At-home DIY letterpress machines are an inexpensive way for crafters to get started in the art of letterpress printing. There are numerous models: the L Letterpress Machine by Lifestyle Crafts is the most well-known. DIY letterpresses on the market are all similar and follow the same principles. A printing plate is adhered to a hinged plate lid and inked with a brayer. The paper is positioned on the plate base and the lid is closed down on the paper. The base and lid are slid as one into a slot on the die cutting part of the machine. When the base and lid are cranked through the machine, the inked plate pushes into the paper, creating the letterpress deboss that we all know and love.
Here’s what you’ll need to get satisfactory printing from your L Letterpress Machine. The supplies on this page will work with the Sizzix machine, Cuttlebugs, and Big Shots too if you’re using them for letterpress.
- A photopolymer plate. You can buy pre-designed polymer plates. Or you can create your own design using a program like Adobe Illustrator or InDesign. With your own design, you’d send the digital file to a professional platemaking company (like us!) who will make custom plates for you. The plate type we recommend for L Letterpress Machines is the KF152, a durable, professional alternative to the plastic plates that came with your machine.
- Printing inks. You’ll want to use a good letterpress ink – we suggest rubber-based or oil based. The inks offered in tubes with your L Letterpress are oil based. We love rubber based inks at Boxcar Press and offer them in 1 pound cans (prices range from $15-$32). However, we understand you may like to start out more frugally and want tubes of ink. The best option and availability is through online craft stores and art sources (such as imcClains.com) and will be oil-based inks.
- A soft rubber inking brayer (suggested is 6” wide) to ink up your plates, available at McClain Printmaking or at your local craft store – a popular brand is Speedball.
- Polymer plate strips to serve as roller bearers for your brayer when inking. We include plate stripes in our pre-made plates for the L Letterpress machine. If you’re ordering custom letterpress plates from us, just ask in your order’s comments and we’ll send you a few plate strips at no charge. It’s a challenge to keep your wrist steady for smooth inking and our roller bearers help. Plate strips are a byproduct of the platemaking process and normally we recycle these after trimming them from your plate. They are the same height as your plates and have the adhesive on the back. First place your design plate in the correct position on your L Letterpress bed. Now place a roller strip on each side of your design plate. Apply ink with your brayer and marvel how smooth that works. Don’t forget to pull up your strips before placing your paper and running through your machine. No need to clean the bearer strips until the very end, if you are careful. just stick them to the side because you will use them often.
- An ink knife to mix and spread your ink. The ink knife has a wide flat blade to pull ink from the can and then mix it on your mixing sheet.
- 1 or 2 sheets of glass or smooth acrylic for inking – minimum of 5” x 8”. The L letterpress machine will come with one plastic sheet that is approximately 6” square. Another one is helpful for controlling your ink first onto your brayer and then onto your polymer plate. Place approximately 1-2 teaspoons of ink onto one mixing sheet. ink from tubes or the can can be stiff. Move your ink knife through the ink in a motion similar to scrambling eggs. Pull the knife through the ink and turn it over and mix and pull. When the ink moves smooth and is less stiff, take the end of the ink knife and pull a thin roll of ink at the bottom about ?” thick. Transfer that to the second mixing plate by dabbing it in a line the width of your brayer. Use your brayer now to roll through the dabs to spread them out and cover your brayer smoothly. Move the brayer top to bottom and side to side. This gives you control over the amount of ink on your brayer and avoids overinking. Tell yourself many times, “it takes less ink than I think”. To add ink, take only dabs from the first mixing sheet to replenish the second sheet.
- Henry gage pins for paper registration (gage pins). These handy little gauge pins are not really pins at all. They are removable guides that will hold your paper in place on the print bed. Use 3 of them by placing two along the long edge of your paper and one along the short edge. The plastic lip holds the paper and the pins will compress when you roll the tray through the machine.
Paper. Uncoated paper stock with a nice texture is ideal for letterpress. Most papers come in ivory and a shade or two of white. We recommend using papers like Crane’s Lettra; Holyoke; Rives BFK; Reich Savoy; Revere and Somerset. Handmade papers can be wonderful too. Don’t forget matching envelopes! You can pick up paper from your local art supply store, or here are a few places to order paper online:
- www.paper-papers.com - many letterpress papers in a multitude of sizes
- www.paperworks.com – letterpress paper options with matching envelopes – they carry FSC certified papers
- www.hiromipaper.com (specializes in Japanese paper but is a good source for Arturo and Fabriano papers, postcard weight stock, and deckle edge papers)
- www.porridgepapers.com (nice papermakers who make a great variety of handmade paper)
- Old cotton t-shirts and baby wipes for clean up. Since you are only placing a very little bit of ink on the surface of your plates, it can easily be wiped off with an old cotton t-shirt. To clean your l letterpress machine, your brayer and the plastic or glass mixing sheets, use baby wipes. Don’t use baby wipes on your plates as the moisture will soften and deteriorate your plates. Replace the blue adhesive backing on your plates when finished and you can send them back to Boxcar Press for recycling.