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How to design for and print for letterpress (3 of a 4 Part Creative Process Series)

How to design for and print for letterpress (3 of a 4 Part Creative Process Series)

This is part 3 of a 4 part series on a in depth look into my creative process. I shared how I come up with my ideas create my initial lettering sketches. I shared my creation process for inking, and some tips for scanning, and vectorizing my hand lettering. In this post I will be diving deep into my letterpress printing process and finally next week I will share how I package and ship my cards to you.

How does a modern digitized drawing get printed on an antique letterpress machine?

Last week I left off with ordering letterpress plates from my plate maker. This is the only part of my process that I outsource. Creating letterpress plates is a lot like making silkscreen screens. The plastic plates are light sensitive so when the art work is placed on them and exposed to light the lighter parts of the artwork will let the light through thereby exposing the plastic and making it hard. Everything that doesn't get light stays soft and is washed away leaving the raised artwork ready for letterpress printing.

The turnaround time is about a week from the time I place my order to the time I have them in hand. When my letterpress plates arrive in the mail they are all together on a large plate exactly how I set my file up with the plates arranged like a puzzle.

The first thing I do is cut them out with ordinary scissors and pair the 2 different color plates for each design together in a clear sleeve with a printout of the finished piece. I have just started organizing them this way (I used to place then in a ziplock bag and let them sit loose in a file folder.) 

This new way I am testing out with this new line was inspired by Adam at Life is Funny Press. I had seen in a group discussion, in a Facebook Group I am in, where he talked about how he organizes his letterpress plates.

How I organize my letterpress plates

After the plates are all filed and organized I pick the lightest color to print first. When I layer my colors I always go lightest to darkest. If I am printing a huge run of different cards I create a spreadsheet with all the different designs and the ink colors I am going to need so I stay organized and print everything with the same color at once. This way I can maximize the ink that is already on the press and save myself time in switching colors.

Letterpress Ink made by Van Sons

Once I've determined the order of plates and colors I start by mixing my ink (I purchased my Pantone Letterpress Primary inks through Boxcar Press). All of my inks are mixed by hand using a Pantone Matching System (PMS) book that gives me the color breakdown formula. I look at the formula and mix the color using the prescribed color and in the correct percentage amounts of the 13 primary Pantone colors.

Pantone Color mixing Guide Fan Book

I mix my ink in small batches so it is freshly mixed every time I am ready to print it. For this reason it is possible for there to be a slight variation in color from run to run, but generally I am pretty good at getting it close to the exact of the particular PMS color I am printing. Some of my colors that I print are custom matched ink colors like fluorescents and metallics and these come straight out of the can with no mixing involved.

Adina from Bunny Bear Press hand mixing letterpress ink.

A run consists of the current job I am printing, whether it's 100 impressions or 1,000. The amount of ink I mix will also vary based on how much of the paper is covered by the artwork, also known as coverage.

How Adina puts ink on her letterpress machine to allow for quick, easy, even distribution.

The more coverage there is, the more ink is needed. Once the ink is mixed to match the PMS color I distribute the ink on my press. I do this by using my palette knife to pull the ink in a straight line across the ink disc. I then get the press moving until the ink is evenly distributed on the ink disc. Once I have an even distribution I may still tinker with color and the amount of ink on the press as I get my plates set up.

How I line up my letterpress plates by taping the plate onto the card in the correct place.

To set up my letterpress plates on the press, I take my laser print out of the finished card and cut it to size. I then tape that print out on top of a scrap card in the exact place that I want the artwork to print. I use this paper for plate placement.

I line up the plate over the artwork looking through the plastic to get everything line up as perfectly as possible. I tape the plate to the paper. I then take the clear sticker cover off of the back of the plate and place the paper and plate combo in my press. I have my gauge pins lined up already so they don't get smashed by my photopolymer base and so that the photopolymer plate will stick on the base once the press is closed.

What a letterpress plate looks like when it is in the press

After I have the paper in the right place I close the press slowly. As it closes the letterpress plate will adhere on the base in the exact right spot for printing. As the press opens the paper will stick to the base (because of the tape on the front of the plate) I just pull it off before it goes under the rollers, and get started on making minute changes in my gauge pins for exact placement. I am making sure the artwork is centered and any type is line up straight. If the words are crooked even a millimeter it will be glaringly obvious on the final printed piece.

As I am fine tuning the placement I check my ink color. Is there too much ink on the press? Not enough? Does the color match? Sometimes I need to add ink, other times clean some off. And still others when I have to clean the press entirely and remix the ink and start over with the color.

Letterpress Infographic Description

Another thing I check as I am setting up is my impression depth. This factor is something that will vary widely from plate to plate and project to project. As I am building the print layers, I don't just think of it in matters of what colors I am going to lay down in what order, but I also think about impression depth. How do I want to build the picture? Which part of the artwork do I want to have the most impact on the piece and what is just background? Using these decisions as my guide I work on building up the packing on the press.

Packing refers to the paper that goes under the layer of brown oiled paper (also called tympan) that makes the paper behind card I am printing thicker or thinner. The more paper is under there, the thicker the packing and the heavier the impression. The less paper that is under there the thinner the packing and the lighter the impression.

Other factors I consider are the thickness of the paper I am printing on and also the surface area of the artwork. The larger the surface area the more packing is needed to create a deeper impression than would be needed on something with less surface area. The reason being that the pressure of the press gets distributed more on a larger plate than a smaller one.

A video posted by Adina Segal (@bunnybearpress) on


Once the color is perfect, the alignment is perfect, and the packing is perfect, the project is ready to print. I will then run the paper though the press. I think it is called a run because on my foot powered press I have to pump my treadle pretty fast to get it running at a good tempo, it’s a pretty good leg workout!

If I am printing multiple cards with the same color I will skip the steps for inking (unless I need to add a little more ink to the press) and go straight to lining up the artwork for the next card. Once I am done with a color I will clean the press off and then this entire process is repeated again for each color on the finished piece.  

It’s not a lie when I say that this is a labor of love. It is something that is very time consuming but I love the methodical process of it and once everything is set up and it's just about running paper through the press it is almost meditative for me. Paper goes in paper comes out, my leg is running to a rhythm and everything inside of me just goes quiet and it's just me and the press.

Once the card is printed and the logo is on the card they are ready for packaging. Stay tuned for next week to learn how I package my cards and watch a fun unboxing experience of what an order from Bunny Bear Press looks like!

This week I will be sharing a big life event with a friend of mine who lives across the border in Canada so we don't get to talk on the phone or see each other as often as I would like. Do you have a friend who lives abroad or far away? Send them a surprise letter and make their day!


Adina Signature GIF


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