink correctly. Instead I should be using mineral spirits, a type of paint thinner, where anything I didn’t wipe off would evaporate anyway.

They also recommended I use roller bearing strips, essentially strips of letterpress plates all around my letterpress plate such that when I rolled the ink the edges of the roller would be held at the right height, creating an even pressure as I rolled.

In addition, I read on their blog that they recommend a using a softer brayer. So I went and purchased the 4″ soft speedball brayer.

Armed with my new knowledge and tools, I cleaned everything carefully with mineral spirits and set out to try again. I carefully surrounded my plates with roller bearing strips. I rolled out the ink onto the plate with my hard roller and then used my soft roller to put the ink onto the plate.

Except the soft roller would not pick up much ink at all. And then it would not deposit it onto the plates. I resorted back to just using the hard roller. My set up did seem to be working better. My prints were coming out more even. But not even enough.

I was beginning to be able to tell where on the plate the ink was not even. This would allow me to proactively try to roll more ink onto those sections. (It also showed me that the problem was in applying the ink to the plate.) But I could not get it even to the point where I was happy. The parts that came out well were beautiful but I could never get the entire plate to come out well.

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This is a close up of one of the best prints I was able to create.

I have a couple theories about why I could never get even inking.

The first is that my rollers were the cheapest I could buy. Recommended rollers run around $60 each and just go up from there. It’s clear that my rollers were not even and that may have been the source of all of my troubles. I’m not sure if I was meant to be able to get an even coat of ink with a single pass of rolling over the plate. I always had to roll and roll and roll to get close to even coverage.

My second is that I was using oil based ink. I’m not sure if I was because the ink I used did not say, but given the cost that is my guess. Rubber based ink seems to be the industry standard and is also about twice the cost of oil based ink. The recommendations I were given may have been for rubber based ink. It’s also possible that rubber based ink is simply easier to apply evenly.

My third and final is that I was dealing with very detailed plates and to print them well with this kind of set up, at least without much experience, is essentially impossible. My plates had pretty much exclusively 11pt text on them. I can think of nothing less forgiving.

Let me know if you have any ideas. I may ask a couple of pointed questions about my set up on dedicated letterpress forums and call Boxcar Press for more advice now that I understand more about my set up. But I’ve given up on the idea that without more purchases this project can be successful. However, I have learned a lot about letterpresses and think this kind of set up could be great for other kinds of printing. Probably I would stick to custom greeting cards like everyone else. 🙂

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