Letterpress Printing 101

With 20 new cards and 9 new art prints set to debut next week, Kirk has been printing like crazy. Here's a little behind the scenes look at him printing one of our new cards.

1 ///// Registration

Once a design is complete, we ready the files and upload them to Boxcar Press, our trusty plate makers. About a week later, a truck pulls up to our door with a shiny new letterpress printing plate.

The plates are made of photopolymer, which is a transparent, adhesive backed, flexible plastic. Kind of like a big textured sticker. Kirk sticks the plate down on a slab of metal (called a base) that is secured to the flat part of the press (called a bed like on a truck). It usually takes him multiple tries to get the plate positioned so that it will print in the right place on the card. For more complicated jobs, this can sometimes take an hour or more. This process is called registration.

2 ///// Inking the Press

Kirk takes some ink out of a can, places it on a glass slab, and works it with the ink knife until it loosens up a bit. Then he scoops some ink up on the knife and carefully taps it across the rollers, keeping it as even as possible. Since our press doesn't have motorized inking, he then turns a little crank around and around until the ink distributes as evenly as possible over all the rollers (see image below).

Inking can be a tricky process. You not only have to worry about keeping it even across all the rollers, you also have to worry about having just the right amount. Too little, and the printing will look washed out with too much of the white paper showing through. (This is called "salty".) Too much, and the ink squishes out everywhere looking really sloppy. The trouble comes when you have a thick shapes and thin lines on the same plate. The thick shapes end up looking salty and the thin lines end up looking sloppy. So we try to avoid that kind of design.

3 ///// Packing / Makeready

Once the registration and inking are sorted out, Kirk needs to figure out how much packing to use. Packing is the paper you place behind the card while it goes through the press. It's also the layers of paper and mylar that cover the cylinder that the card gets clamped to. The more packing you use, the more impression you get. But if you use too much, you could damage your plate, or worse, the press. It's a delicate balance.

4 ///// Printing

Once everything is ready to go, Kirk clamps the card down onto the cylinder, and then cranks the cylinder (and rollers) forward to the end of the press bed. It requires taking a step or two forward. Once the cylinder hits the end of the press bed, the clamps automatically open, and he pulls the card out. At that point, he cranks the cylinder back to the starting point and reaches for the next card.

Each piece of paper needs to be cranked through the press one at a time. It makes for some strong, broad shoulders!

5 ///// Cleaning

Because we have a manually operated press and use non-toxic solvents, it takes about an hour to clean the press. One hour of wiping back and forth with cotton rags. For this reason, he tries to plan it so he can print as many items as possible in the same ink color on the same day.

There you have it! I walked you through the steps of a typical greeting card press run here at Sycamore Street Press. And if the card has two colors (as most of ours do) then this whole process has to be repeated. And once the printing is done, Kirk still has to fold all the cards and package them with their envelopes in clear protective sleeves. That process can take as long as the printing itself.

As you can see, crafting a card or art print with a letterpress is a much more involved process than more modern methods such as digital. This is why we have to charge what we do and place the minimums that we do. But the unique, tactile look of letterpress is so beautiful that I believe it's all worth it! Faster, cheaper methods just don't provide the same results.

This card was designed by our friend Stephanie Ford, who designs our Pop line. Isn't she talented?! Two of her designs got picked up by the MoMA Design Shop. (I can brag if it's about someone else, right? :) We're so lucky to have her as a part of the Sycamore Street Press team.

Also check out my Stationery Business classes on atly.com.