making my own ‘boxcar’ base

I’ve never used polymer plates, mostly just because I like the feel of working with the metal ones. Just my opinion, and no reasoning behind it, just seems more authentic. BUT
Magnesium seems to start corroding within weeks unless oiled and stored. Also, from what I’ve read here pp plates are a slightly less expensive way to go. So I thought I’d give in and give it a try…. Then I saw the base prices!
My question is, aren’t these just a thick aluminum plate with a grid etched on the top? My husband is a machinist and could make me one very easily and very very inexpensively. Is there any reason why one he makes would not work with boxcar (or other pp makers) plates?
Thanks all.

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As long as it’s dimensionally flat and at the right height for use with the plates, I can’t see why not. However, my experiences with polymer (other peoples equipment, leads me to believe anything is better than a place stapled onto plank wood (seriously!).

Of course the Boxcar base system is meant for use with the adhesive backed plates that Boxcar sells. If you go with steel backed plates (or something else), a different base height will be required.

Hi, Jamie—

I had my own base machined from a piece of steel ten or fifteen years ago. In principle, there’s no reason you couldn’t make your own. You seem to be in the fortunate position of being able to experiment a little with it too, by making different sizes, or different thicknesses for differing plate materials. I omitted any grid on mine; I seem to be able to square things up more or less by eye—close enough to catch the difference on guides (usually). My plates are made locally.

Typehigh is .918”, so I had the base machined so that its thickness + tape + plate = .918. Lower is better than higher, since the form can always be underlaid. I’m using a Scotch two-sided cellophane tape to mount the plate. I found carpet tape to be a mess to remove. I dismount the plates (metal-backed) from the base carefully with an ink knife before unlocking. Clean up with typewash. It’s not exactly printing science, but it beats setting 400 words of automobile warranty in 6-point Helvetica on the Lino, and probably more ecofriendly than magnesium on wood.

I’d say, “Take the plunge.” Brian

Dolce press did just what you are describing. Here is a link to their blog entry about the experience.

If you and your husband do produce a less expensive aluminum base, I’m sure there would be a market here on Briarpress for such an item. Myself included.

I figured we’d put in our two cents since we wrote the blog post about making your own base (Dolce Press :: Making a photopolymer base) quite a while ago. Since making our own base out of aluminum we have actually gone back to Boxcar and purchased a new base from them.

Why? Well first their bases are surface ground down to the correct height which ensures that the base is flat to well beyond practical limits. Also they put a grid on it (great for alignment) and give the aluminum a pebble coat which makes pulling the plates off the base much easier.

If you want to save money on a base, you can buy a larger size and have them cut it down into several bases. Find a few other people looking for bases and you can all split the cost.

I hope this helps you and if you have any questions please feel free to contact us.

I appreciate all the feedback. This Forum has been such a fantastic resource.
We’ve decided that’s it’s worth trying the pp plates…. that $.20 a square inch can add up. At the very least, I’m expanding my horizons, so what is there to lose, right?

As far as getting it perfectly square and flat, I’m not worried in the least. My husband generally deals with tolerances to the 100/th of thousandths of an inch. That’s far beyond anything that would be noticeable with letterpress, and probably the same or better than boxcars machining capabilities (at those tolerances it’s the mill’s capabilities, not the operator’s…. I’m not trying to shoot down Boxcar in the least!). He can easily do a pebbled texture as well as engraving or etching a grid onto the top.

I’ve bought a few plates off ebay that were unmounted and he’s made me aluminum bases to use for those. They’ve been perfectly flat and square, and type-high (I’ve used them locked up with foundry type and new wood-mounted plates with absolutely no issues.)

Adaley… you had mentioned in your blog that you the anodized finish was key. Was it the anodizing or the texture that was important? Or possibly both?

If others would be interested in having one made, please email me to let me know what size(s) you’d want. I will get a price together for the material and see what it’d cost to have him make them all.

Both the anodized grid and the texture are important. You want the plate to stick to the base but not be impossible to pull off. With our original base, the aluminum was milled to a mirror finish and so the surface was extremely smooth. After printing, the bond between the plate and the base was very strong making it quite difficult to remove plate.

Thanks Alex, I’m glad the brand name bases are working for you! The surface is important as Alex mentioned but even more important is the tolerances of the machining. Aluminum is difficult to work with and it takes specialized equipment to hold our required tolerances, especially at larger sizes. Variations are typically a few 10,000ths of an inch, so if that’s possible for your husband to achieve on aluminum then consider yourself lucky! You’d be surprised how, under pressure, small variations in the base do affect printing.

As a printer I’m always looking for ways to remove variables from the process…it’s hard enough without introducing possible variations in the base to the process. If you use our bases, you’ll have our guarantee that they’ll be within spec so you can focus on other things when problems arise…and believe me there are plenty of other things to go wrong!

Those are my 2 cents. Let me know if we can help you in any way!!!


There are so many variables in printing. I like my Boxcar standard bases and plates because I know exactly what I’ll get from them. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough chaos in my print shop as it is!

Daniel Morris
The Arm Letterpress
Brooklyn, NY

Over a year ago I ordered an aluminum base from an online metals supplier and had it sized to 9x12 and delivered for under $80. I’ve never had any problems with it. A grid would be nice, but a pica pole, a pen, and tape works just fine for me.

I have to go along with Harold and Daniel on this. While I do not personally use Boxcar bases I can verify that they are quite precisely manufactured. The difference between fine printing and anything else is about a thousands of an inch. That is what one would hope to strive for, I would think. Er, hope.

I use Buntings and I like to think of them as just a raised bed. And worry free. No underlay, no interlay. Eliminate the variables, don’t introduce them, and you will be a much happier camper, er, printer.


Again, I have nothing against Boxcar or other manufacturers. Nor did I intend to imply that I don’t think their quality is good enough. I am looking for ways to save myself some money. In this economy I see nothing wrong with that.
Also, Letterpress, along with any other art form is as much about innovation and finding the right tools as it is about the finished product. I don’t think making a base on my own is any different than those making plates on their own or those who carve their own lino blocks. Everyone starts somewhere, right?
This post was asking for pointers on making a base so that I could save myself some money, so that I could experiment with pp plates, and in a small way so that I could get my husband more involved with something that I love. I hadn’t intended to offer them to anyone else, but if I can save someone else money at the same time I didn’t see the harm.
I am fortunate enough to have a husband who can make the things that I dream up. (I can make whatever I dream up out of wood, but now I can dream in metal, too!) My husband, in turn is fortunate enough to have millions of dollars worth of equipment at his disposal and a boss who allows him to use it after hours for personal projects. I’d be a fool not to take advantage of that.
I do, though appreciate the comments (and concerns) of you all. I’m especially thankful that Harold from boxcar was kind enough to reply. I really hope that my posts did not come off as negative about them… thats not my intent in the least.

“The difference between fine printing and anything else is about a thousands of an inch.” Yeah, but for what it’s worth, Vandercook tolerances were more like .003”. Look what we’re asking of them now, after 30 or 50 years of wear.
I have no doubt about the precision of Boxcar bases. I’ve only seen the plates twice, and both times tbe Boxcar-made plates, adhesive and base came .0015” below type high. And I have found similar variations across the Rigilon plates I process (corrected with a spot “interlay” of acrylic fixatif spray) I don’t know if this is down to manufacture, processing, relative humidity, or what.
Don’t just assume .918”. Confirm. (And remember, some things have intentionally varied from that ideal, like leaders and column rule cast low, and some solids run high.)

I spent 15 years in letterpress earning a living and enjoying what I did. My observation is that there is a lot of re-inventing the wheel amongst those who come from the art/design school side. This is not a criticism! If you have time to experiment with different approaches and derive pleasure from it, then enjoy yourself. If, however, you are a production printer concerned with the ultimate quality of your product, you will probably ask some like-minded printers for advice (which is the wonderful thing about these lists). You probably already know that using the proven procedures, tools and supplies, though perhaps initially more costly, will save time in the long run. It boils down to what your time is worth and what gives you pleasure.

Leon Wood

You are right Leon. The beginner who wants a small base for their hobby press is much better suited to spend a little time investigating a custom setup. The commercial printer with a row of windmills hasn’t the time or money to waste.

I have been investigating this because I recognize the quality of Boxcar. I just want to know if the price is inflated because they are a well known brand. Having looked at this for some time, and asking lots of questions, I think the price difference is negligible for a custom base. But, if an individual already had the raw materials on hand, and was skilled with a milling machine, there is no reason not to try to craft a base from scratch.

I’m new but it seems to me that a branded base is a bit of a luxury, improvement, or step up. Since the long held standard has been metal on wood, essentially the standard is a wood base and obviously that’s been adequate for a long time for a lot of people. But now it seems that the standard has become a relatively expensive finely machined aluminum base and anything less is supposedly inadequate. Being a woodworker with a stash of hard maple, I reckon I could plain down some and with a micrometer get close enough to adjust with a some paper backing. Or even easier just take the wood off a bunch of old zincs, glue them up on a very flat surface, then lightly sand. If they worked for the zincs why wouldn’t they work for pp? Wouldn’t that work fine for a while? Just trying to keep things in perspective and costs to a minimum. That being said I don’t doubt that the boxcar bases would make printing better and easier and would be a good investment in my future. I just don’t believe it’s a necessity. Type high, flat, and capable of handling the pressures being key, however you get there. It’s just going to take a little longer and more careful makeready.

Too me the issue seems a bit like buying a fly rod. You can spend all the money you want, but in the end the fish really don’t care whether you spent a thousand bucks or thirty at walmart.

Am I way off here?

you are right, type high is .918, don’t matter how you get there, but i like to use 1/4” mag dies and mount them on my wooden furniture with two pieces of chipboard behind the chase, type high. poly plates i think really need a more accurate base, it saves a lot of headaches . good luck dick g.

Actally metal bases go back quite a long ways (to the 20’s at least, and possibly further. The reason that they are popular today is the desire for heavy impression. On a cylinder press, the pressure on typographical surfaces can be tremendous, so much so that some wood bases collapse and give under the weight.

In the old days, the bases were by PMC, Warnock, or Sterling and were designed to mechanically hold a zinc or magnesium engraving in place. They were desired simply for their consistency, especially in halftone work. Since makeready was a major expense, reducing plate impression variables was a sought after requirement.

Nothing to say that you can’t use wood bases, it just would add to the makeready process, and depending on your needs, that may be totally sufficient. For those who want to go to photopolymer, a metal base is pretty much a requirement. For those working with metal, then mounting plates on wood may work. Your results will direct you.

I have to say, being a university student, money for a boxcar base just wasn’t there. Especially when I needed a larger size.

Instead, I had some help from my mechanical engineering major pal. He helped me melt down some aluminum and cast a big hurkin slab of aluminum. I then used the school’s mill to whittle it down to a really dang good base. Actually, 2 bases (each 9x12). They have worked really great thus far. They aren’t perfect, but I really cannot complain. Especially at the great price of free ninety free.

I am wondering if anyone has actual experience with the Excelsior Press “chase-base” as a hobby printer. Like evanmade and others, I simply don’t have the money for a Boxcar base, and I’d prefer to have more printing area in my 5x8 which the chase base provides.

JamieK_77, have you had much success with machining your own base? I’d love to hear an update.

Yes, I had great success. My husband has made me about 6 different sized bases (I have 3 different presses and needed several options). I’ve had absolutely no trouble printing with them and he engraved a grid on them for me, so registration has been a breeze. I’ve now transitioned from the mag plates pretty much completely. Though I like the feel of working with the wood and metal plates, the makeready needed (especially on the larger plates) is so much more than with the PP plates. The quality control seems to be miles above on the PP plates as well. I’m sure there will still be jobs that I choose to do with mag or copper, for various reasons, but for now I am very content with the PP and my non-commercially manufactured bases.
He’s made bases for a couple of others on here that have written to me as well and they’ve done just fine with them. If you would like one, message me and I can get you a price….. if you are working with a 5x8 press I would actually suggest you get 2 smaller bases (maybe 4x4 and 3x4) to give you the most flexibility. You can lock them up together when you need a larger base, but will have more freedom for placement of gauge pins when you just need a small base.
There are others on here who have talked about having a base machined or used various other materials (I think someone said they used acrylic?). Bottom line is that, though there are others on here who would discourage you from doing so, be creative, think through what the requirements are and you can probably find a pretty good solution that works for you. Just remember to be meticulous in the craftsmanship…
Best of luck,

I’ve just started printing on a recently rescued/rehabbed C&P 8x12 OS; I’m doing as much as I can on the cheap, both for the obvious economic angle as well as to satisfy my preference to solve problems with ingenuity rather than money (time being what I spend more of in this way).
One of the “cheap” solutions has been to mount the pp on a hardwood base, which worked well enough. I’ve now embarked on a refinement of that approach, laminating hardwood ply to composite board to make a base pretty darned close to the right height to back my KF152 pp.
I appreciate hearing the various points brought forward in this thread; seems there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But if my home-made bases don’t work as well as they need to, I’ll be picking up the phone to Boxcar - or emailing JamieK!

Thought I’d share my successful venture in making a base today.
Here was my experience:

I brought my dial caliper with me to the metal supply shop and found that most of the plate aluminum was about .015+ than what it stated. (a few months ago I bought what was supposed to be a 7/8” plate that put me considerably over type high)

Today I bought an 3/4 aluminum plate and a .090 plate and epoxied them together. This brought be to about .875 with a little room for a tissue paper to level it out.

After it all dried and one or two test prints to level the plate I was printing and am very happy with the results.

image: photo.JPG


Good to hear, Daniel. I’ve been planning to try the exact same thing with small pieces of stock aluminum for mounting 16-gauge copper engravings. I was thinking of using double-sided tape instead of epoxy since tape has a consistent dimension (supposedly). Here’s how I envision my “sandwich” ingredients:

Aluminum, 0.750”
Aluminum, 0.090”
16-gauge copper, 0.064”
Carpet tape (2 @ 0.007”), 0.014”
Total = 0.918”

I actually found some 7-mil double-sided tape. For larger areas, such as a whole base, I guess you could start with the Boxcar film adhesive, which is 0.004”.

The Europeans have these great modular bases known as Unterlegstege, but they’re based on European type heights.


Us europeans as you put it have lots of variants of the above , steel ,lead , aluminium , and zinc with inset dowels for pins if needed to hold die in place , another usable base is resalite furniture ,all dependent on required height , add to that standard honeycombe with ali plate The long history has thrown up a whole range of bases and all work well in their fields of use. Use what you can that fits the bill it doesnt hurt to be inventive , unless the hubby or wife is bothered that you just stole the oblong shape off one end of the nylon chopping board in the kitchen !!

We make our own line of bases called “space bases”
They are made of a plastic polymer.
We always supply our bases ground .040” undersize to allow underlays to bring the plate to the rollers rather than tape the rails.

JamieK et al.

re boxcar

One place I worked, we used somewhat similar system with plastic half-tone; I tried to get best base, was reprimanded when I used blank linotype slugs (the blank part cast against the jaw, smoother than against quads) because my method would tie-up linotype metal; but the pressmen liked them. The plastic half-tone material was about .0415 inch thick, our press was tolerant. The lino slugs were recessed, that is, not solid metal, but with recesses cast into them (reduces weight and metal useage; and other advantages), except for slugs of small point-size, but usually combining various large sizes meant that a suitable size base could be made up.

At another workplace, Saturday mornings the apprentices locked-up full chases of column rule, to be put through the hydraulic stereotyping press, probably to check if any bubbles or other flaws.
6-point solid rule was, I believe, slightly over type-high so that it would print solid black on soft paper (newsprint).

Some Christmas holly border was cast on linotype with back knife not working, not noticed, so it was far over type-high; we put it through the surfacer machine which was used to give a good face to Ludlow type of large sizes, but “other-way-up” so that foot of slug was “surfaced” — engineer measured, OK as within tolerance, as good as they could measure with an ordinary micrometer.

Suggestion is that if boxcar or substitute is not easily compressible, has very plane (smooth) surface, regular [not varying] thickness all over and correctly calculated height which will give correct type-high with plates made to a known thickness, with whatever method of securing plates to the mount, most problems are avoided.


I really like Peter’s thinking, those plastic chopping boards, I checked they are 1cm thick, laminate two together, a little more packing, it might be worth a try..!
Also those bamboo chopping boards too seem to be nice and firm, couple coats varnish maybe …..but have used MDF too in an Adana…….

In letterpress necessity really is the mother of invention , I have seen chopping boards at various thickness but industrial ones in various colours red,white,blue ,green each to suit the food they are meant to prepare on and i am sure i have seen them at 19mm i once used one to make parts for a muller martini stitch trim line .