Is there a way to print Pictures/Photos via a platen press???


I got a chandler and price 12x18 and an intertype machine. And recently a Colts Armory 14x22 which is also a platen press but it doesnt have a disc inking. Anyway, so printing text and relief, and ornaments is no problem to, since it was designed for that and die cutter if needs be.

Now I need to think of black/white and color pictures and photos. I know the offset guys use photopolymer polyester plates which they wrap on cylinders and print like that (lithography basically) but is there a way to print the same thing on a platen press?

I was thinking of a picture/photo print on paper using process color where I use cyan, magenta, yellow and black. So four runs per page.

Any help would be greatly appreciated,
Thank you.

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The offset guys (and gals) use mostly aluminum, (not photopolymer) plates for printing 4-color process. The image must be scanned, screened, and color separated for each color’s plate. Vendors called service bureaus provide these services and can create the film negatives that you need for making photopolymer dies for letterpress—just check with your polymer platemaker or manufacturer as to the proper density required for the film as it needs to be a little different than what is used for offset printing.

The tricky part is that you’re printing one color at a time, so you need to know that you’re applying the correct amount of ink with each run to ensure that the final result looks as good as you expected. That’s why you see those little blocks of color on the end of a printed sheet before it’s cut down to final size. During the printing, the blocks are hand-scanned with a densitometer that measures how much ink is being laid down and the operator adjusts inkflow to maintain a specific level of inking. Since most letterpress printers don’t have densitometers in their pressroom, I’d suggest using little blocks with some sort of star patterns in them (ask your designer or film vendor, they’ll know what this is) —the star image should print cleanly and if it begins to fill, you back off the ink accordingly and monitor it during the run. Include register marks, too, of course.

WHOA!!!! “In theory” it all sounds good. But theory often collides with reality. You might have to settle for simple one-color screened pictures at best. You will also have to realize that your screen will need to be a lot coarser than the 350-line screens you see in magazines. That simple won’t work for letterpress. Your inking system will also have to be capable of maintaining a consistant amount of ink for each impression.

Four-color process (magenta, cyan, yellow and black) is very hard to pull off via letterpress, if you are trying to faithfully replicate a full-color photograph. The image needs to be separated for each color and a plate needs to be made for each. Again, your screen will not be as smooth or tight as those produced for offset printing. The paper you print on will probably also have to have a coated surface so that you can maintain your printed dot structure. Registration from one form to another has to be precise. “Close” will not count. How do you intend to ‘control’ the balance of the ink on each pass? On an offset press they are all being laid down in-line so each color can be adjusted and balanced on-press during the make-ready process until the color is set and then the actual press run begins. Printing one color at a time does not allow you to adjust the color balance of the finished print. You are not going to know what the final piece is going to look like until the last color is laid down. Too late to go back and try to adjust the previous colors.

This should only be attempted by people who have have decades of experience printing four-color process, and even then there will be a bit of “keep your fingers crossed” to the one-color at-a-time method.

Also, try to find some old magazines ro such from the 40’s or 50’s that were printed via letterpress and you will immediately see that the “color pictures” do not stand up well at all to today’s standards.

Sorry to throw in a wet towel. But you will have to know that the reality is really brutal when compared to the theory of attemtping something like this.

It would be great to get any feedback from anyone else that may have attempted this before.

Rick von Holdt

Thanks for the feedbacks. Well, I know this would not be an easy thing to do, but I also wasnt exactly sure if this was even possible, hence my question of being possible.

Any more input is greatly appreciated.

If I remember correctly, I read in a older thread that both Heidelberg and Vandercook presses were good for b/w pictures…?

RvH pretty much said it all. 4cp is possible on a platen - but the result will certainly not match today’s standard. Given the wear found in the platen presses available, precise registration - we are talking degree angles here - is simply not possible. Throw in temperature/humidity conditions found in the average home print shop, the difficulty in cleaning the rollers and disc between runs and, well, the coloured mud finally produced will put you off colour reproduction - if not platen presses - forever. That said, it can be achieved; but only under the best possible circumstance. I suggest, if colour holds appeal, you begin with a simple duo-tone. That will reveal many of the hurdles in colour work but, is reasonably easy to print acceptable job. Screening is best at 85 for platen work, however, 120 and 150 can be achieved as well. But, before jumping in the deep end, try a halftone of say, 65 (newspaper grade) screen, and no larger than 3x3inches. You’ll gain much experience in ink control, paper quality, precise handling. And obtain a photograph the old-fashioned way: black and white camera. Far better than computer generated picture. Your family photo album will probably yield appropriate age treasure. In my opinion

Just because it is hard does not mean it shouldn’t be done. And just because offset is better at printing realistic photographs does not mean that what an offset machine can produce should be the standard of what imagery should look like. A letterpress is just a tool like any other printing method that has limitations and possiblities. It is the job of the pressman to use these to his advantage in communicating ideas. For example, look at what Warhol did with photography using silkscreen.

And where, exactly, was it implied colour on a platen should not be done? Comments thus far have simply pointed to the hurdles faced when using letterpress to achieve full-colour process printing. Forewarned is forearmed. In fact, it was clearly stated that such could be accomplished - with difficulty. As for using Warhol as example, well, I’ve no reason to believe that mind-altering drugs are required in the print shop in order to produce legible - not (supposedly) esoteric - image. Besides, silkscreen is well-removed from letterpress in actual procedure; two entirely differing techniques.

I have produced full color images on my Kluge platen press. As the owner of an offset printing company I have the color management tools to control ink densities. The biggest problem I had was minimizing the dot gain in the shadow areas of the plate while still holding printable highlight dots. I was successful, but I went through a lot of plate material. The results were marginal at best and if I had to do it again I would print the color offset and the text letterpress.


Our shop did it years ago. Full color hotel restaurant menu. Copper plates and looks to be 133 line or so. We still have the plates and samples. Most likely either done on the windmill they had back then or the KS. Not sure if they had the Little Giant by then. It was also done on uncoated stock. When you get your ink right you will have something like what you see in your newspapers. Most of those are 133 line to 150 line. Magazines on glossy stock are usually 150 line to 175 line. Biggest drawback I see is the cost to get 4 plates etched.

I didn’t mean to dispute anything.

I was specifically referencing the discouraging statement “This should only be attempted by people who have have decades of experience printing four-color process.”

And yes I understand how far removed from letterpress the screen printing process is but, technically speaking, so is offset and even more so digital printing. (which was being referenced as a measuring stick)

I think the bottom line here is still the same: Yes, it can be done, but it’s not going to be easy. Read several books on it, start with single color halftones and get good at them, then go to 2-color (duotones), before attempting process color. Expect to go through lots of plates, lots of paper, and lots and lots of time before getting a more-or-less acceptable result, and don’t expect a printed piece that looks like it came off a 4-color offset press! While I haven’t done any color photos letterpress, I’ve run some on a small single-color offset; eventually some of the results were actually pretty decent, but a lot weren’t so great, and the quality has been much better and more consistent (and it’s been much easier for me) since we switched that newsletter to an 11x17 color laserprinter!

It’s called “flexography” where a photo polymer (rubbery) plate is wrapped around a cylinder and printed. Used for printing labels on the roll mostly. It is sort of like a letterpress with rubber plates!