I'm ready to lose my letterpress virginity. What now?
March 12, 2011 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to order a batch of letterpressed business cards. I've never worked with letterpressing before—do you have any experience or insight to share?

It's currently a 2-color (a soft green and dark brown) Illustrator file at the standard 3.5" x 2" size. I'm thinking that I'd like to get it printed on Crane Lettra Letterpress 220 lb. paper, with an edge print of the soft green and a flood of the dark brown (no pressing) on the back.

I know what I want, but...I'm not sure where to go from here. I've never worked with a printer besides Kinko's before, and I've certainly never had anything letterpressed.

Should I just send the file off to someone on Etsy and let them handle it? Should I work with an established printer? Should I get my own plates made, then bring them to a local place? Are there are any preparatory procedures that I should be doing? Is there a question that I should be asking, but don't know to? I'm happy to share the AI if anybody would be interested in taking a look for me.

Any insight much appreciated! I would also be much obliged for any internet- or DC-based vendor recommendations.

posted by Mr C to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I ran a sort-of professional letterpress company for several years. We were basically decently-skilled hobbyists with a web site, and not master printers (that's my disclaimer).

On two occasions, we got in over our heads with a wedding invitation job and used Boxcar Press as our backstop. They saved the day. They're located in upstate NY, but as long as you can ship them an Illustrator file, you're good to go. Can't comment on their prices because it's been awhile. But they are pros and easy to deal with.
posted by Buffaload at 9:15 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't buy your own plates, the printer will want to set them up themselves and use the vendor of their choice.

If you are going with a large solid area (brown on the back) be aware that it won't be perfect like other printing methods. Papers like Crane have much more texture and that will show through the ink.

As for printers, look for someone with a portfolio full of business cards, so you know they are doing a lot of custom work, not just their own jobs.

Boxcar are great folks. I wouldn't go with an Etsy vendor (and I'm an Etsy letterpress vendor, so nothing against them) unless they had a non-Etsy site with more explanation of their process and portfolio. Doing custom work is a lot more complex than printing your own designs.

When you're emailing out for quotes, include the AI file because it will save more back and forth later.
posted by dripdripdrop at 9:26 AM on March 12, 2011

I had a great experience with Freeport Press/Flywheel Letter Press. They're based out of Freeport, IL but we did all our business online. They were super nice, responsive, on-time, and about half the price of the Etsy folks. The work was beautiful and they even threw in a bunch of really cute letterpress coasters for free. I dealt with Dan Barron at 815-232-1181 or info@themachinegoesping.com. Seriously, they're awesome. I'd just give them a call to discuss all of this and ask for a quote.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 11:08 AM on March 12, 2011

My wife is a letterpress operator, so I've picked up a little from watching her.

I wouldn't specify the paper. Tell your printer that you want paper like Crane Letra 220 or whatever, but give them flexibility to experiment. Different papers soak up the ink differently, and depending on how large any solid fields of color are, you may get an effect you don't like. If it's all fine line art, it's less of an issue.

Two-color printing is more than 2x as much work as one-color. And if your art requires really bang-on registration (like mixing colored text on a single line, or tight concentric rings), you probably want a printer with a Heidelberg press. My wife's Chandler & Price can only get so close.

Do not have plates made for the printer unless they ask you to.
posted by adamrice at 11:25 AM on March 12, 2011

i get all my letterpress done at skylab letterpress in kansas city. bob atkins is the owner. he's knowledgeable and has taste; is a painter and printmaker himself so he understands materials and tactility. totally willing to answer questions.

our cards (we do a new design every couple years or so) always come out great.
posted by patricking at 3:42 PM on March 12, 2011

The site for Boxcar Press, mentioned above, has a Designing for Letterpress section on their site that seems like it might address some of your concerns, and give you some pointers to make sure your design is suitable. In particular, the "large solids" section and the "light ink on dark paper" section above it address your desire to print the entire back of the card.
posted by duien at 9:50 AM on March 13, 2011

I just received my letterpress business cards two weeks ago. The other comments in this thread have been terrific and spot on for my experience.

I'm guessing that—like I—you are a web guy and haven't really done much print before, so here are a few extra thoughts and suggestions:
  1. Have your Pantone colors chosen. But if you haven't done this before, you can likely ask the printer for some help there. This is a ton of fun. When I realized that I'd be choosing Pantone colors I was as excited as I was when I decided I'd go letterpress. (Seriously, I was giggling. The fact that the color would be the same no matter who printed was as invigorating as the fact that everyone would see the exact same layout.)
  2. When sending your files, include good quality pdf proofs just to make sure they're looking at the same thing you are. They'll send proofs back to you before everything goes to print, but it's nice to be certain that everyone is looking at the same thing from the first moment.
  3. Two-color runs are expensive. Not necessarily twice as much, but it can easily add $100 to your cost.
  4. If you can, try to get samples. Some printers will send a selection of samples, this gives you an idea of what the paper they use is like, the depth of the imprint, and such (the printer I used charged a small at-cost fee, it was worth every penny).
  5. Don't be afraid to ask questions and ask for different options. When I was talking to the printer, I knew I wanted double-sided letterpress with a blind impression on one side, but I didn't know how well double-sided letterpress would work on 300gm paper. Getting samples of different paper types and print methods really helped me make my decision.
For what it's worth, after doing a bunch of research, I ended up going with Mercurio Brothers in San Francisco. They were wonderfully helpful and it only took the about a week to print. I think they did an amazing job (self link, sorry). Another printer that I almost went with was Exquisite Letterpress.
posted by thebestsophist at 11:24 AM on March 14, 2011

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