Make Your Own Letterpress Base

Easy, cheap & fun

As we have been starting up our letterpress shop, we’ve found that there can be many unforeseen costs. From a few special cleaning solutions here to some missing antique parts for the machine, getting up and running can end up costing you an arm and a leg. As a DIY loving couple, we tried to utilize local resources and our own craftiness wherever possible in getting our side business off of the ground. One of the largest costs in getting a press ready for printing in this century is getting what’s called a base. The letterpress base allows the modern design/printmaker to adhere photopolymer printing palates to. These printing plates are created based on digital design files and allow for an easy transfer of modern graphic design work into the letterpress medium.

As you will find in your search for these bases, there are two primary vendors on the market, Boxcar Press and Elum Designs. Their prices and quality are fairly compatible. These are amazing products provided by trusted resources in the industry, a home run for anyone with the budget for it.

 

Why we chose to go the “make your own letterpress base” route.

Flexibility

At 12″ x 18″, our press is on the larger side of the spectrum of platen presses. This gives us the opportunity to print both large and very small pieces. As one might assume, the solid steel chase of our press is very heavy, and thick slabs of aluminum aren’t light as a feather either. We chose to go the make your own letterpress base route because we can have multiple sizes of bases at the ready for our multitude of projects. We’re more flexible this way and able to tackle any project. If we need a larger surface area on a future project, we’ll simply create another base for less than a hundred bucks and a few hours of work!

Cost

As mentioned above, the cost of making your own letterpress base is minuscule when compared to others on the market. For example, our first 6″ x 9″ base ended up costing about fifty dollars, with lots of leftover aluminum for creating smaller bases in the future. It’s always our opinion to get our hands dirty and do things ourselves if the end product will be comparable.

Learning Opportunity

This was yet another learning opportunity for us as a small startup company. We stumbled across new local resources and made many new contacts in our area through undertaking this project. We now know where to find crap industrial metals, rough prices and uses for these materials. Someday this will be applicable to a new DIY project, and we’re looking forward to applying our new knowledge!

 

How we made our own letterpress base

Research

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Acquiring the Materials

At first, we didn’t know the first place to look for the needed raw aluminum material. With the help of our good friend and engineer Caitlyn, we found some local industrial materials shops that carried such things. Hop onto Yelp.com in your local area and search within the “Building Supply” category. We ended up finding and visiting Industrial Metal Supply Company, just down the street as luck would have it.

This type of business will have a scraps or odds/ends section where they sell scraps of building materials at a steep discount. We found an entire wall of aluminum slabs at 7/8″ thickness, the exact dimension of letterpress bases on the market! Be sure to bring some heavy duty gloves with you because these metal sheets are generally very sharp and heavy.

We bought a large slab of aluminum and had the shop cut it down to our intended size. They were very friendly and had no problem with our tiny project, even though you could tell this was the smallest job they’d seen in a while! We left with our 6″ x 9″ base and lots of smaller leftover pieces from the cutting, great for future, smaller projects or presses.

Finishing Work

With our aluminum slab in hand, we needed to transform it into a proper letterpress base. First, we took a finishing grit sandpaper and ground the surface down to ensure evenness. We also rounded out the corners and edges to avoid cuts or scrapes on the harsh metal.

Now, no base is complete without a grid for the alignment of polymer plates. With a sharpie, ruler and lots of patience we applied a 1/4″ grid to the surface of the aluminum. Viola! Our base is complete.

homemade letterpress base

letterpress base grid

What do you think about making your own letterpress base? Let us know in the comments below! We’re happy to answer any questions about our project. Cheers.

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