polymer vs. wood-mounted plates

Is anyone willing to share their experience (pros and cons) with using both a Boxcar polymer plate and a traditional wood-mounted plate?

I was lucky enough that my Pilot NS came with a Boxcar base, but now that I have a few projects lining up, I am wondering which of the two directions I should proceed with. I like the look and feel of the wood-mounted plates, but I know that is the wood-loving superficial side of me talking.

In terms of performance, is one really better than the other? Some of the projects I have lined up are invitations, some are greeting cards. For the invitations, I will probably only use the plates for that print run. For the greeting cards, I may have to go back and do reprints later down the line.

I can try both, but I really would like to learn from other people’s experiences as well. Any input would be greatly appreciated.


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You probably really know the answer already. It doesn’t matter for performance as long as the base plus poly plate plus adhesive is .918 high and uniformly so across the printing surface of the plate.
In theory you could use petrified peanut butter, glass, or kitchen counter granite if you could get it machined/ground to the proper uniform thickness. These might not stand much banging about. Aluminum is easy to machine to the proper uniform thickness and has become the base of choice.
Before I owned an aluminum base, I mounted a poly plate to a piece of good furniture grade plywood with double stick tape and underlayed it with hard cover stock and #20 bond to bring it to .918. With proper type high form and proper roller pressure and inking, the press is happy and doesn’t care what is under the poly.
If you don’t have a type high gauge or a digital caliper, get one. If you are going to experiment with wood base you will absolutely need to know if your assembly is type high. The old type high gauges are neat to have, but hard to find. An inexpensive digital caliper is available mail order from Harbor Freight.
Experiment. Have fun. Pretend all the wizards out here and the internet don’t exist. You are practicing an ancient craft. Wing it and learn.

Contrary to what some “gurus” will tell you, wood is a perfectly suitable base for mounting photoplymer plates, IF you use the right wood, and use it correctly. I mount all of my plates… copper… zinc…. magnesium…. and photopolymer on wood, and I never have any difficulty with them. As long as they are type-high, or can be shimmed to be type-high…. AND are flat, they’ll print just fine.

BUT not just any wood will do. Most of the problems that folks have stems from using cheap kiln dried wood from the Home Supply store. As soon as they get it home, it warps, and then it’s impossible to make it print well. The trick is to use good wood, and then let it acclimate for several weeks prior to using it. If you do that, you’ll eliminate 99% of the problems related to wood.

The best wood I’ve found is 3/4 HDO Plywood, which is very flat, very stable, and has a very hard overlay that doesn’t splinter. Woodcrafters sells it. you can order it online, or from their stores.


You really have to get over this inferiority complex re: the “gurus,” whoever they are, but which begs the question: what is “they’ll print just fine” exactly mean?

visualchemist already has a Boxcar base. These are precision bases, better than you can order from the metal shop down the street, why steer her/him away from a good thing?


Gerald- Visual Chemist directly asked for information relating to experience using wood blocks, and I provided him with my opinion, nothing more. My experience is that wood is a perfectly suitable base if you use it correctly. I’ve found that it is more versatile, especially when used in combination with moveable type.

I have no problem with Boxcar bases, or those who use them. What I do wish to address though, is the idea that photoplymer-on-Boxcar is the only way or even the “best” way to do things. It is a good method for much work…. but it is not the only way to go about things.

Some folks nowadays tend to discount the older ways of doing things, or advocate a single method which I think is a mistake especially when put forward by a respected person. Such thinking tends to limit the community as a whole. There are a LOT of ways of letterpressing, all validated by decades or even centuries of experience. Photopoly-on-bases is one of those ways….. wood-mounted blocks are another.


Actually, visualchemist was asking for the pros and cons of both the Boxcar base and wood bases.

I don’t really disagree with what you are saying except to point out that it is exactly the economical Patmag and Boxcar bases that are largely responsible for the growth in letterpress; the former for the transition during the 90s, the latter for the current transition.

It is my experience that once folks learn a more efficient and productive way of doing things or find a better tool for doing things, that they rarely revert backward. This has nothing to do with the specifics of metal type or photopolymer/digital type, etc. And it has nothing to do with older ways of doing things, or newer ways of doing things. But it does have to do with purpose and result.


Gerald- You and I are in agreement about the purpose and result being the primary objective…. and that the method is less important. In my shop, it is the finished piece that is of paramount importance and thus we use a variety of techniques depending upon the desired results, the economics of the job, and the availability of materials. Sometimes we use photopolymer, sometimes we use wood or lead type, and sometimes we use copper-plates in an etching press. It all depends on the work to be done.

I also agree with you that photopolymer and bases has done a lot to popularize letterpress. It’s a good system, no doubt.

Where we actually disagree is whether photopolymer-on-bases is better than other methods. The word “better” is far too dependent on the type of work and needs of the individual printer to be accurately described. For some folks, photopolymer is indeed the prefered method. For others though, it might not be. I think it is important to share other options to the community so that they can make their own decisions.

My preference for mounting on wood blocks is due to ease of re-use of the blocks, once mounted. A wood-mounted block can be cut to any size, and then used like a traditional cut for a variety of jobs. This allows them to be easily used in conjunction with movable type or other blocks. This is both efficient and economical as it eliminates much of the “one-time use” that some photopolymer-on-bases techniques support.