Sunday, 16 January 2011

The letterpress actually works!

fresh off the press!

Save-the-dates are printed!!  And I think they look pretty flashy :)

And because I said I would, here is how I did it, step by step, on my homemade diy letterpress.

1.  Build the letterpress.  Or in this case, ask your dad to build you the press for Christmas.  We used this plan:  This guy really knows his stuff.  We built it exactly as he lays out - email me if you have questions.  We bought all the materials that we needed at the Home Depot, except the tire jack which we ordered from Amazon.

2.  Buy the rest of your supplies.  I bought my paper and envelopes from  (I used Lettra paper and envelopes, in Pearl.  It is just barely ivory.)  Then I bought my ink and the brayer (roller) from Dick Blick - I used the Caligo Safe Wash ink, and it worked great, with easy cleanup.  I went with Prussian Blue, and nice dark navy I used to use for sky wash in my watercolouring days, and applied it straight with no mixing colours, or extenders, etc.  I am sure it could have worked better if I knew anything about printmaking, but I think I did OK with my limited resources.  I used the Speedball soft rubber brayer, and when I do the invitations, I will buy a wider one.  If possible, buy one wide enough to easily cover all sides of your plate in one roll.

Hi Mom!

3.  Oh yeah, design your invites.  I did mine on a combo of AutoCAD for the drafting, and Illustrator for the text and refinement.  You could easily use Photoshop as long as you rasterize all your text layers.  Basically, you need to work to the specs of the company you use to make your plate.  My invites are inspired by the architectural details of the Carnegie, where we are having the wedding, because I think it is just an amazing and intricate building.  I am obsessed with the lantern hanging in the portico:  thus the save the date motif.

4.  Which brings me to my next step: order your plates.  I worked with the extraordinarily helpful people (mostly Phillip) of Elum Designs.  They had a chat with me before I submitted the design, and then when I sent the file and it wasn't 100% right, they let me know and explained how I should fix it, and didn't just charge me their fee to fix it themselves.  The plate I ordered was a photopolymer deep relief plate (nicer for hand-presses bc the press isn't as firm, and added bonus:  it is harder to get ink in the void areas of your plate where you dont want it.).

From left:  my ink rolling sheet with the brayer and palette knife, a toothbrush I used to clean areas of fine detail on the print, and my printing board with my plate stuck to it, which I slid in and out of the press.  The white thing in the far right corner is a pad of wool felting, which you place between the paper and the press platen.
5.  Ink away.  First, set yourself up for printing by acquiring a board on which to roll out the ink.  I used the other half of the acrylic sheet that I used as a sliding board.  Take your palette knife (if you didn't have one already, then buy one from Dick Blick back in step 2.) and scoop some of the ink out onto the board.  Work it around a little with the knife, trying to break up any lumpby bits, and generally to make it slightly more workable.  Printing ink is STICKY.  Then start to work it onto your roller - roll back and forth in various directions to get as even a coating on your roller as possible.  


6.  Apply the ink to your plate by rolling back and forth in light coats.  Sometimes I put too much ink on the roller and I got some interesting spatter in the void space of my plate.  I cleaned this up using a corner of a sponge and a bowl of warm soapy water.  Once you plate is coated, you place a sheet or paper onto the plate , hopefully smudging it as little as possible.  One of the upsides of the goopiness of the ink is that is doesn't get onto anything that touches it unless you encourage it to, so you can actually lay the paper on top and take it off again, and may not have any ink transfer to the paper at all unless you pressed it in between.

7.  Lay the felt pad on top of the paper and plate, and slide the whole assembly into the press.  I put a back stop board on the press so that I would know that I was sliding it in the same depth every time, and then marker a black line on the clear plexi to align in the center left to right. (This is mostly just to encourage the pressure across the plate to be as even as possible.)

8.  Crank the press.  I tried to lift the press up in between sheets as little as possible, so that pressing it down again didn't take forever.  Because you would think a tire jack would be overpowering when used on a press versus a car - turns out, it always moves at the same speed, no matter how much it's lifting.  It will take you a few tries to get the right amount of pressure on the plate - the first couple of times, I didn't apply enough force.  You also have to do it by feel every time, since there isn't a good method of vertical alignment on this press, but I never used too much pressure.  Use common sense.  Then once you have pressed your paper, release the jack by turning the screw on the front just a little...if you turn it too much, you will leak the fluid that it relies on to work.  Plus, you really don't want the press to come up any higher than it needs to take the printing board in and out.  Take the printing board out, take the felt off, and carefully flip the paper off the printing plate (doing this not carefully will smudge the ink somewhere.)  Set the print aside to dry, for at least one hour.

9.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  I made about 70 of them, and it took me all day Saturday to press them, let them dry, and cut them down.  I don't think thats too bad.  Not counting the cost of the press (which would be around $75 for materials)  I spent roughly $200: $135 on enough (100% cotton) paper and envelopes I need for the save the dates, the actual invitations, and thank you notes.  $25 on ink and the roller I will use for the rest of the invitations as well, and $45 on the plate for the save the date. I will spend approx another $70 for the plate to press the invite and thank you card, and then the RSVP and enclosure cards will be printed digitally on the same luscious paper.  

I am happy.  Not the cheapest thing I could have done for sure, but I have nice invitations and the ink on my hands to prove I made them myself.  And the highest compliment?  Lisa walked in while I was printing them, and says:  "So I am going to pay you to do my own wedding invitations, right?"  "Right."


  1. Oh my lord, Jenn ... they look AMAZING! I am so, so impressed. =)

    Also ... I'd said I'd help with this, and then went and got deathly sick. My time is yours when it comes to pressing invites, ok? Promise.

  2. holy crap Jenn!! really awesome!

  3. Please tell me there is no Prussian Blue ink in my dining room?! They look truly amazing!

  4. The press design had a very clever self-adjusting feature as a result of the hole pattern in the structural steel elements that means that even very primitive tools would give a similar result to yours. It took me 4 or 5 hours with a full shop of tools. If I didn't have them I would buy 6" 5/16" diameter carriage bolts instead of cutting them from rod, which is less expensive but time consuming even with good tools. -- Dad

    ps: the invites look pretty good.

  5. Mom, there is barely any Prussian Blue ink in your dining room (this is why we left the pad on the table :) )

    Dad, thanks for your resounding endorsement. I will take this as a high compliment.