The Letterpress Process

Here's a brief overview of how I use the antiquated letterpress printing process to make contemporary stationery, paper goods, and prints.

1) Someone makes a drawing. It can be done the old-fashioned way or made in the computer. (Michéle Brummer-Everett hand drew this one.) It has to be very crisp and high contrast. If I'll be printing it in more than one color, a separate drawing, or layer, has to be made for each color. You can see in Michéle's drawing above, that there are 3 separate parts, which will each be a separate color and fit together like a puzzle when printed.

2) If the drawing is done by hand, we scan it into the computer and upload the files to Boxcar Press's website. They use a light sensitive process to make very precise plastic (photopolymer) plates from the drawings. About a week after I upload the files, I get a funny looking, clear yellow, flexible, adhesive backed plastic plate in the mail. The image is backwards and raised off the surface of the plate.

3) I get my ink ready by working it with an ink knife on some glass. I use soy-based ink from Gans ink. It's better for the environment, and unlike some other inks, can be run through a laser printer without getting messed up. (Not that I ever really need this...but it would come in handy for letterpressed letterhead.) I usually add a little magnesium carbonate to the ink to make it a little stiffer and less likely to squish out and look messy when printed.

4) I tap the ink across the top roller, and then hand crank the little wheel at the side to distribute the ink throughout all the rollers. (I think there are 7 total...but only 2 that actually make contact with the plate.)

5) I oil the press.

6) I position the plate on my aluminum Boxcar Base, which has a grid to help me register it correctly. Sometimes this process is fairly simple, sometimes it can take a frustratingly long time! I do a bunch of test proofs to see if it is lined up the way I want it on the paper. During this time I also check to make sure that I am getting the amount of impression I'm looking for, that there is the right amount of ink on the rollers, and that they are at the right height.

i love the texture of the impression letterpress printing makes

7) I start printing! (Sorry I don't have any pictures of this -- maybe next time. I didn't feel like playing with the self timer.)My press is a Vandercook #3. It's about 2 feet wide and 7 feet long. There are little grippers on top to hold the paper in place on the cylinder. The press doesn't have a motor, so for each impression, I hand crank the cylinder and walk with it to the end of the press bed, where I take out the printed sheet, and then crank it back to the beginning. Then I clamp the next sheet into the grippers, and begin again.

While I am printing, I watch for smudges, flecks of ink, changes in impression, etc... I often have to stop and apply more ink to the rollers, or wipe of a smudge from the plate. Some plates are very tricky to print, and I have to wipe them clean between each print, or pass over them twice with the rollers. It's a finicky process!

8) Most of the time, Kirk cleans the press. ( For which I am very grateful.) We use a non-toxic oily solvent and cotton rags to get all the ink off the press. It takes an hour. An hour of just wiping the rollers back and forth. You can see why I like Kirk.

on the left is a proof where i was trying to find the correct registration. on the right, i finally found it.

9) Repeat steps 3-8 for however many colors are left to print.

10) If it's not already done, cut down paper to size (and score if it's a folding card). Package items, photograph, put in shop, etc...

There you have it. A (pretty) brief overview of how I do my letterpress printing. Of course, different people have different sorts of presses, processes, etc... I would love to start printing from some gorgeous old hand-set lead and wooden type, for example.

I'm excited to see how Michéle's print looks when I am finished with it. There's still another part of the image to be printed, plus the date, title, and signature. I'll hopefully have it in the shop in early February.

It is the first in a 2009 series for Sycamore Street Press of limited edition artist prints. More on that later.