Polymer plates? Create them yourself or outsource…

Question is whether to purchase a polymer platemaking machine or continue to outsource…

There’s an existing discussion topic regarding alternative platemaking (Solarplates - http://www.briarpress.org/13041), however, my question has more to do with the pros and cons of buying a platemaking machine and creating your own deep-relief plates for Boxcar bases. Or rather, continue to outsource at a cost to manufacturers such as Boxcar Press or SoHo letterpress???

Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions as always.

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Seems like a simple matter of economics. Over a specific period of time, what is the cost of a platemaking machine (including maintenance, repair, utilities) plus cost of unprocessed plate material plus labor plus loss from error versus cost of buying warrantied processed plates from a platemaker?

Somewhat a matter of quantity of material produced or consumed. I know folks who have purchased platemakers simply to have the control, and because they had the money to do so. And for a few of these folks, more than than not, the machine basically sits idle. But they can proudly claim ownership nonetheless.

p.s. Plus, are you absolutely sure you have all the information needed to satisfactorily process the so-called “deep relief” plates?

At our shop we have a platmeker and make all plates inhouse, and I would say there are many advantages, but I think the real issue is volume.
I think in order to justify the cost of a platemaker, you need to be producing quite a large quantity of plates each week.
You need to factor in not just the cost of the machine (a one time cost), but also the ongoing cost of stocking the raw polymer plate material, as well as the cost of film negatives, and perhaps most of all, your time.
All of that added up, means you have to make a lot of plates along the way in order to make your money back.
The advantages you gain are a lot of convenience. You have a lot of control over how you make your plates and how you maximaize the space on a plate. Depending on your film turnaround time, you have very quick plate turnaround (takes about 25 minutes to make a plate).
You also can reduce shipping by buying your plates in bulk once a month or whatever, rather than paying for Fedex all the time.
Run the math and get a feel for what your volume is, or keep your eyes out for a good deal on a used machine.

On this particular point, I’d have to concur with Gerald: A decision to purchase a piece of equipment such as this is mostly a matter of economics. IF a shop is going to produce enough plates to justify the machine’s cost, then a processor is the way to go. If they are only going to do a few plates then it doesn’t make good economic sense.

The real question is how many plates constitutes “enough to justify the cost of the machine” vs the cost of hand processing or farming the work out to vendors. This can only be answered by each individual shop, based upon projected usage, labor costs, and so forth.

Thank you for all your comments. I’ve been looking into the cost-analysis of owning and maintaining a low to medium end platemaker to justify the cost. However, are there any inconspicuous costs or handling issues (such as health or difficulty in production) that you are aware of? From start to finish, it takes approximately 25-30 mins to produce one sheet of 8.5”x11” polymer plate?

Thanks again!


I’m not sure that there are any health issues involved. The waste material in the wash is safe for disposal in the sewer system. There are warnings about washing your hands afterward, avoiding ingestion or splash into the eyes. The UV generated from the lamps is dangerous to the unprotected eye. That’s about it.

Production is fairly simple as long as you follow the basic steps. You can easily ruin a plate through careless procedure, improper function of machine, poor or damaged stock, etc.

I think the time frame from start to finish is a bit on the ideal side. You have to cut the film, cut the raw material, trim the plates after exposure, etc. If you practice staggered exposure (masking, etc) that can add configuration time, etc. I think you are more realistically looking at about 45 minutes to an hour. But one can often gang plates and plates are run through a cycle of exposure, washout, drying, post-exposure, so multiple plates can be produced during the sequence.

Platemaking machines do require routine maintenance and regular replacement of certain parts, brush, bulbs, even ballasts, is expensive. You also need to buy raw material in bulk to offset costs. Unless you are doing an awful lot of processing and can get the material in massive quantities, it is going to take a very very long time for that machine to pay its way.

However, if you are primarily doing bookwork and you need the in-house control over lengthy production, then yes, no matter that you may be losing money on the machine, it may very well be worth the expenditure.

If you have a healthy commercial letterpress concern going it still may pay to outsource as the time and labor required to produce your own plates is going to cut into your primary money making activities, printing, marketing, etc.

If you are a hobbyist or print only on occasional basis, there is absolutely no point in acquiring a machine, unless you believe that by having the best toys, you win.


In a slightly different vein: Is there any direct to plate process for photopolymer relief plates?


Yes, for some several years now. The plates are processed in near the same manner sans film. The ones I’ve seen have an etched surface layer that is flashed off prior to normal processing. I have not yet seen plates that are formulated for letterpress per se though (?), these are mainly for flexography at this point. I’ve processed these for a fellow and it does appear that eliminating film yields finer imaging. I don’t know that “we” will see this for a while, if ever, as this is primarily for in-house production, and the digital units are prohibitively expensive. Shipping out the digitized plates for processing is somewhat counter-productive.


Why I devised a way to make my own is strictly timeline related and overall cost. I can burn and hand wash my plates late in the evening when the kids are asleep.

I would say I am not the norm. I like to tinker and am mechanically enclined. So using a week to get my processes into a tight pattern was work but fruitful.

It all comes down to need. Do you need it? Will you be able to pay it off in a year or two or sooner? Do you have a place to put it?

I’ve made my own poly plates with only the following:

1) I used an exposure unit and Radio Shack seconds timer. A vacuum unit was too expensive. Mine uses foam. I’ve seen instructions for making one. Biggest issue is sealing in the UV so you don’t get eye damage. You can expose plates with sunlight or just tanning or photo bulbs, but they may be harder to control. The secret is short exposure times. Shorter than any plate manufacturer would recommend. I did not experience reciprocity failure due to using short exposure times. Surprised me as I have some experience developing negatives and prints, but this allowed the use of “paper negatives” which are not a solid black when reversed and printed with inkjet or laser. I did do some masking, but this is also required with real negatives.

2) I used one negative for a test. It’s too expensive. so….

3) I used positives made with a computer printer. Just mirror and reverse the image onto either clear slide material or thin artist tracing paper. I found that paper works best.

4) Experiment a little. No matter that everyone will tell you that this won’t work, It works. I have wood mounted plates and final results to prove that it works. I printed with these poly plates and with poly plates mixed with metal type. Works well either way. I’ve not used box car base.

5) Lots of control = yes. Money saved? Maybe. Time saving? No. Patience required = lots because you need to vary the exposure. Fun value = priceless.

6) Hazardous chemicals? Just warm tap water. Use gloves to protect you from the water that you would normally drink. After exposure, you wash out the plates in warm tap water and use a soft brush to hasten the process.


Congratulations. Problem that I see is how does this translate. In keeping with the OPs question:

“Works well” is the main problem here. As it always is with DIY. What exactly does that mean to you, or to others? Could you sell your plates to others who would expect the finest detail? the same as they envisioned when they designed their piece? Um, not with the short exposure theory, bud. That ain’t how it works. And that would be just the beginning.

If it works well for you great but, quite frankly, so what? I make plates for myself and I they work as I would expect, but I also make plates for others, and they HAVE to work as THEY expect. DIY in photopolymer plate processing is only useful for the DIYer and only within their particular expectations.


This debate of “DIY” vs “professionally produced” photopolymer has been bouncing around here at Briar Press for at least a year now….. with very little in the way of agreement.

All of the participants make good arguements, but each is only looking at the discussion from a limited point of view. One person discusses the commercial aspects of selling plates to others, while the next is looking to use them in his own work, and a third person is seeking info on making plates for his Hobby-Print shop. These are all three different uses, and have differing criteria on what is “good” or “works well”. What works well for me in my shop would most likely not work well for Gerald in his business.

My personal experince has been that “DIY” photopolymer plates can work very well if the person making them takes the time to do it right. I mostly use them as a secondary adjunct to other types of printing…. But I’d have to admit that Solar-Exposed PP - Hand Washed plates would not be my first choice for larger scale use since it is too labor intensive and a bit slow.

One thing to keep in mind is that “amateur” or “DIY” does not automatically infer lower quality. In fact, just the opposite is often the case. An amateur shop is often not encumbered by the need for profit or high production rates, and can thus take the time to produce work of extraordinary beauty…. while a commercial shop is driven by a need to produce it’s work in a profitable manner, which usually means producing it with less labor or lesser expensive workers. (or using more automated equipment).


I’ll believe your statements when I can find someone practicing alternative processing who can explain their technique and materials in such a manner that would allow anyone else who reads it to replicate it exactly. Anything else is just bad information that is ultimately dead-ended. And really does not serve the audience you suggest it does.

Describing a photopolymer plate as a thing of extraordinary beauty is a bit of an odd stretch, don’t you think? They are either made correctly or they are not. It’s the printed page that should be the thing of extraordinary beauty, the plate is just a tool to facilitate that, not an end in itself. If it is not made to within industrial specifications, which is indeed its qualitative measure (it really has no other), it fails to serve its intended purpose.


Several points, respectfully debating the issue: first, I was not referring to the plates themselves as beautiful, but rather the final printed piece…. which is the only real measure. I agree that the plate is only an intermediate step.

Secondly, the “alternative processing” you refer to is well documented in several books including “Printmaking in The Sun”. Using their techniques, anyone who takes the time to learn and practice the method as described can produce consistent PP plates. We figured it out in my shop in only a few days. The only real trick to it is determining the correct exposure, which is not terribly difficult using a grey scale. Other than that, it’s just a slower, less automated version of the same process you use. Just because you yourself remain unconvinced is inmaterial to the fact that the method does indeed work.

Finally your statement:

“If it is not made to within industrial specifications, which is indeed its qualitative measure (it really has no other), it fails to serve its intended purpose.”

I cannot agree with that. It all depends upon it’s intended purpose. If the plate will put down the image that the Artist/ Designer/ Printer/ Customer wants it to put down, then it will serve it’s intended purpose no matter how it was produced. From my experience, the majority of the plates produced are not in compliance with published industry standards…. and they do not need to be in order to do what they are intended to do.

Remember, the vast majority of letterpress folks are not printing 4-color magazines to exacting specs, making plates for others to use, or even printing books which need to be consistent page to page. Most are doing free-standing work according to their own dictates of “quality”…. which is as it should be. We are not, and should not attempt to be the arbiters of “quality” as it relates to small artistic or hobby shops. “Quality” judgements as it relates to small independent shops should remain in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve spent many years on NPES, B65, and iPPSA panels debating and writing some of those very “Industry Standards” you refer to, and I can say with some certainty that those standards are compromises at best. They are intended to promote standardization for larger scale commercial uses, and have little or no applicability for a small shop that produces plates for it’s own internal uses. In fact, this is clearly addressed in the NPES documents. Trying to inject “it’s by standard or it’s wrong” style arguement into a small scale usage is a misapplication of their intent….. especially when we are talking about the current “Hobby/Artistic/Tradtional” letterpress movement.


I have read Printmaking in the Sun. I think way too much is not revealed there and the concept of a Solar Plate is simply a promotional device. Plates of the same configuration are available from industrial suppliers. Bit of an infomercial.

What are the other books?

In regard to your disagreement with my statement, this is just opinion, not information. And I would disagree with your assessment of industrial standards. Sounds like you are against a whole bunch of engineers, but why? How does your take on this actually help anyone else? I understand completely your championship of DIY, but wonder why it should always be an encouraging figure it out yourself.


Gerald- good points, and well taken.

The book is not as technical as an engineering-based person might like it to be, but it is complete enough to allow a person to learn the technique. Another good source for information about solar exposing the plates is in the technical documentation from the plate manufacturer. I don’t remember which brand, but one of the tech-sheets has a nice set of instructions for using a grey-scale to determine exposure, which is the only real trick to solar-exposing (or was that in the film tech-docs? I’ll have to check). The Lithographer’s Handbook also has a good chapter on grey-scales and exposure for platemaking. And you are correct in that plates are indeed available from commercial sources, and that is where I purchase them myself. They are far cheaper than buying them from “Art Supply” shops.

Actually, I’m not at all against standards, or the engineers who develop them. Since I have a degree in Engineering, and am have participated in the standards development, I guess I AM one. (yikes!) …. Neither am I against modern equipment, not in the least. I own some of the most advanced laser engraving equipment and itaglio presses on the market, and use them quite profitably on the commercial side of my business. I’m not AGAINST anything. All of the processes have their place…. and that is my point.

I am however very PRO- DIY…. even if it’s slower and more costly than other options…. and spend a lot of my “Hobby-Time” encouraging folks to be more self-reliant in their small shops. The reason is more philosophical than technical or economic: The more different techniques that a person learns to do themselves, the stronger their understanding of the field becomes…. and the less they have to depend on others. Even if they later decide that it is better to farm-out their platemaking, the learning experience will help them.

I think we do a bit of a disservice to newbies here by encouraging the “PP plate / Boxcar Base / Pilot Press / Crane’s Lettra” model as the primary starter process. These are all fine products, backed up by great folks, and do produce good end results…. but they tend to limit one’s learning experience. It IS certainly one of the easiest paths to letterpress, but it is not always the best. What about lead type? Or wood-type? Or Wood-cuts? or Copper plates? or Handpresses? OR my friend in the Phillipines who has no access to PP platemaking? OR printing on non-standard paper? What about the truly GREEN printer who is uncertain of the chemical content of PP plates? All of these things are overlooked by the currently accepted Newbie PP model.

Soooo…. my point is NOT that farming out PP plates is a bad thing…. but rather learning to make them oneself can be a good thing since it broadens a persons understanding. The same appies to building one’s own press, binding one’s own books, and a host of other DIY processes.


Quite understood. Nicely put.

All best