Polymer Plate Making for Letterpress

This month I completed the Polymer Plate classes taught by book artist, Lars Kim, at the San Francisco Center for the Book.

I have toured the print shops of several fine press printers and from what I have been told, polymer plate is potentially the best way to handle printing more text-based content, especially since I don’t have a large collection of metal type or a team of compositors. (As a side note, I have had some trouble ordering a large quantity of metal type in the family of typeface that I would like from M&H Typefoundry in San Francisco. They seem to be too busy to handle specific orders and their catalog is not fully available. This makes it challenging to stock a full family of the typeface I would like to make the default type of the press. I am still pondering what to do about this for small projects.)

I have also considered sending the text out to the Bixler Letterfoundry in New York or to Skyline Typefoundry in Arizona. They would send me back the metal type, and I would be able to arrange it myself. I may still explore this option for smaller text-based projects. However, learning more about polymer plate production and printing was a necessary next step.

The first class focused on designing for letterpress on digital software. We reviewed Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. I had already purchased the Adobe Creative Suite and was playing around in InDesign. I had read Gerald Lange’s Printing Digital Type and concluded that InDesign is going to work best for what I want to accomplish. I have been able to quickly pick up using the software based on previous years of using similar applications to design and publish college newspapers, association newsletters, marketing and advertising for my own business, etc. The names of the functions have only slightly changed and if anything, it’s been a question of simply finding them in the menus.

IMG_2048For this class, I chose a quote from a wonderful essay I read recently in The New York Review of Books by Zadie Smith with the title In Defense of Fiction. I loved this piece and thought it deserved more attention.

Unlike most of my classmates who were interested in polymer plate for wedding invitations, cards, announcements, etc. heavy in images, I made my file text-based in 12 pt. Bodoni and then changed the font, added some bold and italics, to see how that would turn out. This was a first experiment in figuring out the perimeters and restrictions of polymer plates for printing text. Ms. Kim provided suggestions and guidance during class as well as during the file submission process. The class submitted digital files online to Logos Graphics and Ms. Kim, who also works there, brought the film to the next class.

At the second class, we learned how to take the film and create the polymer plate using the plate making machine at the Center. The steps included 1) Exposure. Actinic light in the drawer of the plate maker exposes the plate material to the film. A vacuum and a cover called a “kreen” (sp?) holds the film in place. 2) Wash Out. The machine has a rotating brush that removes the material that was not part of your design from the plate. 3) Drying in another drawer for 20 minutes. 4) The dry plate goes into the exposure drawer again to harden. 5) Adding the double sided adhesive.

IMG_2051Of course, polymer plate making is its own skill, much like photography. Knowing the machine, how long is needed for exposure, whether to do flash exposure first for finer line work, etc. – all of these require practice. I have looked at the Boxcar Press Plate Making Machines, and in the future, it may be more cost effective to produce my own plates in-house. However, for now, I will focus my energy on layout and digital design for the projects I want to accomplish and leave the plate making to the experts at Logos or Boxcar.

As with many things, having a deeper understanding of the entire process of how plates are made will improve the quality of my work and facilitate my communication with the plate makers. I have been emailing the Boxcar Press to make sure I order the correct size Boxcar Base for printing polymer plates on my Vandercook and the C&P. The pieces of this dream are coming together slowly, but it’s still happening.


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