Letterpress as a business?

There’s lots of good discussion going on, so I figured I would bring up the other angle that’s been on my mind. How to turn letterpress into a source of income.

Off the top of my head there are 2 main ways to make money:
• Designing and printing things that people want to buy. This is postcards, notecards, coasters, calendars, stationery, etc.
• Commissioned design/printing for clients. This is the wedding materials, business cards, etc.

My question is the most basic question for almost any business maybe… let’s say I’m good at designing and printing, and I have capable presses. Now, how do I get the work?

I’d love to know how many people here rely on letterpress as the main source of their income, and any advice they have on getting it started.

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I started when i was 13, at first i printed for friends, who told friends, word of mouth, i did some work for local churches,by the time i was 17 i had my mother and sister working with me, i always worked a full time job and printed for myself nights. After i got married my wife joined us and without advertising we had built a pretty good letterpress business, by the early 1980’s we were working so much that we made the decision to give up the full time job and just print for ourselves. Every couple of years we would add something else to what we did, rubber stamps, sign engraving, foil stamping, a copy center. It wasn’t easy but we managed to get by. Now we print from our house and work a little less. Dick G.

Mega…. didn’t we have this discussion here on Briar Press about a year ago?

Yes, there are a lot of folks here, myself included, who earn a substantial portion of their incomes with letterpress. (In my case, it’s actually a combination of lettepress and itaglio / etching / laser cutting of blocks ) There are also a lot of folks who want to earn a living with it, but have not gotten there yet.

Getting customers is not the hard part. Getting customers who are willing to pay what the labor/materials/expertise are actually worth is a whole ‘nuther thing! Since letterpress is labor-intensive and slow compared to other processes, you cannot compete on a cost basis. If you try it, you will surely loose your backside.

For a manual letterpress business to survive against photo-offset, giclee, inkjet and high-speed color copiers, it has got to provide something that is tangibly different and better than what the other processes can deliver. It has got to produce something that makes the customer say “WOW!” and justifies the higher costs. THAT is why deep-impression printing is so popular with designers and the new crop of letterpress folks: No other process can produce a product with the same look or feel.

The marketplace for such “wow!” products is relatively small. In order to thrive a shop has got to find a niche that is capable of supporting them. Given the large number of newcomers into the field, especially in the larger cities, this is not very easy. There are literally dozens of studios who make wedding invitations, fancy business cards, and all of that sort of thing…. and many of them produce exquisite work. There are also quite a few folks who do beautiful books, and all manner of other things like posters and art-work. Because of this overcrowding, many shops try to underbid the competition….. thus leading to everyone losing money.

In my own shop, we don’t even try to compete for the job-shop work like envelopes, business cards, invitations, or anything like that. Instead, we design and print our materials, and then sell them to a long established clientel. The very few custom jobs we produce are extremely high-end products that very few people would be willing to pay for, and even fewer can print. It’s not a business model that I could recommend to others, since it evolved over the course of many years. For many of those years, starvation was only a few weeks away. We DID survive, and ultimately did well….. but it was tough.

My advise to anyone pondering a letterpress based business? Learn to produce work of such high quality that it automatically stands out as the best. THEN after you can do that, think about goin g into business.

Here is one way to get customer. Do some design work for your self. Take the work you have done to some card or gifts shops in your area. Give them a percentage of the price.

At first you might only get one or two shops to agree, but do not worry, once people see your work your business will grow.

Example: Design some gift cards and tell the shop owner you will give him X amount for each sale.

Printers are becoming less and less versatile, and that’s why most people come to me for printing. I run a small offset press, have a few letterpresses and run full service silkscreen, not to mention a small bindery. I’m only 23 and started doing this as an evening thing in 2000sqft of a warehouse for a few years, but now I work one day a week at a day-job and do this full time, didn’t take long.

Where are you? I’m in an isolated, mid-sized city and have had no problem finding equipment or clients to pay rent, buy supplies and every once and a while buy new equipment. Have to/had to live off the day job though.


Well, as they say, “You need money to make money.”

On the other hand, given the incredible free resources on the internet today, which are unprecedented, if you can’t figure out how to promote your work and/or services to make the dough-re-me necessary to survive and/or flourish, you lose.