Beginner with a lot of questions

I’ve just joined a small Printmakers Co-Op that has a Vandercook press. It’s rarely used and I received a quick lesson on it yesterday from one of the two older members who know how to operate it. It is in good working condition and I plan to try it out on some relief blocks this week. I have a lot of questions about it… I was told to just use cardboard to build up the lino block until it is type high. This site seems to have a wealth of information and I don’t even know where to start looking! Is there some info here about how many pieces of standard matboard it would take to build up an unmounted lino block to the correct height? I meant to bring a piece of type home to use as a guide but left without it.

Now… onto the type. There are cabinets(? I am vague about the terminology) of type staked up everywhere that apparently were donated to the Co-Op and/or came with the press. It’s everywhere! It has all been sitting around gathering dust for years. It is a thing of beauty. I originally joined to do intaglio, but once I saw all the type it’s all I can think about. I plan to start putting it to use, but know nothing about letterpress. Anyone have recommendations on tutorials on the web? The guy who showed me the press, who was actually me printmaking professor 23 years ago, gave me a little bit of information on setting the type, but he doesn’t know it that well. All of the pieces and parts you need are there, just disorganized in a couple of drawers. I’m anxious to get into it, so any information about where to start would be appreciated.

Andrea Starkey

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Hello Andrea,

I see from your website and blog that you’re in Dayton. Maybe someone here can refer you to an experienced printer in your area. In the meantime you can start by going to Tons of information about the Vandercook in particular can be found at An excellent book for handsetting type is General Printing: An Illustrated Guide to Letterpress Printing by Glen U. Cleeton, Charles W. Pitkin, and Raymond L. Cornwell, available on Amazon.

But first and foremost you should know that “type high” is 0.918 inches. To put anything higher than that on the press bed risks damaging the press. Also, there’s a chance that the type at the co-op is old and rare, in which case it shouldn’t be used for “deep impression” work. The Vandercook wasn’t designed to make deep impressions anyway. But if you work with soft cotton paper, preferably dampened, and keep the total of your press packing plus stock no more than a few thousandths over the undercut of your impression cylinder, you should be okay. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not quite ready to start using the press.

The prints on your website are lovely. They almost beg to be paired with letterpress printing. I wish you every success with this new phase of your work. I’m sure you get lots more advice here — keep asking questions!


My suggestion for an unmounted lino block is to first mount it on 3/4 inch cabinet grade birch plywood (you can probably pick up some scrap from a cabinet shop or such). Cut the plywood rectangular to the outside dimensions of the linocut and glue the linocut on with something like contact cement. Then measure the height and add cardboard (like cereal box cardboard, not corrugated box cardboard) shims to build up to type high. You may want to take it a little over type high because the cardboard will compress as you print. Using just cardboard will be too compressible.

Be sure the non-printing areas of the lino are cut deeply enough to not take ink.

Good luck with it — you should have some fun, and the linocut won’t hurt the Vandercook unless you REALLY build it up too much.


Ditto on finding an experienced printer to help guide you. It will save you a lot of time and possibly damaged type to get someone to show you the basics. Look in the yellow pages on this site or the directory of presses for people to call.

If you can’t find anyone, let us know. At the worst, I’m only five hours away.

Thanks for the tips, all. I wasn’t sure about whether to use dry or damp paper, but it sounds like damp would be the best option to begin with. Using the Vandercook looks pretty straightforward, but then again I haven’t tried to print yet. Believe me, I am REALLY picky (to a fault)…if it supposed to be type high I won’t be going over that. Thanks for the resources, Barbara. I spent a couple of hours last night checking them out and exploring this site further, and came away with some great information, such as the correct way to set up the blocks (still not sure of the correct terms - I think I mean locking up the form). I was happy to discover there is a Cincinnati Book Arts organization and I’ll be checking there to see if there are any local experienced letterpress printers.

And thanks for the comments about my prints, Barbara. I’d really like to try a few with just one or two words, to begin with, but I have a couple of letterpress books from the 1950’s with tons of wonderful Chinese proverbs. Once I can print one word and learn more about setting type, I plan on trying one of those on a print. Should be great fun!

Hi again Andrea,

Yes, “locking up the form” is the correct term (or “forme,” as our British printers would say).

So much of what I’ve learned comes from trying things. So you might try both dry and damp paper, just to see the difference. There are plenty of posts in the archives about paper dampening, but maybe you already know about this as a printmaker. For letterpress printing, the paper should be only very slightly damp — it might feel almost dry to the finger, but it should be a bit limp and markedly cool to the cheek.

Picky is good! There are some cowboy printers out there and I love them for it (as long as they’re not trashing type or equipment). But for me, letterpress printing provides endless opportunities to be picky to my heart’s content. You’ll appreciate the precision of the Vandercook.

When you print your first words, have a look at them with a magnifier to see if the ink has traveled nicely into the paper, to see whether any ink has squished up around the edges of the letters, things like that — you’ll know as a picky person. Perhaps compare it to some letterpress printing that you admire. If you’re not pleased and don’t know what to do, take some close-up photos and report back here.