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Build a Letterpress & Use It to Print Things

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Shortly after getting engaged, it became clear letterpressed save-the-dates, invitations, rsvps, & thank you notes were in my future. After a bit of looking around at commercial letterpress, as well as used presses, it also became clear these things were not in the budget. What to do? Build a letterpress and print the things on my own.

I started by looking at letterpress designs at briarpress.org, and, it seemed to me anyway, the basic functioning of Gutenberg's model could be relatively easily reproduced on a small scale and a small budget.

Of course, it ended up taking a while, but the invitations got out on time.

 
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Step 1: Construction

Picture of Construction
OK, unfortunately, I didn't take pictures as I built the thing, and I'm not going to take it apart or build another, but, looking at the finished product, I think the it becomes pretty apparent how you'd put one together.

What will you need? These things:

Materials

1. Two 4'x8' sheets good quality 3/4" plywood (find stuff with relatively few gaps, there's going to be a lot of pressure involved in this).

2. Six 18" lengths of 1/2" diameter all-thread ( I think I found 36" lengths and cut them in half with a hacksaw; if you do this, be careful not to screw up the thread too much when cutting).

3. Nuts & washers to fit the all-thread. You'll need a total of 24 of each. It was cheaper, if I recall correctly, to just buy a box of each.

4. A veneer press screw. I used this one.

5. Some cork board. I found 12" square pieces in a six-pack at Ace.

6. Wood glue & a couple of wood screws.

Tools

1. A table saw to deal with the plywood

2. A drill press (with relatively long 1/2", 11/16", & 1" bits)

3. Various pliers, wrenches, maybe a hammer, a glue brush, etc.

Skills

1. The ability to divide & multiply fractions (I'm sadly lacking here).

2. The ability to measure relatively accurately (this, I can do).

Notes:

1. This is scalable. Make it bigger, make it smaller. This version has a maximum press area of 12"x12" in theory, and probably a little less effectively. There are bigger, heavier duty press screws out there that would probably be appropriate if you went up to something like 16"x16".

2. A lot of this, especially as we move toward the actual printing, was engineered on the fly. It works for me, but I'm sure there are better ways to do some of this. Fix it up.

Step 2: Construction Details

Closeups. Note that, though I tried to get everything centered when drilling for the all-thread, I missed the mark a little. Inexactness in execution is countered by overzealousness in design.

Step 3: Don't Forget the Platen

In letterpress terminology, the platen is the piece that does the pressing. You'll be needing one. I got the base and upper bar out of a single 4'x8' sheet of plywood. With the second sheet, I made the platen.

From a sheet of 3/4" plywood, cut seven 12"x12" pieces; glue them together to form a 12"x12"x5&1/4" block.

Not that the platen is free-floating, rather than actually attached to the press screw somehow. Originally, I had planned on attaching it, but the press screw was not pre-drilled, as I assumed it would be. It's for the best. It would be difficult to ink the type if the platen were in the way.

Step 4: Print!

OK, you've got the thing built now. There's a good chance you're wondering how on Earth you'll do anything useful with it. That's what happened to me, at least.

What are you going to need to print?

Materials & Tools:

1. Something from which to print. This will most likely be one of two things, either a photopolymer printing plate, or else a case of letterpress type (or, potentially, some linotype you have a shop set for you). If you use type or linotype, which is what I originally intended to do, you'll need some sort of a chase to set it in (I imagine you could make one from plywood), and a way to mount that chase to the base of the press (my plan was to drill matching holes in the base and chase and use dowels to hold them together). You'll also need all the basic type-setting tools, and, presumably, patience.

I ended up going the photopolymer plate route. There are a few places you can get them on-line. Mine came from Boxcar Press. Send them a to-scale pdf of your art, and they'll send back a plate for a reasonable price. If you use them, I recommend ordering the "deep relief" plates, as it makes inking much easier. Boxcar's plate are adhesive backed, so you can stick them directly to the plywood base.

2. Some ink. You can get ink made specifically for letterpress applications. Because I put off the purchase, I went with block printing ink, which I could get locally. It's not ideal. I ended up thinning it out with a bit of Turpenoid. I've never used letterpress ink, but it's probably a better consistency for this type of printing, so you should probably get some.

3. A brayer, and something on which to roll out the ink. Speedball brayers are readily available, and, from what I can tell, of relatively low quality. Mine is just slightly uneven, which makes inking the plate something of a pain in the ass. A big sheet of glass or plastic, anything smooth and non-porous, can be used to roll out the ink.

4. A mixing knife or equivalent, thinner, etc. I found cotton swabs handy for cleaning up stray ink on the plate. You'll also need some scrap mat board.

So, you've got your plate. Stick it in the middle of the press bed, and let's get talking registration.

Step 5: How Is This Supposed to Line Up?

So, registration is one of the things I figured out on the fly. Like I said earlier, this works, but there've got to be better ways to do it. I'll break this up into a few steps. The first two are illustrated in the photos below.

One thing you'll need to do beforehand is take a sheet of corkboard, center it on the press bed, and use something (I used the little sticky felts for the bottom of furniture legs) to line the edges, so that it can be placed in the same position on the bed easily and reliably.

1. Take a piece of the paper on which you'll be printing, apply double sided tape to one side, and carefully line it up on top of your plate (or type, or whatever).

2. Carefully, carefully, so as not to shift the placement on the paper on the plate, place one of the sheets of corkboard on top of the paper & plate.

Step 7: Where Is My Xacto Knife?

Now that the paper is stuck in the right spot, you need a way to get every other sheet of paper reliably placed in that same spot. Here's what I came up with:

1. Cut a few slits through the corkboard around the paper.

2. Grab the Book Darts from the office.

3. Bend the Book Darts and slip them through the slits in the corkboard so that they'll act as tabs to hold the paper in place.

4. Place a little scotch tape around the edges and corners of the paper; this will help when fine tuning paper placement.

Step 8: Inking & Printing

Getting close here.

1. Use the scrap mat board to make a little frame that fits around the plate. This will make inking much easier.

2. Roll out some ink.

3. Slip a fresh piece of paper into the tabs on the corkboard.

4. Ink the plate and remove the mat board collar.

5. Paying mind to the little felt things, carefully place the corkboard over the inked plate, paper side down.

6. Place the platen on top of the corkboard and press (I usually let the pressure sit on the paper for 15-30 seconds, or enough time to sip a little beer).

Step 9: And...

Now you've got a print. Repeat the last few steps a hundred & fifty or so times, and you'll have yourself a respectable edition.

*After some screwing up, and have no doubt about it, there will be some screwing up, I got to the point where I could get a consistently good print every minute & a half to two minutes. It does take a long time, but you save a lot of money, and you get to do it yourself.
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Thank you . I went to home depot with my friend and they argued with me that I could not do this on and on . Because I could recall the name of the veneer screw both men at home depot decided what I needed and should buy. How frustrating when I know what I want but not the proper names. Too bad . I downloaded your instructions and I will show them exactly what I want and . Yes it can be done.
sgcassidy3 years ago
I have't done letterpress, but I have done lino block printing and I used to just make registration marks for the plate and paper underneath where the plate was placed. (I would draw or tape a rectangle for the plate, then a larger rectangle for the paper, and then put the plate down, then the paper) So I would just place the paper over the inked plate and then run it through the press. Could I do it that way with this press, or do I really need the little tabs to hold the paper to the press while printing? Does it do some major shifting or something?

Also, for the top part, where the press screw is- could you just stack the wood? Or does it have to be vertical? I don't have the long drill bits, so I was thinking it would be easier to drill through the boards one at a time and then stack them. But maybe that wouldn't work, if it has something to do with weight resistance.

Thanks for this, by the way. I am SUPER excited about making it. I need to make some invitations too!
as a woodworker: stacking the top bar layers horizontally would be much stronger, taking advantage of the plywood's cross-grain strength. HOWEVER, this construction method *requires* you to have a press screw that can be taken apart. If you can't remove the handle, you'll never get it through the hole you drilled. It doesn't really say in this project, but if the screw doesn't break down you could build the letterpress per this instructable and cut a notch through the center layer of the top bar before gluing the top bar together. I'm in the initial stages of this project, so hopefully I'll have some more information in a few days.
lwestbrooks2 years ago
You say you got everything out of two sheets of plywood. Plywood comes in 4x8 foot sheets. I calculate that you can cut 4 pieces 12x16, 6 pieces 4x16 and 7 pieces 12x12 with less than one sheet. Have I missed some of the instructions?
I haven't figured it out for 4'X8', since my Home Depot is unable to stock anything that I actually plan on using and I have to use smaller pieces - so forgive me if you've already done this, but what people often forget in calculating material is a) sawcuts each take out 1/8" and b) make sure you draw it out before buying, so you can be sure that the A" x B" piece you're counting on can all be cut from the same place.
Hi,

I'm going to build mine this weekend, have you already built yours? Did you find that you only needed the one sheet of plywood? Just wondering.

Thanks!
murphis2 years ago
I'm so impressed with your skills! And sense of humor about the process. So much so that I'm going to make the letterpress for my holiday cards. A couple of questions before I start:

what paper stock did you use? I've been told Crane 100% Lettra 110 lb cardstock is good, but they also have a 220 lb cardstock. Any thoughts?

how may colors did you use on a single piece? if you used more than one does that make it more difficult or just more time consuming?

Thank you in advance for you help.

Murray
hamad23 years ago
Thank you for the idea
dylanwhat3 years ago
I built a letterpress based on this design, although I modified it to use a two cartridge system that avoids fiddling with the platen which rides up and down with the press screw. Check it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALGGwPKKkCc
crazyg4 years ago
i got a cast iron one of those presses out of a skip,i painted it green and yellow. still slightly baffeled be a bookdart,but iv got a photocopyer so im probably ok,(heavier balls on spinny clamp bit at top make it self tightening,give it a shove and it steadly spins down giving a uniform grip each time,shame i use mine as a vice.
The main reason behind the decline of the letterpress printing technique was the advent of more advanced & efficient printing presses like the Offset Printing Machine, lithographic press or the flexographic press. But it is really interesting to know that letterpress printing technique is still alive and letterpress printing machines such as rotary printing machines, rotary letterpress printing machine is now available with all latest features.
purpleshiny5 years ago
It's possible to use a lasercutter to etch a relief plate rather than getting a photoplate made as in this example... I'm not sure whether Ponoko's service will cut deeply enough or not. It should also be possible to use a chemical etching process on metal for this, but I haven't tried that :)
Typically if you want to print with an etched plate you would use an intaglio press. I would be worried about breaking the laser cut Ponoko plastic by putting it into a press like this...
metalfury4 years ago
Thanks for the instructable. Inspiring and I'm looking foward to having a go!
This is fabulous--I'm thinking about doing this for my wedding this fall too! I'm curious, did you also do envelopes? If so, were you able to prevent the impression from going through to the back? And what kind of paper did you use? Thanks!
I have been working in a commercial printing company. We open the envelopes and print on the flip. Just watch your impressions! Letterpress is my favorite of all our print processes!
khadgapa5 years ago
I have found this DIY letterpress very inspiring and am about to make my own to print wedding invitations for myself. I am just wondering how you handled the paper? Which paper did you buy? Did you have to cut it yourself? If so, how did you cut it and what tips do you have about that? Thanks for taking the time to document this enterprising homemade press.
kretzlord5 years ago
could you just attach the corkboard to the platen? some super 77, or even awesome double stick tape?
maurfiend6 years ago
Since I'm new to letterpressing, sorry if this is a stupid question - but can traditional metal type be used in the chase rather than just a photopolymer plate?
kidpolaroid6 years ago
I'm envisioning this process working quite well, but am wondering about the bookdarts... Did you have any problems using them--like them making indentations on the paper? (Keep in mind I have no idea what a bookdart is made of.) Also, did you run across any registration problems? (I'm guessing your plate image is slightly larger to allow for "bleeding" off the page.) Thanks! Awesome job...
336 years ago
i'm really excited by the potential of this process. thanks for posting it! i'm going to try to build one this weekend.
robinxx6 years ago
I learned the printing trade by starting on an old flywheel letterpress. What fun that was! This is a very cool home made contraption. Where in the world these days do you find a linotype shop anyway? robinxx
_soapy_ robinxx6 years ago
I saw one in a heritage museum this last weekend. You just can't build a press for less than a laser printer these days, & even if the press could do 14ppm there is still the lengthy set-up. Of course, if you were doing your own bank notes, this press would be quite useful, I suspect.
ikahime6 years ago
Just as a point of reference, how much did you pay for your photopolymer plate?
j schultz (author)  ikahime6 years ago
The cost varies depending on the size. For a small one like the one pictured, I think it was around $40, including film output charges & shipping. You can by the photopolymer and expose and develop them on your own, but I was on a schedule and needed it done right the first time, so I went to the pros.
Do you happen to have a good source for buying the UV photopoymer for do-it-yourself?
j schultz (author)  ikahime6 years ago
The place I had the plates made, Boxcar Press, also sells unexposed photopolymer & other supplies. See here.

Hope that helps.
Weird, I also have a printing press, brew beer, and wear (blue?) Chuck Taylors.
gmhowell6 years ago
One trick to cutting down all thread: put a couple of nuts on either side of the cut. Bring close to the cutting area. Use the nuts to guide the hacksaw blade. Once the cut is made, remove the nuts, passing them over the cut area. This tends to remove the worst burrs and flaws made from the cut. You can then dress the ends with a file to clean them even more.
orangos6 years ago
This looks like a nipping or copy press -- pretty cool, but if you want to deliver a lot of pressure I'd go with either a cylinder proofing press (tricky-ish to build or pricey to buy), or go hydraulic.

To build a high-pressure relief press (yes, it'll do woodblocks just fine too!), you need

a) a strong frame. This one ought to be just fine.
b) a *right way up* hydraulic jack. Unless you're printing a huge block or type chase, 6 tons ought to be more than enough!
c) a thick moving platen -- say 2 layers of ply, varnished to keep ink, solvents and water out, with an acrylic or MDF sheet on the bottom to prevent woodblocks or metal type denting the ply sheets.
c) bungie ropes (elastic ropes) from the frame to each corner of the platen, attached by padeyes.

The jack rests on the platen, the bungie ropes attach the platen to the frame top under tension, and the whole lot moves down when you pump the jack. Hit the release valve and the bungie ropes compress the jack again.

I've just built one. Would make an instructible but I can't show the stages as a lot of it is permanently fixed in place or welded.

However if you want some source material, try Charles Morgan's awesome hydraulic press here: www.mossworks.com/docs/BottleJackPress.pdf

and also take a peek this for a steel frame hydraulic press:

http://www.homeprint.co.nz/default.asp?pageid=3

Mine is basically a lovechild of the two types. Works like a charm.

Just make sure you wear eye protection when working with Bungee cords!

What happens when you try to stretch a Bungee cord between two nails in a wall, then one end comes loose?

Check out the link to this YouTube "Video Instructable" and see my 1:00AM project from last week.

Ouch!
Ouch indeed! Good point. How about, "use a lot of whipping to secure the bungee ropes, and wear eye protection anyway just in case!". Bearing your comment in mind, I've just bought some cord that doesn't have hooks on the end. That way if it works free under tension, at least it won't do so much damage!
The metal hooks are what appear to do the cutting. Many of the "newer" bungee cords have a plastic clip that are probably safer (but probably not "safe" if they suddenly detach). Bottom line: those elastic cords can pack a wicked punch! Having said all that, this looks like a neat project. I might just give it a try... but I'll definitely wear goggles!
cmorgan6 years ago
I build these using a bottle jack ... check my webpage at: www.mossworks.com Look in the techniques link. I have been using one for a long time, and there is no worry about tearing it apart with the jack. You can certainly tell when the pressure is getting too high. I find that a 6 ton press is adequate for all relief work up to at least 8 x 10 inches. My design has the jack in the upright position. The bed is fixed and the platen lowers from the top. I use bungee cords to retract the platen when the valve of the jack is released. Cheap, easy, and effective. Cheers .... Charles
Nice press. one change that I've seen would be to use a hydraulic bottle press in place of the press screw. Their like $20 and can create like 20 tons of pressure. another plus, with a twist of your wrist it releases the pressure you pumped into it. Cutting your printing time down significantly.
Unfortunately, the $20 hydraulic jacks don't work upside down.
Why would place it upside down in the first place? The press that i've seen using the jack method simply mounted the jack right side up between the upper bar and the platen. it was attached with screws or something, and had like a plumping piece attached to the underside of the upper bar as a guide. and then four springs were also attached from the upper bar to the platen to help retract the platen.
So basically it would look like this but be made of wood and not cost $300.

http://www.liftmyrod.com/Presses/ATD-7452.gif
jridley casper6 years ago
Why would you have to turn it upside down? The bottom will push just as hard as the top.
j schultz (author)  winchester8836 years ago
A good suggestion, I actually thought of that when I was making the thing, but didn't go that route because (due to the fact that I've not yet taught myself to weld) the frame had to be of wood. I'd worry the pressure from the bottle jack would tear the thing apart. But if one could weld...

It'd definitely make printing simpler and quicker. I'd love to see one that worked this way.
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