Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How to Letterpress your own wedding invitations

When it came to invitations for our wedding, there was never any doubt they would be homemade - my mum is a champion of papercrafts, and has all the gear and knowhow to get a good production line going. We did some research and set our sights high - on letterpress.

I can't remember how I discovered the L Letterpress tool - it's a pretty simple attachment for a standard scrapbooking embossing machine, and enables you to create your own debossed and inked papergoods. I did a bit of reading and discovered it doesn't exactly have rave reviews, but then discovered a place called Boxcar Press, where a pro letterpresser (is that a word?) had reviewed and tweaked it to achieve a decent result. Following his advice, and also with Mum's scrapbooking experience, we managed to produce (if I do say so myself) pretty impressive invitations. We learnt a fair bit as we went, so I thought it might be helpful if we documented our process here.

It's not too tricky - set yourself up properly and give yourself plenty of time, and you should get some pretty awesome invitations. The L Letterpress isn't the only way you can DIY letterpress - if you're more hardcore you can build your own press. But this seemed easy enough for me to handle, and cost less than $200 for the equipment and paper. 

Step 1 - Get all the stuff you need
To make DIY letterpress invitations with the L Letterpress, you'll need the following:

  • the L Letterpress machine, and an embossing machine (Epic Six or Cuttlebug or probably any other common brand). You can buy the letterpress bit and the embossing machine as a combo, but if you know someone who scrapbooks you might be able to borrow an embossing machine. If you're fine with black ink the tube in the kit will be plenty, but if you want a different colour go ahead and buy that too. 
  • a brayer (a roller for ink) - we used this one, purchased from the French Art Store in Auckland (Amazon wouldn't ship it to NZ, which is a shame as it would have been much cheaper). A small brayer comes with the kit but it isn't very good and having the proper one helps immensely
  • a printing plate - we ordered ours from Boxcar Press, by sending through a pdf (created by Mr Cake) - best to keep fine detail to a minimum on this. For use in the L Letterpress your plate will needs to be less than 15cm wide.
  • strong, wide tape, e.g. duct tape or similar
  • some scrap card and double sided tape
  • paper to print onto - you want cotton based paper, probably something reasonably thick. We went to Fine Art Papers in Christchurch and chose what we wanted - they have sample squares for you to take away if you (as I did) are pedantic enough that you want it to match other stuff. Get all the paper cut to the right size before you start, and make sure you have plenty of extra paper - I'd suggest 20-25% more than you need.
  • wet wipes or a damp rag (wet wipes are amazingly useful, highly recommended)
  • newspaper, to spread underneath your work area (not essential, but advisable)
  • turps, for cleaning up

Step 2 - Set up the work area and printing press
It takes a while, especially if you have lots to print (we did around 80 and it took probably 5 hours of solid printing) so it's worth setting everything up for easy working. I had the roller machine to my left, ink to my right, and worked right in front of me. Lay everything out so it's in easy reach.
The Boxcar Press custom plates need to be trimmed to size with scissors - you want to keep it as square as possible, and hold onto the offcuts. They also come with adhesive backing, so once it's the right size you stick it onto the top plate of the L Letterpress - use the gridlines to line it up.

Use the wide tape to secure the top and bottom of the bottom plate - according to Mr Boxcar they distort a bit after a few runs through the press (I could see they were trying to bend but the tape did its job for us).

Set up some paper tabs to hold each piece of paper in place - again, use the gridlines to work out where it should go (you may want to adjust when you start printing) and just stick small strips of paper or card on with double sided tape. These little tabs may need replacing every so often as they'll get bent out of shape.

Make buffer strips to help with even inking by cutting four strips from the plate offcuts. Stick two together and position along one side of the plate, and do the same with the other two on the other side. You'll be peeling these off between each print, but they'll stop you smudging ink around the edge (this is optional and (sorry) I don't have photos, but it did help keep things cleaner when printing).

Put the plastic inking pad which comes with the kit out, with ink and brayer at the ready.

Step 3 - Print!

Place a sheet of your paper in the press. 

Squeeze a pea-sized blob of ink onto the inking pad (biggest lesson - start with a small amount and add more if you need to. Much harder to get too much ink out of an over-inked plate). Use the brayer to work it out - it's very sticky so this takes some time. 

When you have a smooth covering on the brayer roll it over the plate, using the buffer strips to assist. Again, best to start with what you think is not enough ink than have to scrub the plate off and start again! Remove the buffer strips and clean around the edges if there are any smudges. 

Close the press so that the ink touches the paper, and run the press through the roller 2-3 times. Remove the press and inspect your invitation (I took these photos at home, and Mum had her embossing machine, so you'll have to imagine that part). 

Repeat for each invitation (you won't need to re-ink the inking pad each time, you'll be able to tell when you run out). 

The ink takes a while to dry so you'll want somewhere to lay them out - preferably a large area of floor where children and pets do not roam. Failing that, you could set up a clothes line and carefully peg each one up, or prop them on all your bookshelves.

Getting a deeper deboss/impression

We used a couple of pieces of thin card and an extra piece of our
invitation paper as scrim/padding to improve the deboss
We found that the first couple of times the indentation on the paper was barely detectable. There are two ways to help this; if your embossing machine has add-in plates to reduce the height of the gap, try using one of these. If not, or if you still think it needs more (we used both), add some scrim - additional sheets of thin card or thick paper (we used cardboard from a cereal box and some paper offcuts) behind the piece of paper you're printing. You may find it harder to turn the handle on the roller but so long as it goes through it's all good. 

This shows a non-inked invitation we put through the machine -
you can see we got a pretty decent impression
As I've emphasised, less is more! The first few prints I did were disasterous - the address and date/time of our wedding wasn't even readable. After some minor panic and a quick google I realised I'd majorly overinked, which led to 20 minutes cleaning out the cavities of the plate with wet wipes so I could start over. If your product looks splotchy and the edges on the letters/shapes aren't crisp, try cleaning the plate and starting again.

I also found the thick, tacky ink got clumpy after a while, so every 20 prints or so I gave the plate a quick wipe with a wet wipe and ran it through the press on a clean scrap of paper a few times, and also cleaned off the inking pad and brayer.

Cleaning up

By far the messiest part, if you value clean fingernails I recommend wearing cleaning gloves. I proudly wore my ink-stained nails for a few days after we made ours! Turps makes quick work of the sticky ink.

I'm sure it helped us that we had Mum to help fine-tune things, but so long as you're patient I think this is completely achievable for anyone. Feel free to ask away if you have any questions or think I've missed anything!


  1. I had contemplated letterpress for our invites, but couldn't find the L letterpress anywhere in NZ, and shipping to NZ from the US was cost-prohibitive when I looked into it. I must admit going the really cheap and easy printing-it-at-work way was best for us - but I was in awe and a little bit jealous when I saw the gorgeous invites you put together. You got a-ma-zing results!

  2. Frederique - there are definitely advantages to the simple printed versions (like not spending a whole weekend cutting, printing and assembling them), but we were pretty pleased with how ours turned out too. ;-) Shame our timing wasn't a little better co-ordinated - we could have shared the machine!

  3. what kind of paper did you use?

  4. Hi Rosa, thanks for posting this, it is very helpful. I should have re-read this passage "if you value clean fingernails I recommend wearing cleaning gloves" before doing a trial run as it is definitely very messy. Hopefully my final result will be as good as yours!

  5. Miranda, I'm sorry but I'm not sure what exactly the paper was. I know it was cotton and was quite thick but we chose with help from the experts at the paper place. Not very helpful I know!

    Céline, glad it was hopeful. I hope your invitations turn out well! :-)

  6. Hi there Just wondering what it cost you for the printing plate from Boxcar Press?I'm in Aus and just weighing up cost of DIY vs getting and invite company to do them
    Thanks :)

  7. Hi Giuls, the printing plate cost us $60NZD including shipping. I think it only took about a week to come - excellent service! :-)