Owosso dies vs Photopolymer…?

I’m fairly green at all of this, but for some reason I can’t seem to embrace the “new” trend of polymer plates (I know they’ve been around for a long time, it just seems like they’ve really taken off in the past few years, from everything I’ve read). I love the feel of a heavy die (not to mention the antiquity of it), and would prefer to use them exclusively if at all possible. My dilemma, though, is that I also plan on designing a good portion of my projects on my computer, and would need custom dies cast.

The man who sold me my press suggested Owosso, and I have heard many things about them— but I don’t know if that’s the way to go. If anyone has used them, what is the preferred material? I know they cast magnesium, copper, and brass. It seems that copper is better for big areas, but is there really a difference in durability, impression, etc between the three? Is there a preference in metal among the letterpress world? Also, I know what Boxcar prices are like per square inch— is Owosso comparable, or much more expensive? I figure even if they’re a little pricey in comparison, not having to buy the Boxcar base would almost even it out, considering Owosso mounts theirs for you (right?).

As you can see, I have a lot of questions regarding this. Any and all opinions/advice welcome. Thanks in advance!

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I forgot to mention— if photopolymer is truly the absolute best way to do custom-designed work, I’ll begrudgingly do so. I just feel like I’m cheating the art of letterpress by going that route, and I find it hard to believe that you can really get the same quality as hand-setting type and using mounted metal. Maybe I’m wrong? :)

There may be as many viewpoints and preferences as there are letterpress printers. The bottom line is that if with a good design and proper technique you can get good printing with petrified peanut butter, that is OK.

I am an old handset type guy. Yes, I think poly plates are a little like cheating. Still, with poly plates I could do away with the thousands of pounds of type I have. With proper technique, you can do some very nice printing with poly plates.

The old printer spoke of the pieces he used to print from that were not type as cuts. These were often pictures or other graphics or photo halftones. Early on they were done in zinc. Later in copper and magnesium. Now in poly. It is evolution. We old guys called them cuts. New folks call them plates. They aren’t dies. Dies are something else.

You can order mag cuts from Owosso, or other source, mounted on wood to be type high (type height for the purists or British). You pay something for their time and material. You can order them not mounted and mount them on your own wood. You can gang up a bunch of images on one piece to save some money. These can either be mounted all on one base and if you can figure out how to cut them apart VERY square, you save some money. You can also have them send the small sheet of images on the magnesium unmounted and uncut. Then you have to cut them apart (with care and precision) and mount them. Their wood base mounts are milled with precision to be the right height. If you don’t have the wood shop ability to do that, you can start with good furniture grade 3/4’ plywood and shim it up until it is type high. Not as good as the real stuff, but it will give you a feel for mag plates.

Poly plates are cut apart with a scissors and plopped on a base. You can experiment with the plywood base described above to get the feel for poly before investing in a base.

Tell where you are. Perhaps some nice old printer will invite you to his (probably a guy) shop and show you all the possibilities.

Experiment. That is half the fun.



While Owosso makes brass, it’s for embossing — and copper photoengravings are pretty expensive. Their normal material is magnesium. Trouble with mag plates is they corrode fairly rapidly unless protected from moisture, which a coating of oil will do. If you decide to go that route I’d suggest getting them wood-mounted flush — if you get them unmounted you’ll also have to rout them. You can gang images so long as there is room to cut them apart as squared blocks, and they’ll cut them for you. They will arrive ready to print. Owosso used to make zinc cuts, which don’t easily corrode, but they quit that many years ago. There are still a few other engravers who do zinc. Most of them can work from a high-res emailed computer digital image file.


Pardon my ignorance with the “dies.” I’m not sure where I picked that up. I am in Temple, Texas, which is almost exactly between Austin and Dallas. I’m sure there’s someone in either of those cities willing to help (or San Antonio, Houston, etc); I just have to find them :)
I guess I do just need to play with some poly plates. I cringe at the thought of becoming dependent on it and never returning to lead/mag. I think that’s probably my biggest fear. I mean, why even build up a glorious type collection and bother with hand-setting it when you could just pick a font in Adobe and have a plate made? Like I said, I am very new to this, but already I am in heaven with my type cabinet and its ever-growing contents. If I had to slap a couple of poly plates on a base, chances are I would eventually get lazy, forgo locking my chase with lead type for a 2nd pass, and just slap on an equally-convenient plate with the project’s wording.

I suppose I am just an old soul at the ripe age of 23… one who prefers to do things the more difficult, but original, way.

I wasn’t sure which materials Owosso uses— I just saw copper, magnesium, and brass on the main page and assumed they did all 3 for plates :)
I did see something on there about being able to gang up images. Boxcar allows something similar, correct? Or at least, since there’s a minimum purchase price, it makes sense to do so. If you don’t mind me asking, how does Owosso compare to Boxcar as far as the price goes, assuming they mount the plates for you? It’s so easy to find the price/sq. in. on Boxcar, but I am unable to find ANYTHING on Owosso’s site or elsewhere. I figured I’d ask some of you experienced folks on here before calling them up— at least I’ll sound like I know what I’m talking about when I DO contact them :)

Thanks, guys


Two of the photoengravers I have recently seen info about that still do zinc are “near” you — one in Oklahoma and the other in Texas, though I don’t remember the addresses. But mail order works fine for any of them so distance isn’t an issue. I used to get 3-day service from Owosso when I was in Ohio (they’re in Michigan). You might have better results if you laser-print a high-res output from your digital file and mail it to them — image format conversion seems to be an issue for some, at least.

You could check with UT in Austin — they have a book arts program and letterpress studio and I’m sure they’d be helpful. You could also put out an appeal on LetPress to see who’s near you.

I agree that it’s more fun to do it the old way. I prefer to design with the materials at hand — being able to do just anything you want with a computer isn’t as much of a challenge! ;-)


Ad Lib - I would be interested in the names of the two zinc engravers in OK & TX. I have just had a mag plate made from Owasso that was wonderful but I didn’t realize that it would corrode- whatever that means. Thanks!

Hey Steph:

I use owosso all the time. They are very easy to work with, and their product is great. I wouldn’t worry about corrosion on the magnesium plate, though. One: if you only need the plate for one job, then there is no worry. When I do weddings, magnesium is the way to go. Two: the corrosion is very slow. I keep my plates in my damp michigan basement (humidity 60%) with no treatment at all and they have held up for the last few years. That’s close to a worst case scenario, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you are nervous, but for me it hasn’t been a problem. The only corrosion I have ever seen on a magnesium plate was on a plate that was more than thirty years old. I can’t say when the metal was eaten away, but it is somewhere between five and thirty years, which for me is not worth worrying about.

The only copper plate I made was when I did an art print for a friend and I wanted the plate as a presentation piece for him. It’s a nice material and gives a very sharp impression.

Steph….. the choice really all depends on how long you need the block to last. If it’s for a one-time use, then PP plates are great. BUT if you will be using the block for multiple projects over a long period of time, then metal is far superior.

My personal preference is for hard copper mounted onto wood blocks. They will produce thousands and thousands of high-quality impressions for years and years. My shop is still using blocks we made back in the 1970’s. They cost more up front, but over the long haul they are much cheaper….. that is IF you have multiple or re-occuring need for that particular block.

Steph, If you’re an old soul at 23, imagine me at over twice that :) I, too, am a handset kind of girl. I have ordered from Owosso and they are great- good customer service- despite the expense I go copper. I’ve seen corroded magnesium. :-p Not a pretty sight.

Many (most!) of my images are culled from piles of cuts from long-gone shops. I love working _with_ the available art. I’m not an artist who can draw what I see in my mind, so I adapt those images I already own.

With all my hand set type I also do not practice deep impression. If I wanted to, I’d get photopolymer and bang the heqq out of it. There’s a place for PP in the world.

Retreating back to the 19th century, Marjorie ;)


Actually, despite the common perception, photopolymer is not solely for the purpose of banging “the heqq out of it.” In the right hands and the right purpose, it is capable of helping produce the finest of letterpress printing.



If your committed to using hand set type and only getting your images and art work as plates, then it really won’t matter what material the plates are made from. It’s just as easy to have type made as part of a plate in polymer or metals. They’re both made from a photo etched process.

My preference is if it’s art that can be reused at any time and not specific to the job, I’ll get it made in metal so it’ll last as long as I will… . or possibly longer.

you can get very fine lines with the owosso plates that break apart when trying to go that thin in polymer, usually this isnt much of an issue unless you are using really tiny lines in images, tiny tiny text, or calligraphy.

also the owosso plates are superior to polymer when you are doing a large pattern since the polymer plates love to curl and are increasingly difficult to re-use/reink because of this.

I suggest finding what you like each best for and using a combo. It is crap to belittle these methods, everything has its place and possible upside in your shop once you learn to use them.


My experience with photopolymer vis-à-vis magnesium photomechanical engravings has been the opposite. I’ve not had fine detail disappear or “break apart.” And I would submit that fine detail is what photopolymer is all about.

I use steel-backed plates so I have not experienced curl.

I’ve used photopolymer for near two decades now, prior to that photomechanical engravings for images, never for type. I would never go back.

I suspect that folks who have used lessor quality brand photopolymer plates, perhaps made from inferior film and/or produced by alternative means, and/or printed on inappropriate bases, wood, etc., may have experienced lackluster results, but that is simply a matter of poor tool/materials choices and should not be an indictment across the board. You get what you pay for.


There are many materials that will produce fine details in relief printing. If you look at some of the engravings from the mid-1900’s, you will see some incredibly fine details that were executed in wood. The real trick is not so much what material you use, but rather HOW you use them.

Gerald and I often disagree on “alternative processes” or whether this or that method is best….. I use wood backing for almost everything….. but I agree with him wholeheartedly that used with care, PP plates can produce some very fine work. So can magnesium. So can wood. It all depends more on the skill of the people involved than the choice of materials.

I have used photopolymer for ten years now and I wouldn’t go back. In a commercial environment, hand set type just doesn’t work. I’ll use copper now and then for expensive social stationery, and I would say copper is the finest plate material available, but it is pricey.



Sorry for mentioning wood. Note to myself. Never mention wood bases in a derogatory manner on Briar Discussions, unless, of course, you’d want to hear winking’s response. :—)


.Gerald … it’s that “Point / Counter Point” thing. I’m just glad you don’t start your comments with “Dave… you ignorant dufus….” ;)

Summer- for the most part you are right about hand-set in the modern commercial world….. but there are a few exceptions. We have found that handset is the better option for envelopes and simple letterheads. We can often handset these sort of simple jobs faster than we can create a digital image and make a PP plate. Plus handset type can be re-used over and over again….. so it’s cost effective.


You are right in that I could set a three line address faster than I could make a plate. One reason I have backed away from type is that most of the type I have seen for sale in Montana is fairly worn, and the fonts I would be most interested in are badly worn. With photopolymer it’s always brand spankin’ new. And with two offset presses, three letterpresses, a thirty inch cutter and a folder, I just don’t have space for it.


Winking, er, Dave

Maybe next time :—)


Well, thanks to all of you for the wonderful advice. I think I’m going to continue setting type by hand for my fun projects (and for the pride that comes with multiple, handset lines of 10pt type), try the PP for the more artistic but less used plates (or one-time projects), and copper for the stuff I want to keep around for a while. I think my husband is still going to be run out of house and home with all of the press goodies I’m steadily acquiring, even with PP thrown into the mix to cut down on plate storage :)

I appreciate all of the help. I’ll let you guys know how it goes as I venture out into the PP and copper cut world.