The most essential thing you’ll need for your studio is a printing press. The question is, what kind of press do you want? The decision was easy for me since most of my experience was with Vandercook presses. I had disassembled/reassembled one during my MFA program, so felt very comfortable with refurbishing one. Vandercook made many models and sizes while in production. Mine is a No. 4 and has a motorized drum roller which evenly distributes ink to the other rollers. Everything else is manual, so I hand crank and pull each piece. Some people prefer automated presses, such as a Heidelberg Windwill. I looked into one but decided it was not feasible with my set up. I would suggest researching all the different presses, reading as many reviews as possible, and decide what type works with your set up and experience level. As mentioned before, Briar Press is a wonderful resource for all things letterpress, so check it out.
Once you have a press, you will need some basic supplies to start printing. I would suggest a Pantone Formula Mixing Guide. Make sure it has the formulas to mix the colors. I have the matte guide since I primarily print on matte papers. You can purchase a scale to mix colors, but it’s very pricey. I have great success “eyeballing” color with the formula guide and you can get reasonably close. You can also order ink cans of custom PMS colors, but again, it will cost more. Speaking of inks, you’ll need all the basics. NA Graphics and Boxcar Press both sell inks, as does Letterpress Ink. I recommend rubber based inks for letterpress. Rubber based inks dry by absorbing into the paper, and they stay open on the press longer. Oil based inks air dry, so you don’t want to leave on the press for too long. I got so busy at holiday that I forgot to clean my press after a job, and remembered two days later. I was relieved it cleaned up without issue (thanks to rubber based ink). I would suggest getting the following colors: mixing black, transparent white, warm red, rubine red, blue 072, process blue, green and yellow. I reach for those the most. Then you can add on with additional colors later. You’ll also need a palette knife, pica ruler, palette pad, rags and solvent for clean up. I use odorless mineral spirits for my metal rollers, but use California wash on my composition rollers so they don’t break down.
For your printing press, you will need some furniture and quoins/keys. These are pieces of wood or metal to will be placed around your type form or printing base and then locked into place to prevent movement during printing. I use photopolymer plates with adhesive backing, which are mounted to an aluminum base that is type-high. This means the height of the plate is perfectly set so the rollers distribute ink only to the type/image on the plate. If you want to make sure your rollers are type high, you can check with a roller gauge (which are measured at .918”). Purchasing an aluminum base and gauge will set you back about $300. Furniture and quoins/keys can sometimes be found on ebay, or contacting a supplier directly. You will also need packing paper for your tympan to customize the impression of your plate. This can be purchased from NA Graphics.
Once you have all your basic supplies, you’ll need to order a printing plate and paper to print on. I use Boxcar Press in NY and they do a fantastic job. They have quick turnaround, good pricing and are easy to work with. Simply upload your b/w artwork and order. You can consult with them on what the best type of photopolymer is for your job, but I generally order the KF95 plates. They hold details well but still hold up to longer runs. There are a lot of options for paper. If you have a business license you can set up wholesale accounts with several vendors and order paper in bulk. Starting out though, you probably won’t need much so shop local or order on the web. When I’m in a pinch I go by my local Paper Source store. Otherwise I order from Announcement Converters (wholesale). They carry thousands of papers from all different mills.
So you’re finally ready to print? I’ll walk you through my checklist when processing a job. I start with a printout of the final proof. I make sure my paper is cut to the correct size, mix my ink with my color guide, set up my plate on the press and check my tympan packing is correct for the thickness of stock I’m printing on. I’ll then ink up my press, pull a proof, make any adjustments to position and make more proofs until it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be. Then I start cranking out the pieces. Once I’m set up I can print about 100 pieces in 20 minutes. I check-in on inking about every 20-25 pieces to make sure it’s looking good. If getting light, I add some more ink and distribute. Once my job is done, I clean off the plate and remove from the base. I pull my rollers off so I can clean them with my solvents (be sure to wear protective gloves).
I realize this is a very condensed snapshot of a print job, and not all jobs go smoothly. Be prepared for hiccups! Many times, I’ve been at press only to find a problem with the plate, or a typo on the plate that was missed by everyone’s eyes. There are definitely frustrations (like when my motor burned out mid-run), but you learn to be agile and create solutions. There’s always a fix! And there’s a great letterpress community out there to lend a hand, so utilize it. Below are links to several of the resources mentioned above. Feel free to leave a comment or question. My next post will feature some of my favorite pieces. Until then, happy printing!