online source for Soy-based letterpress inks

Hi there,
I am just getting a small press started out of my home and the idea of using the more toxic ink options out there doesn’t go over too well with my conscience or my girlfriend who shares my home.
In the past, I have used VanSon Rubber Base Plus and Oil Base Plus.
Does anyone know of any good online (or Portland, OR) sources for soy-based or low-VOC inks that work well on letterpress?

Log in to reply   46 replies so far

Hi there,

I’m in Portland, too. I use Van Son Rubber Base Inks and am pleased with them, but was just told about soy-based inks available from Gans Ink in PDX., I believe. Let me know how you think they print.


Van Son sells SonaPrint. I’ve used it and it a good ink, dries nicely, good color.


I’ve used Gans soy-based inks with good results. They’re in Portland, too. A couple of things about soy inks. They vary from manufacturer to manufacturer in the percentage of soy oil that is used (they add other non-soy oil), so you may want to compare that if you can dig out the information.

I have used soy inks for years but stopped doing so. The idea of using these inks is to help the environment but they skin in the can so you must take that skin off and that crusty gunk goes into the trash. I eventually switched to acrylic based inks (polyacrylic from Gans) because they don’t skin, I like the way they perform on the press and look on the sheet, and I’m not wasting ink. Not getting hickeys on the rollers is also a benefit of using an ink that stays open in the can and on the press.

For all of you die-hard environmentalists out there, you should know that the “soy-based” inks really AREN’T. Yes there is a SMALL amount of soy oil used in their manufacture, but it is pretty insignificant in the overall composition of the ink. BUT…being able to flash that “soy” label just simply allows everyone to feel better about the whole thing and think that they are “doing their part”.

It’s pretty much like the various “recycled” designations for paper. Some of the “recycled”-branded things in actuality only have a very small amount of actual recycled materials in them.

Things are definitely not allways as as they seem. Politics and games play a vital roll in all of this.

Sorry to bust your balloons.

Interestingly enough, I was watching a program tonight that discussed the problems and solutions of and for our dear planet and it mentioned that the Amazon rain forest is being cut down, in large part, to grow soy. I guess if you really want to wear the green badge, you might want to boycott soy based inks.

Somewhat off topic, but to follow up on Foolproof546’s comment on paper described as recycled, papermakers often don’t distinguish between recycling of mill waste, and recycling of post-consumer waste in their description of the final product.


I usually use Van sons but I want to start mixing letterpress with ink jet and was told that van son’s ink “reconstitutes” under the heat of a printer and smears and therefore I should use soy. Any experience in this combination before I buy something I may or may not need?

Print the ink jet part before you print the letterpress part and you won’t have to deal with that particular problem.


“Print the ink jet part before you print the letterpress part and you won’t have to deal with that particular problem.”

Unfortunately, you can’t always do that. For instance, in order to have a supply of letterhead on hand for imprinting later with various small runs (sometimes just one sheet of correspondence) on the laser printer as it is needed.

For situations where you need to print first, using many oil based inks is usually okay. Rubber base should not be used. Checking with your ink manufacturer should be done beforehand but make sure you’re talking to someone who knows what they’re talking about (the clerk at XPEDX or Kelly Paper is not this person, you need to speak with someone at the ink company). You do not need to use inks such as Van Son Tough Tex or other inks that have been formulated for use on non-absorbent substrates such as vinyl, acetate, mylar, foil and Tyvek. You can, but that’s overkill.

When soy inks were introduced, an unintended benefit was found to be that they dried harder than other oil based inks. That’s why Van Son named their soy ink brand “Mega-Laser”, to help market the product as preferable for printing that would go through the laser printer. Soy based inks are preferable for this application and most manufacturers include a line of soy based inks.

A further note on soy based inks. I just talked to my roller rep at RotaDyne regarding specs for my Vandercook and during the conversation he mentioned that if you are running soy inks you need to have rollers formulated for soy as the ink is apparently quite aggressive in terms of wear to the rollers.


Thanks Gerald, I’ve used RotaDyne here in Texas for my Windmill rollers and I also use the VanSon Soy ink. Sounds like I need to communicate with next time I go to recover.


Soy ink has some advantages and some possible disadvantages, and it will be worth watching to see how soy and other vegetable based inks do in the long run. I’ve run some soy ink on offset presses for years but only recently began using some for letterpress. For those wanting to try it or needing to use it, I do have several colors of soy based ink currently available in 1/4 lb. tubes (no skinning problems or waste!). Anyone interested can contact me at Ink(at) for info on ink in tubes.


Updated. I have been using Spinks Envirotech Black Ink (Soy Based) for the past 2 years. I had been using Van Son Rubber Base & CML Oil Base for the last 30 years. Most inks work fine. Just use what you can get when you need it in a hurry. Valley Litho is an online supplier of Spinks & Van Son.

Does anyone know if the soy based inks have a lower toxicity than other inks? I am just starting to explore letterpress and also pregnant. Wondering if there is a letterpress ink that doesn’t have any carcinogens or has less hazardous fumes? It appears that rubber doesn’t have any carcinogens listed, and oil does. Of course, working in a well ventilated environment and wearing gloves will help. Any other info/suggestions would be great. Thanks!

Every time I read threads such as this I thank the stars that the lunatic fringe was not around when Gutenburg began his endeavours else we would all be held to the whimsy of scribes. In my opinion.

Wow, Forme…. Do you really mean to tell me that people exploring the best options for their situation is what you would describe as the lunatic fringe? What’s the harm?

Had you any understanding of the words: ‘lunatic fringe’, you’d realize your posting misses my point - entirely. I imply no ‘harm’ whatsoever; those words are your inference. What I am suggesting is for those barricading behind the nonesensical environment boogeyman to stick with mud and sharpened twig to avoid contact with the very essentials of letterpress. In fact, NASA is adopting a new space suit - the cast-offs, hermetically sealed, might well suit those whose dainty sensibilities are so easily offended by the actual contact of skin to product. How something as straightforward as letterpress can be made so overly complicated escapes reason. What next - a re-hash of the lead canard?
In simpler terms - lighten up. In my opinion

From the practical standpoint, it’s not the inks that are likely to cause any potential problems. As long as you are reasonably careful and remember that the ink is supposed to go on your press, type, and the paper, and you’re not supposed to eat it (despite some delicious colors!) nor finger-paint with it! Certainly, gloves and, especially, good ventilation are not bad ideas, but your main concern should the solvent or whatever you might use to wash up, and that’s a subject for another thread, I think.

Updated. This is a great thread, thanks to everyone for all the info!


If you are pregnant and printing and consulting an online letterpress list for opinions on carcinogens and alternatives to, there is something wrong here.

I think you know what the answer is.


Gerald, If you read my post it says I am exploring letterpress, meaning I am researching it and doing all the research that I can and exploring. I don’t have all the answers, as I am just beginning. Isn’t the point of discussion boards such as this to throw out questions and gather other people’s opinions and experience?

Updated. AP17, Inks are just a component in letterpress printing and you might get some on your skin. But there are many other health related issues to printing and ink is just one. How about the Cutter, or fingers in the Platen Press, Mineral Spirit skin contact and fumes, or paper cuts. The list goes on.

Positive health issues might be the feeling you get after setting up a form and it prints beautiful, a happy client, the broadside or chap book that took hours to design and produce and when you finish the joy it brings you. Now those are very positive health issues related to letterpress printing.

It’s not just the ink but that is a good first question.



Yes, that is the point of discussion boards. But apparently you only want reinforcing opinions? I read your posts and have to ask how is one to know what “exploring” means without further information of what you have in your experience. Simple question. I’m exploring letterpress as well, and have been for 32 years, as a printer.


Wow - take a step back and listen to yourselves. I started reading this thread in interest, but now you are just getting mean. I guess it would be hard to understand being a printer (i.e. this is your livelihood) AND being pregnant at the same time unless you have actually been there. Kudos to AP17 for being cautious. The rest of you, stop judging and either offer some advice or back off.

Apparently,I’ve missed the election in which you were declared sole arbiter of debate. Does this mean Elizabeth is deposed? Does this mean your judgemental order: “…or back off”. must be instantly obeyed? And must tribute be paid to your Highness and, if so, in what form? Just curious.

Updated. There are people on this list that know more about letterpress than I do, but here I go again.

The point that’s being made here is that to be concerned about ink is only the head of the pin. The ink choice and it’s chemical make-up is but one question. I have only 8 books on letterpress that are filled with instruction and history. If I was to jump into the trade with abandonment then sure as heck I’m going to get hurt. I may loose a finger, or hand and the ink is the least of my concerns.

Recently someone got their hand caught in a C&P, i think it was about 6 months ago and was listed on one of the letterpress forums.

Take a class, get hands on training, cut some paper with a guillotine, clean up with kerosene or mineral spirits, keep the rags away from anything hot, don’t pull paper out of a press when it’s running, don’t clean the press when it’s running, ventilation is your friend, don’t eat with your hands after setting a bunch of metal type, wash your hands, never change a blade on your cutter without having someone show you first, never smoke in your shop if you have a lot of wood type because that would be bad for the wood type if it caught on fire.

I think I’m done, it’s been a pleasure, I sure like hearing from everyone, there are no dumb questions but is all in the presentation.


Updated. While I’m new here and new to letter press as an amateur/private press, and by no means an expert on the topic, I think it’s highly irresponsible of others to put down or dismiss someone’s interest in the environmental impact of the chemicals and supplies associated with out hobby/trade. To also taunt and out right belittle the concerns of a mother to be that may have some interest in becoming another of the legion that refuses to let a gracious art die borders on disgraceful and is indeed bad form.

I’d suggest when one asks of environmental risks we direct them to consider proper recycling/waste hauling processes or at the least instruct them to seek out a friendly commercial printer that will take in their waste ink, dirtied rags and other solvents. When one asks about a more world friendly supply to use we should offer advise and experience, even at times if it means shattering long standing industry wide myths. When someone new asks of something that seems ostensibly ludicrous to our lead stained fingertip way of thinking is it not better to assure them of their hollow apprehensions?

While this is an old thread revived, from reading the last half dozen or so posts I would walk away from this community thinking there’s not much help for anyone who’s not a master pressmen here.
Just something to consider.

Seek pre-natal advice? Consult a Doctor. Seek to further the present faddish wave of environmental hysteria? Consult Algore. Overcome with the vapours when reading direct response? Suck it up. And who are you to lecture others’ opinions - the House Nanny? Amazing ,the sensitive ‘artiests’ who’ve gathered ‘round the stone of late.


I concur somewhat with forme and had hinted at this previously. If one is pregnant and concerned about the health hazards of letterpress, consult with your doctor, not an email list. What other useful advice would you want from here and trust (hopefully)?


As an addition to my last post. Last semester, in several courses that I taught, there were three pregnant women. None of them informed me of their situation before they took the class. When I found out I instructed them to ask their doctor concerning health issues (one of them did) and I assigned an intern to clean up the presses for them to reduce the risk of solvent invasion.

The problem here is that you can’t convert the environment to your whims, just because you want to indulge yourself. If you ARE concerned about your health and the health of your un-born, you have to make the correct decision. Letterpress is not a healthy environment; it is not a craft activity (like basket weaving, etc.), it is in essence, an industrial activity.

Nor is it as bad as any concerns that are brought up about it. I have had this experience many times before and I have not had any pregnant woman who DID consult a doctor, tell me that their doctor advised them NOT to take a course in letterpress.

But it is up to you to way the risks, and if you are at all concerned, don’t do it; and if you do, don’t expect that somehow, with the chemically correct environment, it will all be okay.


Hello again!
Well, this is STILL quite a lively chat! Of course any concerns during pregnancy need to be run by a doctor first and foremost. That’s quite obvious. The only problem being that a doctor doesn’t know the ins and outs of printing, thats why I thought it wise to gather more info and a second opinion from the Briar Press community of experts. If there were any unknown hazards out there, I was confident with so much combined experience on this board, that someone would have some additional info for me.

As with a lot of health issues today, you cannot expect all the answers from your health care provider and must do research on your own to form your own educated decision. Ink fumes aren’t great, but neither is paint and doctors say its okay to paint your nursery if well ventilated. So….the info I found from doctors and printers suggests, open windows and doors and get some good fans, wear gloves with cleaning solvents (or even better - ask someone to take over that task for you), avoid using lead type as studies show dust will accumulate on ground after time.

Merry Christmas to all and a wonderful 2008!

Yes, of course, avoid lead type when typesetting. And avoid needle and thread when sewing.
It is to weep.


Actually, you do not need to avoid lead type. There are only two situations that I know of where it might be a health problem.

The first is fairly simply, clean your hands after using; not because of the lead per se but because of what might be on it; solvent and ink residue, rodent urine, etc.

The second, don’t touch lead type that has a white stained or fuzzy appearance to it. This is white lead, the result of oxidation caused by chemical reaction. It is linked to lead poisoning. Same stuff they put in all paint (restricted to a very low percentage in the US) and the problem with the toys imported from China (regarding possible ingestion). It’s actually, though, a very good additive for both paint and ink!!! Gutenberg’s ink, which had an incredibly high percentage of it, is as black as black can be, to this day. A secret he apparently took to his grave. It is also used in highway and military paint (excepted from the restrictions) mainly because it makes the paint vibrant and durable.


I am very disturbed by the content of this message board.

I am a young woman interested in letterpress. I’m currently in art school and will graduate soon with a BFA in printmaking. I am also concerned about the health effects of printmaking, partly because I’ve been experiencing some health-problems that I believe may have a connection to the fact that I live in a polluted area. I also plan on having children.

The condescending and dismissive attitude with which AP17’s query was received is shocking, but not exactly surprising to me. There seems to be a very macho “only the strong survive” attitude among some artists, and especially print-makers (and its not surprising letterpress folks are a similar group). I think it is a defensive reaction to something everyone knows, but doesn’t want to deal with: the processes that create the art that we find so beautiful are damaging, to various degrees to human health and the environment. That is a very difficult thing to face, especially if one has been using these processes for years. And perhaps, many have never had any ill effects from their use.

However, women of childbearing age have very specific concerns, and as science (which created these toxins) has now discovered in the past 30 years, that many of these amazing, magical chemicals we have created are also, on some level, causing us harm.

I am here to tell the old guard of macho artists that their day is nearly over. Since many, if not the majority, of new art school graduates are women, and since many will want to have children, and since we have been raised in an era of awareness about the environment, art is going to change.

Many of the toxic processes that some treasure will become more and more uncommon, and new ways to create beautiful things without creating ugly effects on the world will be discovered and invented.

I think letterpress can adapt. And it isn’t as simple as toxic and non-toxic. The world is toxic. In some ways it always has been. But there are precautions that can be taken.

I recommend looking at They are are non-toxic printmaking shop in Florence, MA. If anyone has questions on non-toxic printmaking, they might be able to help.

And yet another ill-formed bleat from the world of the easily-offended. Regardless size of the tin-foil hat, there is always someone ready to don it. Sigh.


Thanks for steering us onto the straight and narrow path. I’m sure all of us here agree and eagerly await these discoveries and inventions that will lead to new ways to create beautiful things without creating ugly effects on the world.




Just a minor note. Odorless mineral spirits has toluene and xylene removed from it. So it’s not just a gimmick. It’s not as an effective cleaner without them, but it is far safer. The reason it costs more is not a gimmick either. The removal of the toluene and xylene adds to the refining expense.

Toulene and xylene are great cleaners of hardened and encrusted ink, by the way, and won’t damage pre-existing finishes. Those nice little plastic bottles of Goof-Off, and Oops! that we all find so handy for cleaning up tape residue, tar, markings, etc. Xylene. Sort of a Trojan Horse for homemakers.

At an institution where I teach, they recently mandated that we use green solvents. They proffered an expensive “green” product containing primarily ethanol. Geez, talk about not being environmentally aware.

ebaxter can relish in her new environmentally kind solvents, but she might want to closely check the labels. They aren’t really inventing new chemicals for solvents, but there sure is a lot of relabeling for marketing purposes.



I have had success with Akua Intaglio inks. They are a watersoluble ink made primarily for intaglio and monotype.
They have a nice thick consistency - similar to oil based litho inks which are my favorite.
They clean with soap and water. My rollers haven’t gotten funky or worn oddly. I am printing happily in the tiny spare room of my home without any ventilation at all.
I wouldn’t recommend them for long runs (1000+) or high speed printing - even though I’ve never noticed any fling.
They are working diggity for printing on a Pilot on runs of less than 300 and they seem to stay open happily for about two or three hours during make ready. They never skin in the jar either.
The colors are wonderfully saturated and there are modifiers to solve viscosity or transparency issues.
You need to be careful about cleaning and drying your type and press after printing as you will be using water on a rag to clean up.
I lube my type and press carefully after cleaning. (I also dry everything with a hairdryer just to cover any loose ends.-no pun intended)
Here is the website - check it out and experiment for yourself.

finally a post on topic!

barefoot, pregnant, and still printing.

I think what many are missing here, is that some do have problems/reactions to the chemicals in their shops.
who knows what is going to affect a particular person and to what degree. I believe that as we printers evolve that we will learn how different things affect our absorbant bodies and hopefully adapt our methods accordingly.

I am a little ashamed of the good ‘o boy attitudes shared here. while you dont have to share your shop with these women, you do share an online community with them. I would sincerely hope that a little more respect would be given to them regardless of their experience. They are on here afterall to learn and share, not to be talked down to.

try Faust Aqualine inks at There is a learning curve but well worth the effort. We have switched over and love the chemical free studio.

Ive been reading here for months, but finally decided to post.

I have an engineering background and just got into letterpress a while back.
Finally a graphic art I can excell at !

In recent years, the utterance of the word ” chemical ” will send people running for the ER.
Lets not over react, OK ?

This is not to say that the environmentalists are “full of it” either.

Our group does historical re enactment with printing.
We have come part way in this debate.

Considering the quantity and the composition of “washup” we are evaluating various vegetable solutions.
This became critical as a couple of our key people are becoming sensitive to certain chemicals.

Rubbing alchohol or kersosene on my bare hands dont bother me.
I would draw the line at gasoline.
Keep in mind that I have been an oil driller and i know my chemistry.

Initial experiments with orange oil have varied.
In a couple, orange oil out performed petroleum but not all.

As said already, good ventilation is key.

When the public is visiting our operation, i work bare handed except for wash up.
When the public is NOT in, I ALWAYS wear gloves.

This is not for environmental reasons.
Its just easier to clean up after.
When you go pee, its a pain to wash BEFORE AND AFTER!

Now we come to inks.

At home, I do tabletop. Even a 6x9 uses a pittance of ink.
When we are doing a show and have the 18x20 running, we STILL only have about a teaspoon of ink on the table at any given time.

My buddy the pressman deals with 50 gal drums of ink and his paper uses soy for good reason.
Few of us on this list use anywhere NEAR that much ink in our careers.

We only print on weekends out of about a quarter of the year.
Our exposure to ink is minimal. The same for me at home.
Many on this list likely so.

It was said before that the soy inks are largely soy in name.
Also said, environmental damage to raise the soy for these
allegedly safer inks should be compared to hazards with oil based.
Petroleum production harms the environment.
Soy production harms the environment in many parts of the world.
(Dont forget the nasty pesticides and herbacides used in the fields)
When the proverbial smoke clears, they are probably BOTH harmful.

If you dont use much, the soy probably affords you no advantage, and probably costs more than its worth.

If you use a lot, despite farming practices, maybe soy is better. Your milage WILL vary!

Printing is dirty. Why do you think its so damn much fun ?

Soy is NOT a “bunch of hooey” but soy users should do an analysis whether the soy helps, hurts, or just costs more with no benefit.

For washup, I suggest a mixed solution where you go as far as you can with the vegetable based solutions and then finish up with a sparing petroleum solution.

Im not going to tell you which is best.
Im also not going to let you be misinformed either.

I am, however, going to demand that you THINK about it seriously.
Once you have thought carefully, go play with your printing press! (smirk)

Having followed several leads in this post, I have learned that speedball acquired aqua inks. I directly contacted customer service at speedball and they responded that their inks are “suitable for all types of presses.” I have only begun printing and have not used the oil based ink which came with my press, but the speedball inks were readily available at my local art store, and clean up easily with water and a washcloth (which can be washed in a regular washing machine). I will say that they seem to dry out quickly on my ink plate and when they begin to dry become tacky and will cause my rollers to there may be a combination of issues there, but I am new to this and an only point to the tacky ink. Other than that they seem fine. No smell at all I my spreadsheet room studio in my living space.

Sorry for resurrecting an old thread.

Thanks for the link to Gans Ink, I will check them out as being a relatively local provider.

As for the environmental (including personal) effects of the chemicals used…

Yes, Ink might be potentially harmful, but you are using small amounts. I have used more alcohol in cooking than I use ink in printing. Use ventilation, and wear gloves. If you don’t want to wear gloves then remember to wash your hands.

The type is potentially dangerous. If there are no oxides on the type then it is safe to handle. Wash your hands afterwards, and don’t eat the type. If there are oxides then clean the type carefully.

Clean up is where you are most likely to have issues. The quantities of volatile chemicals you might use during clean up are much higher than the rest of the operation. You have options there, but even then you will probably have to use a combination.

Belittling others concerns does not help. Explaining why they are not likely to be an issue is useful.

In my opinion, the best things you can do are suitable ventilation and common sense hand washing.