Letterpress Inks for Printing

This is a quick introduction to letterpress ink types that anyone getting into the craft should know about. It’s meant to be a primer for newcomers, like we recently were! Our hope is that it may someday save another startup the hours of research and searching we went through to decide which path to follow regarding our inks. Spoiler alert: we use oil-based inks.

Choosing the right type of letterpress ink depends on many factors. These range from technicalities, such as what type of media you produce, to personal preference or old habits. As a startup company focused on a craft that is hundreds of years old & fairly poorly documented, choosing the right letterpress ink type for us was an arduous task. When we started LadyBird Letterpress, we knew very little about the specifics of all that goes into a letterpress print. Since then, we’ve spent countless hours online and on the phone with the community getting up to speed. Fortunately, this small community is full of amazing, kind and helpful people, happy to share their knowledge and craft with newcomers.

The choice for bread-and-butter ink type generally comes down to two choices: rubber-based or oil-based. Most other types are for experimentation, specialty printing, or one-off projects. The typical shop will have a bulk supply of their preferred ink on hand. You should buy as many Pantone Basic Colors as you can afford. Using these, you can hand mix any color in a Pantone Formula Guide booklet. The possibilities are endless! Keep in mind, it is best to mix only like inks from the same family—oil base with oil, rubber base with rubber, and acrylic base with acrylic.

Oil-Based Inks

Oil based letterpress ink dries through absorption and air drying, and will dry when printed on a coated stock. In addition, it is generally thought to have more visually glossy luster once printed.

Advantages

  • A full spectrum of colors are available as oil-based
  • Generally, they are cheaper in cost
  • Print well on on coated papers
  • Metallic inks only come as oil-based
  • Lasts very long (30+ years!)

Disadvantages

  • Oil-based inks skin in cans, leading to a loss of ink and more of a pain on press days
  • Cannot be left long on press or on rollers, as they will dry within a few hours

Rubber-Based Inks

Rubber based inks dry out through absorption, and if you print on coated stock, the ink may never dry properly. This ink is the standard for many in the letterpress industry because it’s thick, consistent, and slow to dry.

Advantages

  • The ink will not skin in the can
  • Does not dry on the press or rollers
  • Matte finish
  • Strong, vibrant colors
  • Can be left on press overnight (though this is not recommended by most printers)

Disadvantages

  • Shorter shelf life (5-10 years)
  • Slower drying
  • Never really dries on non-absorbent stock
  • Less colors available – no metallic colors
  • Higher cost

Where to Buy Letterpress Inks

We’d like to express our thanks to Brittany of Paprika Press, Dave of Excelsior Press and all of the fine folks on Briar Press. Their information and helpful tips contributed greatly to this post.

rubber based ink in tubes

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