This is a little change of pace, going from home improvement to letterpress projects, but that’s why I kept the title of the blog relatively open-ended. “Things” indeed covers a lot of… things. Including letterpress baby shower thank you cards!
Now, before any purists out there tar and feather me, I’m aware that this isn’t true letterpress. To do that, I’d need a huge machine and much more industrial setup. This, instead, is the best I could do at home.
Last year before my wedding, a major project of mine was designing & making our whole invitation suite from scratch, so I’m using the same setup I used for that project. (I’ve got a whole series of posts already written for that extensive project, but I still haven’t gotten around to taking good enough photographs… #badblogger)
What Is Letterpress?
In the simplest sense, letterpress is a method of printing a design onto paper. The process requires a machine that exerts pressure to transfer the design from the design plate (which can be made of any number of things – from carved wood blocks to etched metal or plastic) onto the substrate. In my case, because I choose to use heavyweight paper, the design is debossed into the paper when the pressure is exerted. This means that whether or not I use ink, the design is still visible.
Letterpress is classic and beautiful – even the simplest debossed designs have so much character. For my baby gift thank you cards, I wanted to make something special. Everyone gifting things to this new little love about to leap into my life is extremely dear to me. I love letterpress for this because the process makes it possible to create a big batch of the same design all in one fell swoop. Sure, I could get cards digitally printed on nice paper, but then the texture and character of letterpressed cards is lost. The process is not easy, mind you! But if your heart is set on custom cards (I love this sort of project) and also on letterpress (obviously I’m a fan!) then it’s all worth it. I have much more to say about that in my series on my wedding invitations.
How Is Letterpress Done?
This is just my at-home method, definitely not what you’d find at a studio, but it has suited me well over a number of projects now! Here’s my setup, to give a general overview of what happens:
Let’s break down the components:
- Letterpress machine – I used this one, which, frustratingly, is no longer available on Amazon as of this writing. It’s a shame, because it’s a great little workhorse with surprising capacity. It works by using the crank over on the left to roll your (inked or not) design plate over your paper under pressure. It’s not perfect – because you’re only applying point pressure the plates can tip and apply pressure unevenly – but it’s worked for my non-professional purposes just fine.
- Base plate – This thick piece of acrylic is what I use to secure my paper and design plate to as it rolls through the machine. It’s thick to withstand the pressure of the roller, and it’s long so that it can roll up to an 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper completely through the machine in either direction without coming out of the rollers. Other important features of the base plate include 1) a pair of delrin dowel pins for locating the top plate repeatably and 2) a series of thin, compressible stoppers that locate the paper being printed on repeatably. It’s all in the name of repeatability and not having to worry about alignment after everything is set up!
- Top plate – This thinner (but still hardy!) piece of acrylic is what I stick my design plates onto. It has slightly oversized holes in it to fit just over the delrin pins in the bottom plate.
- Brayer – I LOVE this brayer. When I talk about my wedding invitations in a later post, I’ll explain a lot more about that. Suffice it to say, it was worthy of the nearly $300 investment! The brayer is what’s used to apply ink to the design plate before every round through the rollers. It sounds dubious, but it’s an incredibly fiddly process – and one you need to repeat hundreds of times. The ink layer you’re going for is SO thin (and the printing looks bad if you over- or under-ink) and SO uniform that the brayer you use really matters. I’m side-eyeing you, cheapo Speedball brayer…
- Ink Reloading Plate – This is yet another piece of large, flat acrylic. I use this one for applying the ink to the brayer. The brayer needs to be reloaded with a perfectly uniform layer of ink before every print, and having a large, flat surface to do this is indispensable. To start out, I squeeze a little bit of ink onto the center of the plate and use the brayer to roll it in every possible direction until the small blob is uniformly spread across the plate, adding more as needed and repeating the process.
…Pay no attention to that wood glue over there.
This is just the bare-bones, but hopefully it explains a bit about what setup is required and how the process works! Now, let’s dive into the details of this specific project:
Step 1: Create the Design
Letterpress works best with simple shapes, so I took to pencil and paper and came up with the following baby-related images:
From there, I took this photo (alternatively, I could have scanned it – but I don’t have a scanner) into Photoshop, where I adjusted the levels to boost the visibility of each design. Next, it was onto Illustrator! I grabbed my Wacom tablet and hand-traced each icon to create a vector version:
This takes a long time… But! Once I had all my vector designs, I could introduce text and start finalizing my card layout, something I also do in Illustrator. I decided I wanted to do a 2-color design, so once I came up with my final layout, I separated each color into its own file. This will make more sense later on…
Step 2: Have Design Plates Made
This isn’t a DIY step, unfortunately. I’ve 3D printed plates and also laser etched plates myself, but nothing beats having the pros do it, and it isn’t terribly expensive. I ship my Illustrator files to my custom photopolymer letterpress plate maker of choice (!), Boxcar Press, and have the plates in my hands in a few days. They use a highly accurate photo-etching process to create plates in a durable, easily inkable plastic, and even mirror your designs for you. The plastic plates come with a repositionable sticky back for applying to whatever you run through your press.
Here is my first set of design plates applied to my top plate, before inking. (The yellow color is just the color of the photopolymer resin and doesn’t affect the ink color whatsoever.)
Step 3: Prepare Paper and Design Plates
Because the base plate has locator pins to fit the top plate, the only other piece that needs constraining is the paper being printed on. To locate the paper stock repeatably, I butt the paper up against compressible “pins” that are very similar to 3M poster hangers:
Once the paper is in place, I lie the design plates directly on top of the paper with the sticky backs facing up and press the top plate on top of them, using the delrin locator pins to make sure everything’s in the right place. When I pick up the top plate, the design plates are attached, and I know the design is in the right place. It’s time to ink!
Step 4: Apply First Round of Ink
I kind of like pretending I’m a robot for this step. The process goes like this:
- Put new paper onto the base plate ready for printing
- Spread a uniform layer of ink onto the brayer
- Use the brayer to apply an even layer of ink to the design plate
- Carefully place the top plate on top of the paper using the locator pins
- Crank that sucker through the rollers
- Remove the top plate, put the printed paper into a stack, and repeat!
Not going to lie, it gets a little tedious (which is why it helps to pretend you’re a robot). Those popsicle sticks are there for a reason, believe it or not. It’s impossible to roll the brayer evenly over the design plate without listing to one side or the other (and thus applying an uneven layer of ink) so you need a guide along the edges. In the past, I’ve grabbed sheets of .060″ acrylic (the design plates are exactly .060″ thick) and used the laser cutter to create my guides, but alas! My unfettered access to laser cutters is no more. Well… turns out popsicle sticks are manufactured to surprising tolerances and are pretty darn near .060″ thick, making them worthy replacements for my fancy laser-cut guides of yesteryear.
Here’s the inked top plate sandwiched on the paper and base plate, ready for cranking!
Crazy glow on the plastic edges when it’s all under pressure…
And here’s what it looks like when it comes out the other end! I chose not to ink the back of card design and dig how that turned out, too. Glamour shots of the single-color front and back, to give some more idea of what the texture is like:
Amazing you can get these kind of results at home, right??
Step 5: Apply Second Ink Color
The process is identical to everything outlined above, except that you’re using the output from step 4 instead of blank cards, and the ink color & design plates are different. That’s it! Locating the new design plates is done again exactly as described in step 3, and after the cards all make their way through the rollers a second time, you get something like this:
That’s a wrap! Way more details about the setup (and cleanup) and printing process when I get around to the wedding invitation posts, but in the meantime this was too fun not to share.
I’ll be back next time with some more house projects! T-29 days till my little guy’s due date, got lots of content I want to post before he shows up 🙂