Introduction: Build a Letterpress & Use It to Print Things
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
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:
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.
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.
1. The ability to divide & multiply fractions (I'm sadly lacking here).
2. The ability to measure relatively accurately (this, I can do).
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 6: Press & Remove
Now that things are in place, it's time to press. To do this, you'll
1. Pick up the platen and place it on top of the corkboard.
2. Crank down hard on the press screw. Really, crank until can't crank no more.
Once you've done that, loosen the press screw, remove the platen, and pick up the corkboard. The paper will now be stuck roughly in the middle of it.
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.