Hmm letterpress and the presses used by artists…what’s the difference??

Hi all,

I’m a bit worried I’m going to get jumped on for this question! But bear with me. In searching for a letterpress small enough to fit in my tiny apartment here is Sydney, I’ve come across a lot of intaglio presses or block presses in artists suply stores.
The basic premise seems so similar, I’m wondering if these might work for what I’m trying to achieve.
At this point I was only looking at printing with photopolymer plates of my own designs.
Is there a big difference between the two? Is it about the pressure (or lack)?
Sorry for the dummy question!
Thanks in advance Liz.

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What is important is the size of the finish work. If you are doing calling, note cards etc, a small 3 x 5 press will do the job.

If you plan of posters, you need a press that can give good impression on a larger area.

Liz -

You already have a sense of the main issue; impression.

Inking and register (image alignment) are two other issues, but impression is the main one.

The main difference between using any sort of platen press and any sort of flat-bed cylinder press comes down to impression.

When you press the platen flat against the bed, it’s like closing a book - the pressure is distributed equally against both surfaces. A 6x10 platen press will distribute its energy across the entire 60 square inch flat surface.

A proofing press or artists engraving or intaglio press achieves far, far more impression when printing because you will be rolling a cylinder across the form. Only 1/4” of the cylinder will contact the form at any one moment.

On a 6x10 flatbed press, you would distribute the impression energy over only 6 x 1/4 or 1.5 square inches.

1.5 vs 60 = 40 times more impression with a cylinder than with a platen.

with larger presses, the variation is even more “impressive”..
a 10x15” platen press = 150
a 10x15” proof press = 2.5
2.5 vs 150 = 60 times more impression.

This allows any cylinder press to achieve far, far more impression than any platen press of the same size - and that helps in both ink transfer and over all image quality.

I recently cobbled together a simple press that uses a common kitchen rolling pin to produce the impression. This was made for students to use at a museum.

Granted, it’s only really good at up to 3 lines of type, but it does illustrate the concept.

See and be sure to look at the YouTube videos of the press in action.

You may want to try the same thing - or find yourself a small flatbed proof press to do short run prints in your apartment.

For that matter, you may want to experiment with your photo-polymer plate, some soft felt and a rolling pin and see what you can do - even without a press. One key factor in my little press are the side rails which support the rolling pin as it rolls. This keeps the impression even across the form. Without some sort of side-rail support, your impression may be uneven.

And, if you want to print each image in the same position on a sheet, you’ll want to add a “frisket” to hold your sheet in place.

However, if you want to do production - more than 3 prints a minute - and if you designs will print well with less impression, you may want to consider a commercially-manufactured (new or old) proof press or even a small platen press like a Kelsey, Victor or Pilot.

A great press that I would recommend for your work would be any sort of old “galley proof press”. These were made for making quick proofs of “galleys of type” for proofreading and correction; not for production. They are very basic, but may suit your needs just fine.

Some of our collection can be seen at

In any case, have fun and happy printing!

- Alan


It always amazes me how knowledgable and generous people are on here!
Great videos, this is exciting. There’s an intaglio press I’ve found on ebay (photo attached).

Do you think it would be possible to create 2 colour prints from photopolymer plates and a “frisket” on something like this? I would like to achieve quite a bit of impression/bite of the print.

Thanks again for the excellent advice Alan,

image: 140CASVVXOB.jpg


It looks like that press is designed to pull the bed through by friction with the cylinder. If you can get a chase or other frame in which you can lock the photopolymer base and rig a tympan and frisket on that, so that the friction is against the tympan which is firmly attached to the chase, then register and decent impression should be possible. (If I’m mistaken and the bed is driven with gearing to the cylinder, then you have an easier way of it.) To see what I mean look for Neil Giroux’s similar setup for his Poco proof press. Not sure where you will find it, though!


You can see Neil Giroux’s setup here:


I would caution you against that particular press. As an artist printing relief images both on an etching press and a variety of letterpresses, I think this press is too flimsy to give reliable and consistent results. You may be able to print with it, but you will encounter more frustration than is necessary. This press does have an enticing price.
The biggest challenge with etching type presses when printing relief is slurring. The friction used to move the bed between the rollers is also able to move the paper across your inked block. The best solution for this is running roller barers on the outsides of your press bed.
This is my etching press
Here is another far less accurate press my beginning students use.
The roller barer on the second press is for mounted linoleum blocks.

The letterpress purist will possibly disagree with me about the why, but if we are to focus on the how- You can totally print Photopolymer on an etching press and with consistent, fine results if you use several techniqes and additional tools. It depends upon the quality of the press, but it is a task which can be accomplished if done deliberately and carefully.

A tangent before I explain: Polymer works well as a relief printing plate, but if you make reversed plates, it also works pretty well for intaglio (wiped plate/incised line). A lot of people are using polymer to make images similar to aquatints/photogravures- they call it “Solarplate” or a variety of other names, it’s been discussed here before, but it’s still just polymer plate wiped like an etching, printed with damp paper in the old style.

The main differences between an etching press and a letterpress?

1. No inking system. You’ll have to hand ink. With small details, this can make ink hit the shoulders of the plate and even the flat surface if you’re not careful. The best way to overcome it is to use “Inking rails”- two strips of materaial that are the SAME THICKNESS as your polymer plate, or just a bit thicker, which keep your inking brayer or roller ABOVE the height of the shoulder. This makes the ink lick the top surface of the plate, not the base/sides.

2. Etching presses commonly use felt blankets as the packing/backing material- the stuff between the roller and the plate/paper sandwich. 

We as letterpress printers would use “Press Packing” for this on our vandercooks or C&Ps or windmills or whatever, but it won’t work on an intaglio press as easily. The problem in this case being that A. oiled tympan is thin and slippery/wont tape in place around the cylinder easily, and B most etching presses have a bit of “tooth” to the impression roller and are not ground smoothly, unlike a letterpress which has a polished/smooth milled impression cylinder. You have to use thicker, more rigid packing to overcome this if you want to print polymer with consistent results, and you also have to accurately set the pressure to be level, and no lower or higher than is neccesary.


So, why do Intaglio presses employ felts, and why should you choose something else? If you were using felts, they would engage the bed with the cylinder and allow the bed to move forward when you cranked the press, but they also create too much impression variation. They make a lot of cushion which pushes paper into plates much deeper than we, as letterpress printers, are used to doing. Even deep letterpress impression rarely reaches the level at which a set of etching felts will bottom out paper. Unless you’re using a die and counter, you won’t create the same sculpted look that they achieve. I am talking about near to absolute conformity to the plate surface.
For this, you have to dampen the paper too, which you’ll want to avoid doing as it takes time and requires a way to dry paper flat. It’s unnecessary for relief printing, and that’s pretty much what you’re trying to do here, so why make it more difficult?

Instead of felts, use a piece of plexiglass, and some “rider rails”. The rider rails can double as inking rails, as described above.

The plexiglass will ride along on the rails with the paper and plate beneath it, and all the while the rails will be what puts contact between the cylinder and the bed, and so you’ll be able to crank through without a slurred image because the bed won’t stop when pressure suddenly backs off. This lets you print spaced out forms if you want to.

I made a diagram which explains this, here’s a link:

Note that the plate is also attached to something larger- it’s going to be helpful to you to stick your plate to a piece of plexiglass or some other object. Take CARE that this is the SAME THICKNESS as the RIDER RAILS. Everything that is gonna be in contact with the roller needs to be the SAME HEIGHT.
The two best things to use as a backer are piece of phenolic resin tympan (such as that found at Takach Press, or a piece of polycarbonate sheeting found at big name hardware stores here in the states, or even plexiglass if it’s thick enough.

I’ve also successfully used rubber blankets, and even masonite (tempered hardboard) as a backing, depending what I’m printing with/printing on (not with polymer yet, but other types of plates).

It’s also best to doublestick the rider rails to your pressbed to avoid them slipping/moving- don’t tape them all the way along, just at the two ends, so they’ll be easy to move into place between inking (when you need them close to your plate) and printing (when you’ll want them far from your paper). They need to go wider than your paper as you don’t want the paper to rest on them at all, or it’ll get inky.

You’ll also want to glue some tabs into place or make some kind of a registration system which you can put your paper up against, as marks are going to be cumbersome for you. Trying to drop paper into place is a tricky endeavor without grippers/lay pins.
If you can build it into your plates, you could make it easy on yourself. If you make files that have some little tabs OUTSIDE of the crop marks, which are squared with the image, you can simply pop the corners of paper against them, hold in place with your fingers as one end of the paper is up, and then lay the paper down carefully to make some easy registration happen. If you need to see what I mean, I’ll draw another quick diagram, but for now, this is enough for one post.

Thanks for all the great advice guys. I’ve ended up getting the press even though I know it’s not going to be the final answer for me…at least it’ll get me started!
Helimited, a very special thankyou for your detailed reply and advice!! I really like the idea of the plexiglass. Alot of the info is going to make alot more sense to me once I actually have the press I think but I think I follow the basic principle. Can I just check that I have the order right? paper on bottom then plexiglass sheet with plate attached to it face down goes directly through the press?
Can you reccomend the type of photopolymer plate I should get made? I’m confused as to how thick/hard it should be? Any ideas would be great.
Super thanks to all!

No, the other way.

The way it appears on the screen below is how it should be IRL:

TOP: Plexi on top of paper
Middle: Paper on top of plate
Middle: Plate stuck to plexi with double stick
BOTTOM: Plexi on pressbed

Your rails should go ON EITHER SIDE of the plate as you’re inking it, and then on the bed next to it but outside of the paper. The rails should be THE SAME HEIGHT as the plexi+plate- anotherwards, the rails, the plate, the paper ALL go under the sheet of plexiglass, and the rails should be as close in height as you can possibly make them to the plate/plexi base. Ideally, you’ll make your rails out of solid pieces of polymer plate attached to strips of plexiglass, the same as the base of the plate itself.

For plates- I would reccomend the thicker option. Plates come in various thicknesses, but I would say the more relief, the better in your case- so go for what we here in the states call a KF-152 (at least when we buy from suppliers like boxcar press), which is .06” thick, and has a relief of .05”. Any letterpress plate designed for printing will be hard enough provided you don’t put too much pressure. The rule with pressure is go light to heavy- so start with not enough and add pressure until it is the correct setting.

Honestly my opinion, that press will probably get you started just fine, provided it isn’t as cheaply made as it looks. Overkill is for the professionals, provided you don’t have tons of stuff to make quickly you’ll be on your way.

The hardest part will be learning how to print!! If you haven’t already taken a workshop, I highly recommend it, but since I’m not in australia I have no idea where to send you. I have no idea who makes plates down there either, but perhaps there’ll be “just the right classified ad” that will pop up at some point.

Just think positively and ask lots of questions and good luck!

Helimited has great advice.

Congrats on the purchase of your new press. May I suggest that you buy some oil based ink and a bottle of mineral spirits. Oil based ink requires less ink to print evenly and with complete coverage. It also stays “open” on the ink slab. This means that id doesn’t quickly dry while you are arranging your block and printing. Water based ink, especially Speedball brand is known for causing trouble. If you absolutely cannot deal with oil based products, consider Faust inks.
I believe they will still send you a small sample pack of 12 colors if you ask by e-mail.—i-284-250-001

Just an update, I’m still waiting for the press to arrive but will let you know when I’ve given all your tips a go!

Thanks again,

PS thanks boundstaffpress for the ink advice, I was looking for info on this this morning!