Custom Designs?

Hi all, I’m brand new to letterpress printing (not to the love of letterpress :) and am happy to say I just bought my first press on Ebay, yay! (Kelsey 5x8 ). I’m just trying to understand the whole process and while I understand that you choose different types for text, I don’t know quite how all these beautiful letterpress cards I see have all these amazing graphics, modern designs, swirly borders, pictures…etc. I think they are called blocks, if that is right..? So anyway, do these have to be custom made/ordered? Or can you purchase these (All I’ve seen are pretty antique/old fashioned images)?
I’d appreciate any advice that’s broken down for a beginner :-)

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Hello Katie,

The cards you describe are generally original designs that are created with graphics software and made into photopolymer, magnesium, or copper plates. These plates are made by companies such as Boxcar Press (, for photopolymer plates) and Owosso Graphic Arts (, for magnesium and copper plates). There’s lots of information on these websites about having plates made. You also might want to look at It has many links for beginning printers.

It would be great if you could take a letterpress class or workshop in your area. Some art colleges have them along with their printmaking offerings, and some liberal arts colleges have them as part of their book arts programs. Often they’re offered to the general public. There’s nothing like learning alongside someone who knows what she’s doing. :-)

Best wishes to you in this adventure!


Another, more traditional way to produce blocks for letterpress printing is to carve the design onto wood or linoleum blocks using small chisels and gouges. Up until the 20th century, this was the primary method for illustrating books and producing fancy designs….. and it’s still used today by many, many printers and printmakers.

The advantage in today’s world for carving blocks by hand is that one can do it at home, with very little equipment. There are no computers or high-technology involved, and one is not limited by available fonts, clip art, or preset formats. You don’t need to send your design away and wait for someone else to produce your block…. thus one is in complete control of the finished image.

Also, woodcuts are very environmentally friendly. There are no harsh chemicals involved in producing the blocks; no toner or inkjet ink in producing the original image; no photoprocessing; no acids to etch metal; no excess photopolymer being washed down the drain…. no nothing… just a woodblock and hand-tools.

PLUS…. making woodcuts is EASY. All you really have to do is draw the image on the block, and carve away anything that is not supposed to print. It’s so easy, even I can do it.

I’d recommend looking on the Internet for printmaking sites…. there are many out there that can tell you everything about the process.

Thank you both for the suggestions, they really help!
I did check out Boxcar press and that was really helpful too….Barbara, can you reccommend a good computer design program that is pretty inexpensive? I see that Adobe Illustrator is the most common one I’ve found but it’s way out of my price range! I’m a graduate school student and have a quite a limited budget :)

I pretty familiar with the fiveroses website too..its great…and I would love to to take a class or even a lesson but have not really found anything in the area..I’m in Pittsburgh, pa if anyone knows of anything…
thanks again


Being a grad student, you can buy Illustrator at a discount. I believe it’s $199 for students. It’s fully functional.


wow! thank you, Ted! i just looked at some for students and they are 199…I notice many others, even less expensive—any other good ones you would recommend?


I just recently started doing letterpress as well…I think we were bidding on the same kelseys on ebay… =)

I took a simple class here in Chicago using a vandercook press and got to know one of the instructors pretty well. She told me to stick with Illustrator. I’m more familiar with using photoshop so I do a lot of my designs in photoshop and then bring it over to Illustrator and use the Live Trace function to convert it into a outline form. One of the things that she told me that I have to do is outline the fonts whenever I prepare a file to make a polymer plate. I don’t know of any other program that has that functionality other than Illustrator (maybe one of the other illustration programs like freehand has it but I haven’t seen it). So might as well start with what everyone else is using. But you don’t have to buy photoshop. You can use it’s a freeware program that is very similar to Photoshop. Also, I don’t think a lot of letterpress people really create their own graphics from scratch. There is a Cuts & Caps section on this website that has clipart that you can use with Illustrator to create your custom designs. Do a search on google for free vector artwork or graphics and I’m sure you will find some stuff that you can use in your own creations.

” I don’t know of any other program that has that functionality other than Illustrator (maybe one of the other illustration programs like freehand has it but I haven’t seen it)”

All of the major page layout tools have that feature now. That feature has been obviated somewhat by the rise of self-contained PDF X1a as a file handoff standard.

As for what apps to use, as a prepress professional, it has always struck me as strange the way people use the available tools. Kind of like watching someone drive nails by whacking them with the handle of a screwdriver.

In the Adobe Creative Suite:
Illustrator is for manipulating illustrations
Photoshop is for manipulating photos
InDesign is the page assembly, layout and typesetting tool

You couldn’t force me at gunpoint to layout a page in Illustrator or set type in Photoshop. But that’s certainly not an inexpensive recommendation unless you can find educational discounts or used copies of Creative Suite.

I think people should use what they are most comfortable with? Don’t you agree?

I have no problems using what’s at hand to do the job. If I have to layout a page using Microsoft Paint, I will. It doesn’t matter as long as I get the job done and ultimately final product looks like it’s suppose to.

I’m not an illustrator so I have no clue how to use Illustrator other than to prepare what I need for creating a plate. However Photoshop is more than just for manipulating photos. I bet any of the Adobe programs can be used for more than what you have listed.

Yes, people should use what they are most comfortable with. I’ll admit that sometimes I don’t use the Adobe Creative Suite programs for what they’re meant for because I’m to lazy to switch over to the other program. But…

They were developed for what andykeck mentioned. Once you fully understand the programs, it is sometimes impossible to accomplish the task you are attempting in any other program. Yes, you can layout a page using Microsoft Paint, but it’s not going to have the benefits of InDesign. The final product might look how it’s supposed to but it is going to take you a heck of a lot longer to get to that point. Plus, there are features on these programs that aren’t available on any other programs.

I hope I didn’t come off sounding harsh, as it wasn’t intended.

I come from the standpoint of a manager of a team of designers and production artists all working on the same sets of files at different times. If someone in the group starts using the tools idiosyncratically, it causes a big logjam for in the schedule as then someone has to sleuth out the techniques and tools used to create a particular layout and in some cases, fully recreate art in a more standard format.

Now, this viewpoint isn’t really applicable to the individual artist creating and printing their own work. Any tool that allows you to realize your vision in the final print is the _right_ tool.

But if you think there’s any danger that you might like to turn pro at some point, it’s very worthwhile to learn all the tools and when to use them. I’ve seen really talented designers lose out on business because they weren’t able to efficiently interface with the production teams that have to execute their designs.

I understand the point you are trying to make. And I agree that if you have access to the programs and have the time, might as well use the programs for what they are meant to be used for.

My point is that the software is only a tool. It’s up to the user to decide how it should be used. This off tangent conversation only started because I made the off-handed comment that I used Photoshop for everything. I only made the comment so that the original poster would know that you don’t have to do everything in Illustrator if you don’t want to. You can work with other programs and bring it into Illustrator for the final output. Not sure why this is such a faux pas.

Didn’t think you sounded harsh andykeck. As I designer I understand what you are saying!

Hi Ktlee,

I’m pretty new at hands-on letterpress printing too but I’ve been a graphic designer for 25 years. What your talking about is a 2 stage approach. First you need to design a piece then print it on your new letterpress. There is nothing like the rush of seeing YOUR concept come to life when ink hits paper. (Personally, I can’t wait to be able to do both on my projects!). It depends on what your goals are for the type of project you are doing. If it’s an art piece, then follow your heart and make it look like you want it to look. If you are designing a communication piece, then there are some, at least, guidlines that you need to follow. It’s a lot like playing music or golf. There are lot’s of different levels, some professional, some not so professional and all points in between. But the common thing those activities have is that you can do them at any level that you are happy with and it’s a fun journey along the way. I’d be glad to help you get going with basic design approaches if you would like but by all means, get some ink on paper!


As has been said, if there’s a chance you’ll someday go “pro” you’ll want to eventually get the industry-standard Adobe Illustrator (and probably for the graphics-industry-standard Mac). But you don’t have to rush out and spend megabucks on a MacPro and CS3 right away, you’ll find that a five-year-old (or older) version of Illustrator will do probably everything you need and won’t cost more than a few linoleum blocks! Check thrift stores or discount software places or eBay for software that’s about three versions back, it’s often considered “worthless” and priced accordingly.

And don’t forget that you can create your art on the computer, print it out, and transfer it to a linoleum block to carve, if you feel so inclined.

Dave R. (using CS3 at work, Illustrator 10 at home)

I’m an Illustrator fan…it has just enough of the typesetting tools to design simple cards, etc. You can even take a scan of a hand-drawn design, scan it, and vectorize it to clean it up or scale it.

I have done some typesetting for textbooks and a broadside-esque thing on the side, and InDesign is the only choice, unless you are a Quark user. But all you need is Illustrator.

Being a current grad student myself (albeit in film), I understand the money thing completely. Your school might have some nice fast computers with CS2 or CS3. If you only have the occasional project, nobody should mind.

Good luck!