Making copper plates

I am new to letterpress and I am interested in making my own copper photo engravings. I am a artist and have experience making intalio plates and etching litho stones for hand pulled lithographs.

Is it possible to make your own plates. And if so does any one have any suggestions?


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The most informative book I have ever come across is Letterpress Platemaking (1969) by Wallis and Cannon. It runs easily over $100 on the antiquarian book market. It was intended for the industrial trade, but a lot of good information can be culled from it.

There have been folks who have announced similar intentions to yours on various lists, ancient and present, in but I have never heard of anything coming from it. It is an industrial procedure and like many such things, isn’t likely to be captured successfully by the DIY approach. With the will and persistence though, I suppose someone could build their own rocket ship to Mars or perform brain surgery or even act as their own defense in a court of law, so who knows what can be achieved.

You can still buy copper engravings made for letterpress. Check the Yellow Pages here for suppliers.


Is your intention to just play with some materials to see what happens, or do you actually hope to be able to consistently produce top quality printing plates at home? I ask, because I agree with Gerald, that it is a pretty tight technical process, and not likely to be tackled at home on your own.
Creating copper plates, from what i know, does share some similarities in proccessing with what is done in etching, but there are other steps and details that may require a more sophisticated setup.
Correct me if i am wrong here, but i beleive what happens is that the copper is coated with an acid resist that is also photosensitive. Then the plate is exposed to light through a film negative, then washed to expose the copper throught the resist, then etched in acid to create the plate.
Then it needs to be mounted somehow on wood to be exactly type high.
This sounds much trickier and more sensitive than just etching a plate normally.
Might be fun for experimention, but not really practical compared to just ordering out for your copper plates. Let us know if you have good results, It would be interesting to know how it goes :)


Thanks for the information on the book. Have you ever heard of ” A Manual for Photoengraving” by Harry Jenkins cerca 1902. I you have I would like to know what you think.

I have had some success using a acid bath of Ferric Chloride on a copper plate to creat a relief. However at the time I did not have any stop out varnish and had to use a litho crayon as a acid resist. I drew my image directly on to the plate and left it in the acid bath for about an hour. I was pleasantly suprized with the results.

At the time I was not trying to create a letterpress cut and had no experience with letterpress.

I you or someone else could tell me what the minium depth of the engraving would have to be it would be very help full.

As for Mars, I like it here and red is not my favorite color anyway. Brain surgery was invented by the ancient greeks and mayans on opposite sides of the world. And defening ones self in a court of law? I try not to get I that much trouble.

Any info is greatly appreciated.

If anyone would like to see an example of what I am trying to achieve go to
I’m not crazy about some of the artwork but…!


The ferric chloride “iron” is the correct chemical for etching the copper. The most difficult part of getting any significant depth by hand is protecting the shoulders from undercutting the image. If you find an old etching book, you will read about “dragons blood” used for this protection, with application made between stages of the etching, creating stepped shoulders on the finished etched plate. The plate would be inked and the powder applied, then heated over a stove to melt the resist, protecting the newly formed shoulders. This process would be repeated between each dip in the bath.

Required depth of the engraving depends on how accurate the settings of the rollers on the press. Try some and see what works for you.

I have etched both copper and brass, and had fairly good results, but the process is lengthy and should be done in a well-ventilated area.

The other resp[onders are absolutely correct in saying that buying the plates is much easier. If you have the supplies, however, give it a try and see what you can do. Use extreme care with the chemicals used in the process.


Can you tell me the thickness of the metal you will be using? The etch depth varies as to the type of imaging you will be using. There is some information in this regard in the text I mentioned but I will need some time to interpret it correctly.

If it helps, a letterpress standard for photopolymer plates is a relief depth of .30 mm. This is not to be confused with relief thickness. For instance, in the Toyobo K series of plates: A .95 mm thick plate has a relief thickness of .65 mm. A 1.52 mm thick plate has a relief thickness of 1.22 mm.

Subtract the relief thickness from the plate thickness from both of these sizes and the resultant relief depth is .30 mm. This is not the depth from surface to floor of plate but rather the effective depth of the relief formation. No such thing as a “deep relief” plate I’m afraid. This relief depth will, of course, vary dependent upon exposure time and proximity of surface imaging.


Greetings Eric,
Saw your post and I can help you. I am a Diemaker and engraver by trade ( semi retired) as an industrial engraver & diemaker but I still hand etch copper engravings for my wifes intaglio etchings and can deep etch copper letterpress type high dies also from 1/4 inch copper fo rmy own use to blind deboss and foil stamp with on our own greeting card line..
I use Revere hydro-coat presensitized copper and ferric chloride acid in a home made etching tank. In small quantities I can assist you in “pan etching” from a home made photoresist and a UV lightsource * The SUN” or solar exposure if you don’t have access to a uv vacuum table.Feel free to call my cell @ 508-367-9213 and I will share what I know with you on copper etching and any other die type you may need help with.
I have some copper stock you can experiment with to get you going..I have recieved a wealth of information and help from this siteand the Briar Press Community so it’s time to pass some along…and I quess your it!
Best regards,
Mark Sherwin
Engraver /Artist

“It is an industrial procedure and like many such things, isn’t likely to be captured successfully by the DIY approach”

LOL…. I always have to laugh at the recurrent “you can’t do such things yourself” refrain that comes from certain factions within Briar Press. They always try to say that in order to produce good work, one must rely upon “professionals”. In the last year or so, I’ve seen it at least a half dozen times. It almost seems like they are actively trying to discourage folks from learning how to be self sufficient.

Etching copper is actually rather simple, and well within the capabilities of any craftsman who is willing to spend the time studying the technique. I’ve made hundreds of them using presensitized copper plates and solar exposure… much like Mark Sherwin…. and ferrric chloride as an etchant. They work well for both text and images. (I will admit though that photopolymer is easier at a do-it-yourself level. They are easy as pie to do at home)

If you really want to learn how it’s done, listen to Mark… or e-mail me directly… and bypass the nay-sayers.

To Mark and winking cat press thank you for your words of encouragement and I will definately be in touch. I have some commisions to finish up this week but I will definately be contacting the two of you.

I was rather disappointed with the first responce to this post. Especially with it being my first. But this has been the attitude I have run into my entire life.

I have wondered for years how people think these things where developed in the first place. More often than not it was some guy or gal that said hey what happens if I do this with that. Or through observation. The cornerstone of both science and art.

Without someone realizing that you can make an impression on soft materials with hard ones and then taking the next step of rubing ink like substance( most likley soot or charcoal mixed with oil into a paste) on it it would make a darkend impression we would not have letterpress.

Oh well such is life…….

Thanks again to everyone replying!

Erics- Last night I dug through my books and located the one I used when first learning. It is named “Practical Etching and Engraving” by Lutz. It was published in 1934, and describes in practical terms how to make both relief and itaglio plates using a variety of methods. Since it was printed in several large editions through the years, it should be easy to find on Alibris.

About Deep Relief plates: Looking at the plates on the website you listed, it is fairly evident that they are quite deeply etched. If you are using presensitized photosensitive plates, these are difficult to do. The resist tends to break down before the plates etch very deeply…. plus they are rather thin to begin with. However, if you are using the older method of manually applying/ cutting the resist, and using thicker plates, you can produce virtually any relief you want.

By the way… McMaster Carr sells copper plate in 1/8 thickness that is great for etching.

Eric, I’m Jorge from México and a I’m going to tell you how I’ve made some relief plates. I use a fountain pen and a mixture of a betún de judea (something like asfalt but liquid), and a resin used to barnish wood like ‘ambar’, (the violinist use it in their strings).
With those products I draw my design, like the photography attached here. I’m trying to make deeper, more deeper relief plates, but it’s seems to be more difficult. I’m working on it, and I’d like to get some advice or tips for it.
The plate that I show is zinc plate. It’s cheaper than copper and is easier to work. I’ve work with metal (steel plate from computer cabinet or something) with acceptable results. I use nitric acid for zinc and steel. If you need more information I coud be more specific.
My english isn’t very good, sorry.

image: copper_plate.jpg


image: metal_plate.jpg


image: zinc_plate.jpg


image: zinc_plate_2.jpg


I just want to explain the photographs: The first one it is not mine. It’s just for show copperplate.
The second is in steel plate, it was made with serigraphy (screen-printing or silkscreen).
Third is the result of the fourth photography made with the barnish (stop out barnish) I’ve explained before on zinc plate.


Some years ago when pressure printing first started up I wrote to Brad and asked him how they make their plates. I’d have to search for the company name but they send all their platemaking work to a place in Arizona that specialises in copper plate making (the work they do is excellent but thats because they do a lot of it).

I was inspired by the technical aspect of pressure printings’ work but when you look into it, some of the work is definately for the non printmaker market (the cheaper editions are done with a hot foil stamper and the inks will fall out eventually; only discovered this after I bought one and could see it for myself).

Good luck, I’m looking for a reasonable method of doing the same thing and if I find one and it works I’ll post the method back up to Briar press for peer review ;-)

Hi, Eric—
I think many old copper printing cuts, as in Jorge’s first picture, were made by the electrotype process. I’ve never done it nor seen it done, but I believe the idea is this—A wax mold is taken of a relief surface. The mold is coated with graphite to make it electrically conductive, and electroplated with copper. The wax is removed and the copper shell backed up with stereotype metal (lead or linotype metal) to support it and fastened to a block or patent base to reach typehigh.
Probably lots of other technical details to deal with—electroplating equipment and chemicals; release for the original mold; levelling out the cut; creating the original. I believe electrotypers had their own union once upon a time, and perhaps some technical training materials for apprentices still exist. I think electroptypes were often used for long runs, and even plated additionally with nickel sometimes. Good luck with your experiments!