Adopting a Digital Typeface for Letterpress Printing

For my most re­cent uni pro­ject I de­signed a dis­play type­face and adopted it for tra­di­tional let­ter­press. Since I only had four weeks to do it, I de­vel­oped process that is cheap, easy to ex­e­cute and only uses ba­sic tools and equip­ment.

Material

Tools

Drawing the Typeface

I as­sume at this point you have ei­ther drawn or picked out the type­face you’ll adapt for let­ter­press. Generally sim­pler, solid shapes will be eas­ier to work with.

Type specimen For my pro­ject I drew this 19th cen­tury-style dis­play type.

If you’re us­ing type­face with very thin strokes or sharp ser­ifs it might be worth do­ing a test on the laser cut­ter. You might have to in­crease the scale or pick a heav­ier weight to get a de­cent qual­ity cut. Once you’re sure the type­face will work, you can start prepar­ing the al­pha­bet to be cut.

Getting ready for the Laser cut­ter

Letterforms ready to be cut This is one of two vec­tor files I sent to the laser cut­ter.

Laser cut­ters usu­ally work with stan­dard Illustrator files (but make sure to check with your tech­ni­cian). Make sure you con­vert the let­ters to out­lines be­fore you send them off.

Since acrylic sheet is­n’t ex­actly cheap, you want to try and fit as many let­ter­forms as pos­si­ble on one sheet. There is soft­ware to do this, but it can take a lot of pro­cess­ing power to get to a de­cent re­sult.

I ended up just set­ting an Illustrator art­board to the size of my acrylic sheet and ar­rang­ing the let­ters by hand. Once that’s done, re­mem­ber to flip the let­ter­forms - they will come out the right way once you print them.

letters with bridges Highlighted sec­tions were added so the let­ters stay to­gether in one piece.

If your type­face has dis­con­nected parts - like this shadow vari­ant I made - you might want to con­sider adding some bridges” so they won’t fall apart when they come out the laser cut­ter. Once the type is mounted you can eas­ily file some ma­te­r­ial off the bridges so they won’t show up in print.

finished letters Letters fresh out the laser cut­ter, ready to be mounted.

Get your file to the laser cut­ter, start the ma­chine and wait! In my case it took about an hour to com­plete 30 let­ter­forms. If your acrylic sheet has pro­tec­tive film on it, it’s best to leave it un­til you’re ready to print.

Mounting

For our let­ters to be us­able in let­ter­press (together with reg­u­lar let­ter­press type) we’ll have to bring the face up to 23.3mm - this is called type high. (I should say that if you’re out­side the United Kingdom, the US or Canada you might need a dif­fer­ent height - check with your let­ter­press tech­ni­cian.)

To get to that height, we’ll stack a few dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als: Our 3mm acrylic let­ters, 18mm MDF, 3mm Greyboard and some scrap pa­per will bring us close enough to 23.3mm. We can al­ways ad­just the press to com­pen­sate as well.

letters ready to be mounted

First, lay out all the acrylic let­ters on the MDF board. Draw a rec­tan­gle around each let­ter, but leave about 2mm of space on each side. This is to com­pen­sate for the ma­te­r­ial we’ll lose on the band­saw.

Once you have all the out­lines, make sure you in­di­cate which rec­tan­gle be­longs to which let­ter. Then take the let­ters off cut out the MDF blocks on the band­saw.

Next, glue the acrylic let­ters on the right MDF blocks - I found that reg­u­lar PVA works fine, but con­tact ce­ment would prob­a­bly be a bit more per­ma­nent. Let the glue set overnight be­fore you peel the pro­tec­tive film off the let­ters.

mounting the letters

You could re­peat this process and stick a piece of grey­board un­der­neath each let­ter to get close to type high. Since I had lim­ited time, I just laid on big sheet of grey­board on the bed of the print­ing press.

Printing

From this point, it’s just nor­mal let­ter­press! Note the crisp edges and min­i­mal tex­ture the acrylic cre­ates - al­most like type metal. MDF or ply­wood (which can also be laser­cut) give you a slightly more tex­tured look.

letterpress letterpress One of the first type sam­ples I printed. Here’s some more

Like I said at the start, this process is by no means per­fect. But I hope it can be a start­ing point for your pro­ject - if you de­cide to try this, let me know! I’d love to hear what you learn along the way.