Solarplates… Printmaking in the Sun

I’ve noticed in the posts here, that most of the photopolymer plate users are having their plates made for them by others. I wonder why this is so, considering how easy it is to make them yourself?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with Solarplates, using the book “Printmaking in The Sun” as an instructional guide. What I’ve discovered is that making plates is not difficult or costly at all. So far, I’ve made a half- dozen 5 x 7’s using only an inkjet printer and a sharpie marker to make my transparencies, a piece of glass as a “contact frame” and my kitchen sink as a processor. The only one that has failed was due to my not following the instructions very carefully…. I didn’t leave it out in the sun long enough.

I’ll probably still do most of my work using woodblocks and hand-gouges…. but even so, I must admit that I’m sold on the process, and would recommend it to others. Maybe some of this newer technology is not so bad after all…..

Log in to reply   29 replies so far

Are solar plates actually strong enough to withstand long runs on a platen press? I was under the impression that they were fairly soft.

Thanks for the tip, going to look at the book this afternoon at my local reference library. What brand media are you using, if you don’t mind me asking?

Actually, they hold up very well…. I was surprised. I ran 200 cards yesterday, and at the end of the run the block looked just as good as it did when I started. They slightly resilient, so they aren’t as easy to damage as one would think. Even so, they’ll deep-impress Canson’s Edition paper.

They look to me to be the same hardness as the custom Photopolymer plates from the popular vendors. I think they might actually be the same material, just marketed under a different name.

Richard, I’m using “Solarplates” from iMcClain’s. They are available online at:

I’m sure there are other folks who sell them, too.

There is a book called “Modern Heliographic processes” by E.Lietze.1888 Just because you use the sun as a exposure source,does not make a photopolymer plate a solar plate. If indeed “solar plates” are different than photopolymer what is the difference.I’m just waiting for someone to reinvent the sunburn.

May I ask what you mount the Solarplates on for printing, and about how long you expose them for? Also, do you have any photos of your prints which you could post? I’ve recently been experimenting with solar exposure of photopolymer plates, and have found the experience quite fun!

Thank you!

LP-1….. I’ve been mounting mine onto 3/4 wood blocks using Superglue. That brings them close to, but not exactly, type-high so I still have to shim them up a little bit. I haven’t taken any pics yet, but I’ll do so in the next few days and post them.

As for exposure, I’ve been exposing them for 2 minutes to direct Florida sunlight….

James Bourland- my guess is that you are right: A photopolymer plate exposed via sunlight is the same creature as one done via an artificial UV source. The real difference I’d guess is in marketing and distribution….. and the knowledge that one can do such work at home themselves, instead of having to rely on others to do it for them.

I seem to have read that these solar plates are steel backed. Would a solar plate mounted on a metal base (i.e. PatMag or Bunting) be type high?

There are a number of the thinner photopolymer plates that can be used for printmaking. There is not much difference, other than hardness rating, between these and those made for letterpress. Most printmakers have a need for experimentation and that perfectly suits the “printmaking in the sun” way of doing it.

Most platemakers who are processing plates for studio-letterpress are doing so for letterpress folks as there is not much call for processing plates for printmakers. Most of these so-called “solar” plates are much thinner than those used in letterpress, and have much less relief structure than the .037–.039 /.057–.060 configurations, which are pretty much the standard thresholds for letterpress. So no, they won’t mount type high without significant underlay.

Sorry folks, no conspiracy. These have been around since whenever. The main and significant difference between DIY and outsourcing to a commercial platemaker is consistency of letterform, which is quite important in letterpress, especially for text work. It is less important with illustration, unless, of course, you are attempting to reproduce someone else’s illustration.

Boxcar sells raw plate material for printmakers and has a useful bibliography of how-to-do it references.


bshr- Since I don’t know how high those particular bases are, I can’t say if they’ll mount up type high or not. I do know that with a 3/4” high base, it takes one sheet of chipboard to shim them up. They are steel backed, so a magnetic base should work.

gerald- your comments about “Solarplates” vs vendor-made plates seems to run partly contrary to what my actual (but somewhat limited) experience with them has been. Perhaps there is some variation between brands, or your opinion is based on older, less improved materials.

The relief structure of the plates I’m using is plenty sufficient for letterpress. It’s actually deeper than many of the magnesium and zinc cuts I’ve got. Also, the hardness does not seem significantly softer than photopolymer plates obtained from one of the popular vendors. I did a quick “fingernail hardness test” and could not see a difference. Granted, this is not the same as a scientific Rockwell test, but for practical purposes it works fine. I’ve had no problems printing them on a C&P oldstyle press, even for relatively long runs.

On letter consistency, you are partly correct. With inconsistent negative density or inconsistent exposure the process will produce letters that vary in line thickness. BUT this is not a function of the materials themselves but rather the care taken to produce the negatives and plates. My own plates have shown remarkable text density consistency from page to page… close enough that one cannot see the difference in the printed pages.

It looks to me that the main difference between vendor-procured photopolymer plates, and those done yourself via the Solar Method is one of economics. It simply boils down to whether you want to pay someone else or do the work youself. The “quality difference” arguement does not seem to hold water IF you are a careful craftsman. (If you aren’t going to do a good job of it, perhaps you should outsource your plates)

You know, it amazes me how many “nay sayers” there are out there in the world. No matter what idea a person posts, there is always someone who’ll tell you why it won’t work…. especially if it’s contrary to the “accepted way of doing things” or threatens to bite into someone’s profits or status.


This is somewhat of a constant refrain, isn’t it? us against them. The “problem” with promoting DIY or alternative techniques is that they are not often transferable. It is difficult to explain fully to another just how you do it. I have yet to see someone be able to do that so that another can follow exactly the same techniques and achieve similar results.

You and others may do fine, but if consistency is the goal, and it is in a lot of commercial work, alternative production can be problematic. If consistency in reproduction is a secondary factor, then whatever works for you.

Yes it is a matter of economics, but that holds true as wekk in another manner of thinking.

If I am printing a book for a publisher or producing plates for a printer, I sure can’t say to them, don’t worry about the variation, it’ll be fine. If I am reproducing an illustration from an artist or graphic designer, I can’t very well submit something that will produce in a visual manner other than what they have envisioned.

And for that, plates professionally produced with quality materials is the only way to go, especially if one wants to survive in the business.

The difference between a 43 mm plate (of the type used by printmakers) and a 95 mm plate (of the type used in letterpress) in terms of relief thickness is respectively 20 mm and 65 mm dependent upon the manufacturer. This is taken from Toyobo Printight specs. The 1.52 mm plates, have a relief thickness of 1.22 mm.


“And for that, plates professionally produced with quality materials is the only way to go, especially if one wants to survive in the business.”

What? let me step back and rethink for a second. Are you trying to say that if one is to survive in the “business world” of letterpress that one must use the services of outsourced platemakers such as yourself? Wow…. I didn’t realize that was the case…. It seems a bit odd though, since I’ve survived quite nicely since the mid-1970’s doing the vast majority of my own plates/blocks/typesetting and so forth…..and have used many “alternative techniques” for both text and images along the way.

The truth is that any competent craftsman, professional or amateur, can produce their own high-quality plates using any one of several different techniques, including photopolymer exposed via sunlight. The technology is available to anyone who wants to study it and take the time to experiment a bit.

I will be the first to admit that I am not a “Photopolymer Guru” like you are… and I am sure that you do excellent work…. but your assertion that only a “professional platemaker” can produce consistent results is way off base.


That isn’t exactly my “assertion,” but what the hell, I will stand by it. I don’t know of one person, who practiced alternative platemaking, and who then obtained a platemaking machine, who ever reverted back. Even the great Harold Kyle used to be an alternative processor and swore by hand washout. I even asked him to write a chapter on alternative processing for my little monograph. Then he bought one of the machines. The rest is history, except for the fact that all the crap we say and do here on the internet, sort of hangs around.



Sorry to post before you but I am intrigued here. You say you have survived quite nicely sine the mid-1970s. I could hardly say the same, and that is when I started. Still, when I Googled you all I got was the Briar Press information. Is your press your work or do you do something else for a living? I only ask because I like to know who is screwing with me.


Gerald- To be honest, I am not screwing with you at all. I have great respect for your work and that of professional platemakers. What I am doing is making a point about what you call “alternative techniques”. It has been my experience that a careful and studious craftsman can produce first class results without having to rely on outsourcing if they are so inclined. Thus when someone tries to tell them that they can’t make their own high-quality plates… or build their own press…. or bind their own books…. or whatever, I like to point out that they can. They can do anything we can do. Their efforts might be slower due to a lack of automation, but they can be just as high quality.

“Winking Cat Press” is not my business name. It’s the name of a more-or-less experimental workshop comprised of printmakers, letterpress printers, and silk screeners who smoke cigarettes, drink, and debate points just like this one constantly. We were originally located in New Orleans, but in the last few years we’ve been spread out all over the country. Officially, I’m the founder/proprietor…. but in reality, I’m just one of the participants.

As far as my doing this for a living- yes. I have been in the letterpress & copperplate engraving printing business since the mid-70’s…. and have done well financially, although I must admit that some of the years in the late ‘80’s were a bit lean. You haven’t found me online because I tend to keep my business and my personal artistic opinions well seperated ….. A business never wants to publically state an opinion that might offend a customer, you know. (I also teach printmaking at a local college, by the way)

Gerald, it’s perhaps an irony that you and I have met on more than one occaision, and got along grandly.


The thing that is a bit irritating about a list like this is you never know who you are talking to. That has its good and bad points.

So, who the hell are you? Let’s see, we both smoke and drink and like to run off at the mouth. And we’ve met on several occasions and actually got along. Hmmm, that should narrow it down a bit.

Too bad my memory is shot.

Back on point. I think there is a significant difference between craftsmanship and DIY. Let’s start there.


Evidently Dan Welden developed the “solarplate” in the 70’s
according to his web site and has trademarked solarplate.I find this approach rather arrogant.At his web site he is very carefull not to state the solar plate is a photopolymer but just a polymer.There are many types of polymers,plastics,proteins, and even DNA! I am grossly disgusted by these boneheaded printmaking instructors who reinvent something and call it there own.
I have even had dicussions with the boneheads about “photopolymer gravure”just because its intaglio does not make it a gravure. I am surprised not one of these wiseguys has not trademaked putting a printing press on a concrete floor. Now back to the subject I aggree with Gerald there is a difference between the two. Recently I bid a job for an album cover gave the client a price and they
declined the bid,then I found out they had it printed by a DIYer
and what a crappy job! majorly out of register, broken type,inconsistant inking and they were so happy with the schlock.I would be embarrassed to say that I printed that job.I too like to smoke and drink and call things what there are.


Yup, we are made of polymer.

And I agree, the plates that Dan Welden uses as well as those of Boxcar are standard industrial plates that can be obtained through normal channels. Jesus, these are high tech manufactured items. Do folks think they are made in garages? Nothing like hype.

I have to laugh, I just saw the movie 300. Now why do I think that somehow relates!!!


Actually, Mr Welden states in his book quite clearly that he is using standard photopolymer plates….. in several thickness depending upon the intended results. For relief printing, he recommends the thicker .93 plates from Torelief. I didn’t read anywhere where he is claiming to have invented anything other than his own method for exposing and processing them, and coining the term “Solarplate”.

Regardless of what you call the method, or whether you think Mr Welden arrogant, the method does indeed work.

Now… about DIY’ers: I tend to think we should support them instead of discouraging them. In the absence of proper training and equipment, there is no other way to learn other than doing it oneself. If letterpress is to continue to grow as a craft, folks have got to start somewhere.

I agree with you James that some DIY’ers out there are selling sub-standard work, and it annoys me too…. but we really should not lump all self-taught printers into one group. Some of the Newbies/ DIY’ers / Amateurs are quite gifted and capable of excellent work.


Populism is the prevailing mentality, the current fashion, and will be for some time. What is wrong with that? Well, nothing except for this.

An example that is outside of letterpress might suffice. In the jewelry business folks can now take processed imaging from the computer and via photopolymer plates and impress them into metal clay and presto, hand crafted jewelry. Except that it is not. No hand carving, no knowlege of carving or special casting techniques, etc. But it is appealing to the market which cannot tell the difference between the amateur created schlock work and that of the craftsman, and they do like the prices, even though they are paying more for substandard work. So, the craftsmen can’t sell their work at the prices they need to survive. So they, one by one, disappear; along with the knowlege of technique, tools, procedure, etc. Gone. Lost forever.

But wait you say. They will surely survive and the amateurs will climb up the ladder to learn from them. To that, if you say it, I will have to respond, you have got to be kidding. The easy button mentality that prevails in this our dear 21st century precludes the willingness to sacrifice for edification.

So while “some of the newbies/DIY’ers/amateurs” may be “quite gifted and capable of excellent work” that is essentially all we will end up with. And whatever is meant by “excellent work” without the benefit of knowledge and experience is sort of up for grabs, is it not? Who decides? Anyone? “I like it” (like a dog likes meat).

Don’t take this bit personally, it has nothing to do with you or even me. It is just supposition. Up for grabs, as always.


Winking, Coining a term and purchasing a trade mark are two different things period. I would like to coin the word
“lettersmash” for any one who goes with deep impression.
Then I’ll write a book about it, trademark it, give lectures about it. Actually calling something other than it is,is a form of denial. Trademarking a term is stercoraceous. Yes photopolymer works just fine whatever you call it. As communicating animals it is important that we call things what they are otherwise we are back to babble. Yes it is wrong of me to lump all the DIY’ers into one group and I aggree that most do try to do good work. James

Lettersmash. Perfect descript for those oh-so-many ‘gifted amateurs’ for whom the Black Art is mere backdrop to pretensions. Thank you, JB, for such succinct word.

“Lettersmash” is good and descriptive.
I have used the term smash printing with my students.

OK Guys, we’ve gotten WAY off of the topic…. I would probably vote for the adoption of the term “lettersmash” as a coloquialism for much of the modern crop of letterpress work…. and I concede the concept that Mr Welden might have stepped on a few traditionalist’s toes with his trademarking of the term “Solarplates”…. but that was not the original topic. Nor was a debate about self-taught printers intended. These are topics that border on the social/philosophical/cultural realm…. and we will probably never agree about them. We each have our own opinion.

The ORIGINAL discussion was a simple posting pointing out that it is possible to produce photopolymer plates at home using the Sun as an exposure source…. and my experiences in that regard. After spending a few weeks working with the process and materials, I have to stand by my original post. It is indeed possible to produce good work using the “Solarplate” (TM) method. All of the rhetorical / philosophical arguements in the world will not change that.

Hi, I am new here, just in my third post. When I first read about making plates using only the sun, it makes me think that only a renascence mind would go thru the trouble of endless experimentations, to figure the time of exposure, if the glass is making proper pressure over the negative, trying to figure the light angle and so on. Sounds like fun. By what I read above it seems to work well for artistic illustrations, maybe to produce backgrounds and things of that nature. In it’s experimental nature, the results will vary according to the ‘quantum’ procedure, to the feeling, how hot the sun is as if the exposure time would be administered according to one’s feel of it. From this view point it must be regarded as that, a result. I guess one can actually use this to make artistic prints. Getting various results that can turn into some art, if you feel it is.
I agree with those who believe in the ordered fashion, with procedures in place and expertise to produce predictable results, on that, photo polymer plates is the way. I personally use those from Boxcar. I just found them over the web and got some plates, it works. I have made polymer plates for sometime using proper plate makers and washers, dryers, making plates as per specs. I try as much as possible to have a sense of predictability, as now a days everything comes out of computers, and there are design considerations and it requires an predictable result.
I suppose we should also praise those who hand set their prints. You who have a good type collection, I must say:
You are lucky :-)



Winking cat, I can’t resist putting my two cents in! I agree with everyone to some extent, actually. I discovered letterpress when my daughter was getting married and liked the look of letterpress for the invitation so I thought, ‘I can do this myself”. I had experience using Imagon (a photopolymer that is applied to copper plates and exposed and sometimes etched) for printmaking so I thought I’d order a boxcar plate and print it letterpress on my etching press.

Well, there was much angst involved. First I experimented with exposing my own plate that I bought from Boxcar following their instructions (I even bought the nifty brush) and I made several plates. I had trouble hardening the plates and the type didn’t come out sharp enough. So I decided to have Boxcar make a plate and it was, in my case, better than what I had produced. I didn’t have time to keep experimenting and I was reluctant to keep buying the plates for all that experimentation.

I had rigged up my own UV exposure unit which works well for solarplate and for Imagon. It’s a worklight from the Home Depot (which had a label on it warning of UV exposure if I removed the glass cover), so I removed the glass and rigged it up to an old darkroom enlarger so I could raise and lower it. I made sure I was in another room when using it. Having a high quality negative is half the battle. I wanted to print my own negatives and at one point tried using two identical “negatives” (laser printed transparencies) taped together but that’s tricky to do. I saw Dan Weldon using solarplate as a relief plate on a video but I haven’t tried that yet.

If I want guaranteed perfect results I think I would go ahead and have a plate made but I still long to find a way to do it myself because of the independence and thrift and immediacy. I also really want to find a way to make relief copper plates like William Blake did. So far my experiments haven’t worked the way I want!

I too am working on completing an exposure unit. I have tried the sun exposure method for Solarplates, and had very limited success making intaglio plates. I have since purchased something called an “Aquatint screen” from McClain’s but haven’t tried it out.
I am very pleased to see that you are having success making plates on your own. I am one of those “pretentious” amateurs who was trained as a fine art printmaker and is trying desperately to learn letterpress. Not having to send off for plates would be wonderful.

Wink - Please let us see some pictures of your success.

You might want to take a look at this YouTube video ( of exposing photopolymer using the Sun — there’s also one by the same person showing exposure with a quartz work light. This person uses a Space Bag (VERY ingenious!) and Stouffer greyscales to get correct exposure, just the way professional printers do it (though not using the Sun — they use arc lamps as substitutes. I’m gonna try this!

I reworked an obsolete offset plate burner (tabletop size) for my vacuum and bought 2 .5x12 blacklight tubes for light.
These are not the blacklights you buy in the store, these are true uv blacklights. A 5minute exposure and hand wash out with a dollar store brush works. I don’t know how this would work for type but it seems great for smaller images.