One of the biggest and most time-consuming (but also extremely rewarding) projects that I took on for my wedding was to letterpress my own invitations. At first, letterpress seemed like such a daunting and out-of-reach wedding project. However, after a little research and investigation, I was able to find a studio that not only allowed me access to a letterpress, but also provided me with much-needed guidance and help along the way.
For those not completely sure what letterpress is, letterpress printing is a 500-year-old technique that has been used all over the world (think woodblock printing in China or movable type like the Gutenberg press in Europe) to create "relief" printing of text and images. These days, the invention of the photopolymer plate has made letterpress printing available to normal people like you and me!
Follow along as I break down my letterpress printing process step by step.
Design program (like Adobe Illustrator)
Photopolymer plate (get it here)
Photopolymer mounting base (get it here)
Letterpress ink – (get it here)
Invitation paper (we used watercolor paper, a budget-friendly option)
Access to letterpress studio
1. Design your invitation using design software.
I did the majority of my designing/typesetting using Adobe Illustrator, but there are several other options out there as well. Make sure you are completely happy with the design before you proceed with the next step. Whether you DIY or send to a letterpress studio, letterpress printing is a huge investment. Be sure to double-check your files for any errors before you send them off!
2. Send your designs to a plate-making company, such as Boxcar Press.
After I finalized my designs, I sent them off to Boxcar Press where they turned the designs into my very own photopolymer plate! The photopolymer plate is actually the reversed raised image of your invitation that will be used to imprint your paper. Boxcar Press has some very helpful information on its website that helps you set up your files to send in.
3. Find a letterpress studio where you can print your invitations.
This might be the most difficult part of the process. Before you think about letterpressing your own invitations, be sure you’ve tracked down a studio that will provide you with the space and time to print (usually several hours). Check with local letterpress studios as well as local universities and colleges. If they have a fine arts department, they oftentimes may have letterpress printers that may/may not be available to the public. I printed my invitations at the Bow & Arrow Press in Adams House at Harvard University.
After you’ve found a printing studio and received your photopolymer plate, it’s time to start printing!
4. Mix your ink color.
The first step in printing is to mix your ink color. Many studios will provide the ink for you. If you need to purchase your own, you can do so here. Since I wanted a very specific shade of purple (aubergine), I chose to custom-mix my own ink color using varying amounts of red and blue. Make sure that you mix enough ink for your entire run – you don’t want to have to recreate a specific shade when you run out! The ink will feel hard at first, but after kneading and massaging with a flat paint spatula for several minutes, it will start to have a more ink-y texture.
5. Ink the press.
After you’re happy with the color and amount of ink that you have mixed, start to ink the press by dotting chocolate chip-sized amounts onto the rollers.
6. Turn on the press to let the ink fully coat the rollers.
7. Attach photopolymer plate to base.
The base size and height can vary depending on where you ordered your plate, so be sure to check with the platemakers on what the requirements are for mounting the photopolymer plate. Since I ordered my plate from Boxcar Press, I used a Boxcar Press base.
8. Set up base on printer and start test-runs.
Positioning this base was probably the most difficult part of the whole process. Letterpress printing is an art in which minute fractions of millimeters make a huge difference. I spent a good hour or two adjusting the base, adding/removing spacers to alter the positioning. At one point, we even added a thin piece of vellum under the base just to give an extra "oomph" to the color. It made a huge difference!
9. Start printing!
After everything is set up, it is just a matter of feeding the paper into the press, cranking the arm to roll each page across the base, and setting out the pages to dry. From start to finish, it took us about 8 hours to print 200 sheets. My fiancé (now husband) did most of the cranking, so by the end, his arm was starting to get a little tired! Here’s a video to show you how the rolling process works (also at beginning of article).
10. Stand back and admire your final product!
After showing my parents the video of my letterpress printing and explaining the process to them, my dad told me that that was how they used to print their church bulletins every week in Vietnam! Imagine doing something like this every week! Who knew that something typically so expensive these days (because of the precision, complexity, and sheer rigor involved) used to be something so everyday that it was simply part of a normal man's life. There was an instant connection between my dad and I as we talked about the art and technicalities of letterpressing and "stencil printing," as he calls it. I am forever indebted to my dad for passing on his artistic, perfectionist, type-A, detail-oriented genes to me!
So there you have it – the ins and outs of the not-so-daunting task of letterpressing your own wedding invitations.