Printing text using magnesium plates

Following my last question (about how to buy type), I received a suggestion to use metal (magnesium or copper) plates instead of metal type for printing pages of text.

Here’s my next set of questions:

- Do letterpress folks today (who print books using letterpress) actually use magnesium/copper plates? (or is there some other method)

- How accurate is magnesium/copper plates compared to the original laser-printed digital type? (files from Adobe Indesign or Quark)

- What is the smallest font size that can be reproduced accurately on magnesium/copper?

- How expensive (cost-effective) is it to make metal plates for a small booklet (say 20-30 pages)? or does this depend on the number of books printed.


Log in to reply   26 replies so far

Hello Newbee…. welcome to Briar Press.

Nowadays, very few people print text using metal plates. It is certainly possible and does produce excellent results, but it is not cost effective. It is far more common to print text using Photopolymer Plates. In fact, I guess that 90% of the text done on letterpress is done via PP plates. They can be obtained from several vendors such as Boxcar for relatively low prices, and can be made from either digital or hardcopy originals. If you are new to letterpress, this is the easiest way to print text.

That being said, it’s not my favorite process. I’m very partial to copper plates which I make in my own shop. However, making them is not a newbie type of thing.

About type sizes…. I’m not sure how small an image you can carry on PP plates. I’ve printed thin 6pt type…. but I don’t know what the bottom limit is. With copper plates and especially with copper etchings, you can print type so little that pt sizes are irrelevent.

You are in the right place to ask questions and gain your education. Old printers (self included) are kind of picky about the strange vernacular of the ancient craft of letterpress. If any of us correct you, it is to try to educate. Never apologize. You may say, OK or thank you.
Font size is the term used to indicate the number of pieces of type that may be purchased. A common designation is
5A15a. This says there are 5 UC As and 15 LC as. There are a proportionate number of the other letters. This is a small or short font. Your question was about type size.
Copper or mag plates depend in part on the skill of the plate maker. Assuming proper skill, copper will give you good quality down to 6 points and perhaps even smaller. Magnesium usually has a bit more grain to the metal and at six points may not have as sharp an edge or clean counters. Perhaps more importantly if you are considering a small type size is very proper inking on the press. Too much ink and smash printing will look very bad with small type. (Looks bad with large type too)

Your purpose and the number of books you intend to print will guide you. My understanding is that there are very few books printed by letterpress today except by the hobbiests and a couple of really upscale niche publishers.
Rather than do mag or copper plates, look to see if you can locate a linotype typesetter fairly nearby. There are only a few left. Shipping linotype metal is not cheap. The typesetter will charge you a deposit fee for the metal. You can ship it back and redeem the deposit.
Tell where you are. Some old printer may help you on a local basis. She/he may even sell/rent/loan you some type.
Watch out for type lice.

newbee, mag plates will be expensive, if you want to set a few pages in type, and are close to southeastern massachusetts you could use my ludlow, just replace the lead. dick g.


- Winking cat press, thanks for the suggestion of using photopolymer plates (PP). I suppose I should have included PP in my original question. What I really wanted to know was wether people today still used letterpress to print large amounts of text (such as for a book), and how the dealt with the font quality issues when the digital fonts are “printed” onto magnesium/copper/PP plates.

- Inky, thanks for your welcome. I should apologize for using the wrong terms. I guess I’m used to using digital terms loosely. Its interesting that you mention “skill of the plate maker”. I suppose this is a key aspect of printing digital type onto magnesium/copper/PP. I need to read-up on Linotype to see if its an option. (what is “type lice”?)

- dickg, thank you for the offer. I guess I’m kind of confused/torn right now. On one hand there are so many beautiful digital fonts/types being produced nowadays (e.g. on, yet on the other hand some of these may not look so nice on letterpress. I guess I will need to experiment.

- Devils Tail Press/Paul, thanks for the info. Its good to hear that people are still printing books using letterpress with magnesium/zinc. With regards to being economical with plates, do people actually order/buy 2-page spreads of text of plates? (is this common?) Assuming a text size of (say) 5x8 on a page, the resulting plate will be 10x8 in/sq (not including the middle page margins). Sounds like it will be over $100 per 2-page spread. A 20 page book would be over $1000. I read in one of the other postings on Briar Press that PP cost was comparatively similar to magnesium. If this is true, then the question of the quality of the plate-making becomes really important. No?


I’ve been involved in fine press book printing/publishing since 1975 and I think it quite rare to find such books printed via photomechanical plates.

I think the reason for this is mainly that prior to imagesetter film most folks still used metal type. With the desktop publishing revolution the availability of digital type/page layout software/imagesetter film a new breed of industry developed. Photopolymer and magnetic bases were a natural connection.

Photomechancial engravers, having invested in camera processed film technology were quite late to the scene. You might see more photomechanical engravings used to print text via letterpress these days, because most engravers now use imagesetters with email files, but I really have not seen any evidence of this in the fine press book world.

Prior to photopolymer I used zinc, copper, and magnesium engravings to print illustrations but would never have done so with text.

In terms of printability, I would suggest photopolymer plates with a manufactured aluminum base (if as you say, you are looking for accuracy).

The first project I printed with photopolymer plates on an aluminum base was a long and very narrow broadside. Four point digital type in red ink on Japanese handmade paper. I was astonishing how well the process performed. I could never have done that with metal type, and certainly would never have even attempted it with photomechanical engravings.

I think it useful to look at the work of book printers who are well known for their quality and follow their lead. Your local special collections library might have such books and there is a fine press book fair every other year in San Francisco (CODEX) that showcases the variety and abundance of contemporary fine press book work. These are the folks you want to discuss this with.

A further comment. Personally, I would not even consider the advice of anyone on a web list who won’t provide their identity or credentials.

Gerald Lange


This has been very informative for me. Thank you.

- Bielerpr/Gerald: Thanks for info. Yes I have also been looking at photopolymer plates (PP), and will be borrowing a boxcar(?) base to try out. For one reason or another, I was under the impression that PP was used only for illustrations (and never text). But I suppose if its fine/sharp enough for illustrations then it should be ok also for text.

- Devil’s Tail/Paul: You mentioned ganging multiple pages on a single magnesium/zinc plate to reduce cost. Does this mean printing using the large plate as is (or would I have to cut down the metal plate into individual pages)? Printing on a large (multi-page) plate would mean a large press is needed and large sheets of paper (obviously). Is the “liner inch” price calculation also true for PP plates.


Thanks Devil’s Tail/Paul and everyone else. These answers give me a picture of what is involved. Clearly a bigger press (than a C&P Pilot) will be needed to print decent size pages. Perhaps my first step should simply be comparing the result of printing a small illustration & text using PP and using magnesium.

I have separate question about digital type, but will post it in a new thread.

Devil’s Tail

No one has to do things my way, or your way, that’s not the point. But at least they know who I am and can make their decision based on that. Who are you? and why should we accept any opinions from someone who refuses to identify who they are?

You might think that statement not of consequence but I increasingly think it more and more important. Folks do rely and trust in the information conveyed here, and who is it coming from? I mean really, who are these folks who will blather away but yet are not willing to back up their statements with who I am and this is why I am saying what I am saying? I’d rather talk to someone who I know is real than a proffering virtual ghost, who for some reason or another, is unwilling to back up their own knowledge base.

Gerald Lange



Did I not ask? No knowledge of your “efforts to make contact.” I usually am fairly adept at responding to email and snail-mail. Painstakingly so. I’m quite sure anyone who has attempted correspondence with me will verify that. Some no-name contact from a social network? (you have got to be kidding) or am I suppose to guess? I actually sell and offer a lot more than t-shirts and little blobs of lead (what are those?). I guess you picked the more lame of what you could find. Actually a lot of useful stuff for letterpress folks. Unlike most, I don’t bullshit around. I really don’t care. I don’t want to sell you something you don’t need. I think you know that. My efforts to diminish your knowledge and ability? I have no idea who you are? So what is your flickr site? How much effort to provide a URL? Damn.

Gerald Lange

ps: not to my knowledge.

And in regard to your “thanks for letting me know who you really are”, well, at least YOU know who I am.

Of course, the problem here, on Briar Discussions, unlike other older letterpress email lists, such as PPL or LetPress, is that they encourage you to use a pseudonym. Which encourages more interaction. But what is the quality of that interaction if no one knows who they are talking to and ultimately all discourse is gauged of the same quality?

Boys, boys!!! Behave yourselves.
You both have experience and valuable stuff to share with others on this forum.
Please take your personal exchanges and criticisms private.



newbee, a good source for mag plates is owosso graphics, they are in the yellow pages on this site. i use them myself, i buy 1/4” mag plates unmounted, they are more expensive than the thinner plates. they are good people to work with and i think your first plate is free. good luck dick g.

- dickg: thanks for the pointer to Owosso. The Briar Press yellow pages also lists Owosso, and many discussions on Briar Press also mentions this source.

- Gerald & Paul: I apologize if any of my questions caused confusion. I believe Devil’s Tail Press is Paul ——. Googling his name will get an address in Santa Cruz, CA. Paul’s flickr collection is under “——” where a scan of some relevant pages on type can be found. Also has pictures of some very nice Morris books.


This is freaky. Call someone out and not expect them to respond or be prepared to respond to a response? And then whine and quit? Why is Newbee Press’s last post edited?

Damn. Hey, if you can’t back it up…


A note on user names and an answer to your question about editing Newbee’s last post. Also a response to a previous comment in this thread about user names. Both are related.

You ask, “Why is Newbee Press’s last post edited?” While some people are comfortable using their real names and personal information on web sites, for various reasons, others are not. We respect that choice. While we rarely moderate the discussions, if and when we happen to see personal information disclosed about someone else, we take the liberty of editing it out.

This is related to your comment “Of course, the problem here, on Briar Discussions… is that they encourage you to use a pseudonym.” I will correct this comment and comply with your statement, “Damn. Hey, if you can’t back it up…” We do not promote or encourage any particular choice of user name.

To clarify - as stated in the Help pages at Changing your user/login name, we do encourage people to freely share their opinions in the Discussion forums in any way that is comfortable to them “such as your full name or your press name, (which) will help other members quickly identify you as a trustworthy member of the community…If you prefer more privacy, you might use your first name or a nickname…”

As usual, we appreciate your participation in the Briar Press community.

If people want to have their credentials available — and I for one would appreciate this — they can include a reference to their website(s) in their Briar Press profile. I, like Paul, don’t have a website, but my Flickr page, which I reference in my Briar Press profile, includes my background in the Flickr profile. Perhaps others can take this route as well.



This is all very well understood. However, my comment that seemingly started all this nonsense was

“A further comment. Personally, I would not even consider the advice of anyone on a web list who won’t provide their identity or credentials.”

I’ll stand by that.

If someone is willing to accept information from anyone who, for whatever reason, won’t provide credentials up front, hey, knock yourself out, go for it.


My apologies to Paul and to the moderator (Elizabeth). I simply clicked on the green “Devil’s Tail Press” text on this page and got the Briar Press description of Paul. I then simply google Paul’s name.

Again my apologies to Paul. I didn’t mean to reveal Paul’s full name and location.


Hi Paul

Since you know who I am, interesting that you call me Mr. Bieler. I guess I distrust folks more who prefer to play mind games and whatever far more than those who want to preserve their anonymity.

So, game over, lost my interest. My advice to Newbee was my own personal opinion and expressed as such and not directed at you. Don’t know why you felt affected by it or decided to raise the gauntlet. But since you did, what, you did not expect a response?