The steps I follow to make a letterpress print.
In my current project exploring belonging in the Bay Area, I’m asking the public to share their story about belonging. If they nominate a place where they feel belonging, I will commemorate that place with a letterpress-printed certificate.
Letterpress printing is an obsolete technology. It was used for proof-printing newspapers in the olden days, but these days it’s great for artist’s projects like mine.
Here are photos showing my process, using a combination poster-postcard-map marker I made for an project about Belonging that was recently exhibited in Take Action at the California College of the Arts.
Draw and Design the Artwork
Next, I draw a pencil sketch with my final composition.
The next step is inking. I layer a clean sheet of paper over the pencil sketch on top of a light box, and copy the composition using a calligraphy marker.
Then I scan the inked drawing, and clean it up in Photoshop.
Make Polymer Plates
You can make polymer plates yourself, or just order them. Because I didn’t have access to a printmaking studio at the time, I ordered them from Boxcar Press. When I print the certificates, I’ll make my own plates at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley.
If you’re making your own plates, you’ll need to output a film positive, like I did with this previous project at Kala Art Institute.
I bought special plates with photo-sensitive emulsion, and exposed the plate with my film in a plate maker. Then I washed out unwanted emulsion and hardened the remaining emulsion with more light exposure. This left the artwork in emulsion that is raised a few millimeters, sort of like a rubber stamp.
When you have your plates and paper ready, you’re ready to print.
The first step is to mix ink. I brought paint swatches and paper samples to color match with a Pantone formula guide.
Apply the ink to the rollers. The coolest thing about this type of press (a Vandercook) is that the press has a motor and it distributes the ink on rollers and and inks the plate for you. (The downside is there’s a lot of rollers to clean.) You can see one of the polymer plates on the press bed in the bottom of the image.
You can only print one color and one sheet at a time. This shows the stack of 200 sheets I printed. The design used two colors, so I had to operate 400 cranks through the press. Printing—from setting up the press, mixing the ink, making sure everything was aligned properly, actually printing, and clean-up—took me most of one day.
This is from a different project, but it helps to explain layering colors. In the upper left, you can see the first color, yellow ochre, was already printed. Then the second color, purple, is being printed on top, resulting in the finished print in the upper right. Because the purple is layered on top of the yellow ochre, it results in a brown.
For this project, I needed to perforate the sections: the top is a poster, the bottom parts are a postcard and map marker.
I perforated in the short direction using a rotary paper cutter outfitted with a perforation blade.
These 17″ long sheets won’t fit in the rotary cutter lengthwise, so I use a hand tool to perforate between the postcard and the map marker. To save time, I set up a jig on a cutting mat to align the paper and ruler that was acting as a guide.
The finished print.