Polymer vs. Typeface Work

Hello everyone!

I’m quite new to letterpress, so I’m still struggling to understand the whole process.

I got to see a demonstration of a Heidelberg Windmill in action, and I have a question.

The printer I visited was using polymer plates to create patterns/designs on cards. Then the standard metal typefaces were used to create the letters & words on the cards.

Can someone explain to me in layman’s terms WHY you need the actual letters? Why not just print the entire design on a polymer plate?

Do the letters allow you to create a deeper impression or something? Do the actual letters do something polymer cannot do?

~ Charles

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Not all metal typefaces are available in digital format and even those that are are not *exactly* the same as the metal type. If nothing else ink squeeze will make digital typefaces look a tiny bit bolder than the same face on a laser printer or inkjet. Depending on your level of perfectionsim that may not be acceptable.

Also, you need to do page layout, generate film, and process the plate before you can print from a photopolymer plate. If you have printed cards that need a custom imprint, setting a line or two in metal type for personalization can sometimes be quicker than going to plate. And the type is reuseable. Deeper impression work is done with plates, not from the original type, which is subject to wear.
Basically, many of us who learned typography through metal type rather than on a computer screen still prefer metal when it suits the task; it is a real pleasure to work with good type in the stick, something I wouldn’t say about processing a photopolymer plate.

So based on the comments above…

1) Polymer plates actually make a deeper impression than metal type does.

2) If page layout is not a challenge for someone, polymer might just be the way to go.

Next question…say I were to invest in a 6x10 (or something around that) tabletop press…maybe an Excelsior or a C&P…would I be able to print using polymer plates on a tabletop press?

~ Charles


Actually, in making case for metal type, I think the information might have gotten a bit side-tracked.

1) No. It’s just that you would not want to use metal type for deep impression as it wears out, and these days, isn’t easily or even likely replaceable. Photopolymer won’t in most cases, but you can’t use it again (unless, of course, you would be running the same job). Metal foundry type would probably give you a much sharper “deep” relief but you would not want to punish it so. Copper plates are really the best approach, but a bit too expensive for most folks.

2) I’d think yes. Page-layout out programs give you a great deal more flexibility than metal type composition, and in the correct hands, can produce work that is far superior (in the typographic sense).

Next question) Yes, Boxcar Press has developed an entire industry around this concept (complete with “starter kits”). But pay attention to chase size and base size and be aware that registration devices generally need to be outside of the base area or they will collide, disastrously.



The printer you visited probably has a bunch of polymer plates that they can use for anyone and uses metal type to customize it for the customer. Re-using the plates plus using metal type is probably saving your printer tons of money instead of making one custom plate that they will not use again.

Lee Jay