How to Prepare Calligraphy & Hand-drawn Text for Letterpress Printing Plates

One of the more popular questions we get asked here in the Platemaking Department at Boxcar Press is the curious query: “What’s the best way to prep calligraphy and hand-drawn text or artwork for letterpress printing plates?” Understanding how to prepare scanned-in calligraphy and artwork starts first with knowing what file type/format works best for the type of artwork you are scanning in and utilizing the software programs that are accessible to you or your designer.

The most basic formatted file from scanned-in artwork or calligraphy is a TIFF (file extension) in Bitmap color mode. This pixel-based file type is good for keeping tiny details & linework and also produces crisp, solid shapes on the plate. This also means that if you zoom in very closely and examine the edges of shapes, they are slightly jagged, pixelated, and not 100% smooth. If the artwork is scanned in at high-quality resolution (600-1200 DPI), this pixelation is not as visible to the naked eye when you print with the plates.

A great software program that excels in this arena is the pixel-based editing program, Adobe Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop is a powerful editing program that offers a wide range of editing & manipulating options and tools. When scanning in your artwork, hand-drawn text, or calligraphy, make sure that you are using the highest resolution possible (at least 600 DPI) and in a grayscale color mode. This high resolution will ensure that the maximum amount of data will be scanned in and result in a better quality file that you can edit later on. A low-resolution scan (72 DPI-150 DPI) is not recommended as it will not produce the best results. Lower qualities scans and files will show extreme pixelation, illegibility, and “fuzziness” when zoomed in closely on the artwork.


Above is a example of scanned-in calligraphy file set in grayscale and at 600 DPI. Notice the grayscale and slight pixelation of the edges of the letterforms.

Before converting to TIFF in Bitmap Mode, make sure to edit & fine-tune the artwork by removing blemishes & extra noise as well as fixing breaks in the linework and forms. Once you have your finalized high-resolution grayscale digital file, we recommend the following steps to create a TIFF in Bitmap Mode using Adobe Photoshop:

  • Open your grayscale image in Photoshop.
  • Select Image> Image Size. Change your resolution so that is high (300-600 or more). Make sure all of your artwork is 100% the size you need.
  • Select Image > Mode > Grayscale.
  • Select Yes if a window asks about discarding color.
  • Select Image > Adjustments > Threshold.
  • Move the slider to “preview” what 50% Threshold Bitmap will look like.
  • Move the slider as far to the right to thicken up your objects as much as you can bear. The thicker the object, the better chance it has to hold to your plate type.
  • Click OK (if it prompts you).
  • Then Select Image > Mode > Bitmap. A window will pop up looking for info – use the same output resolution number as the input (e.g. Input: 1200 and Output:1200) and an output method of 50% threshold.
  • Save your file as a TIF (with LZW Compression). Your program may be set to the default of NONE.  LZW compression is the next choice down.


Above is our sample of scanned-in calligraphy that has been treated so that it is a TIFF in Bitmap Mode. Notice the smoothness of the shapes and the minimal pixelation on the letterforms.

When you have your scanned-in artwork file saved as a TIFF in Bitmap mode and want to take the file to the next level, we recommend turning the rasterized artwork into vector-based artwork via a software program such as Adobe Illustrator. Depending on how detailed your artwork or calligraphy is, converting to vector may not be the best option as some of the finer details and smaller objects may be lost. Simple calligraphy or hand-drawn text that has strong forms & shapes may be suitable for vector conversion whereas extremely frail strokes and tiny details may not.

In Adobe Illustrator, you will need to open your TIFF in Bitmap mode file. Then select the artwork using the black arrow (default arrow) tool and select Object>Live Trace. If you have Adobe Illustrator CS5.5 or higher, it will be Object>Image Trace. You can edit and tweak the setting of the Live Trace (or Image Trace in newer versions of Illustrator) to display different vectorized results. Try first the default setting and then experimenting with the “Lettering” setting.

Remember, you can always Edit>Undo if the results are not want you like. Vector conversion with Live Trace / Image Trace may not suit every occasion. We’ll be covering tips and tricks on how to get the best Live Trace results in an upcoming blog post so stay tuned! Additionally, for more amazing information on file formatting, Letterpress Commons has a brilliant section on Raster Vs. Vector: When to Use and Why.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and any tips you’d like share in the comments section below!

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