In our shop we have been using a direct engrave photopolymer material in conjunction with our laser engraver to make our printing plates. This allows us the ability to go directly from computer to plate in one step and frees us from film and washout. The material is nearly identical to conventional photopolymer in that it can be used with our name brand aluminum base with out any height modification.
It is great stuff….but in order to get it made I had to purchase a large quantity and I was wondering if there was any other interest in the letterpress community for this material. My hope is to be able to sell some so that I can manage the minimum order quantities to keep myself supplied. I know that more and more people are getting access to or buying their own laser engravers and I thought this material might be a perfect fit. Heck, buying a small import laser engraver is a sub $2000 dollar investment now. Much cheaper than a film output printer and washout / exposure unit.
The downside is it is slightly more expensive than a sheet of unexposed photopolymer, but I have found the little extra cost greatly offset by the lack of processing steps when compared to conventional photopolymer.
So I guess my question is, is there any interest in buying some of this direct engrave material? Or should I take my lifetime supply and mind my own business?
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How long does it take to image a 6x8” area?
I would love more info for sure. Photos are always nice.
What exactly is the machine your using? What exactly is the material you are using?
Engraving time is dependant on the resolution you are running your engraver at. The higher the resolution the more time it takes. I did a quick calculation and at about 600dpi (where we typically run) it would take about an hour to engrave a 6” x 8” plate.
I use a 40w imported chinese laser engraver. You can find many different ones through ebay, or a google search. I purchased ours from Rabbit Laser USA, but it is decidedly overkill. I would recommend a small desktop unit to any new comers. The material is a .037” direct laser engrave photopolymer that I had custom made for letterpress printing. I hope to have a page up on our website soon with information about it.
Thank you for your interest!
Wow, this is interesting and appealing to those of us not interested in setting up a wet chemistry lab.
Guess I have the same questions as the others.
Can you point to where we can find more info on & sources for these (<$2K) machines? What kind of files do you need to produce plates? What are the limitations to plate size, etc.? Is the quality comparable to photo polymer plates (clean edges, etc.)? What is the price range for the plates you’re buying in volume?
An hour to engrave a 6x8 ” plate, if you’re in a commercial enviroment, this can burn your energy real fast.
If I send a File to my imagesetter, Film, plate, washout, on average i’m on press within 45 minutes, that is for a 16 x 20 plate, 0.94 steelbacked.
You won’t achieve the current flavor in LP of deep impression with a 0.37 plate
I fully understand that direct laser engrave might not be viable for a full commercial letterpress shop. I would like to think this material is more aimed at printers like myself that run a small printing business but do not have the capital for an imagesetter, film, and exposure and washout unit. I know the time seems high, but it is faster than the turn around most people get with having their plates made out of house. Plus, if the design would allow for a lower resolution, say 300dpi, you could cut that time in half.
I am confused by your statement about not achieving deep impression with a .037” plate. I use this material daily and have no trouble achieving “deep” impression. The thickness of this material is comparable to 94FL material sold by boxcar. I figure I average a .020” - .025” relief on these plates. Perhaps I am missing something?
Thanks for your comments!
Like the others, I’m very interested in seeing photos (both of the plates and of the printed pieces).
How fine of a line are you able to achieve and still have it hold up for a decent run under heavy impression?
What kind of price are you looking at for each sheet?
I am trying to understand this but may have missed something. By a plate “custom made” for letterpress do you mean pre-exposed? I assume you are not engraving on raw photopolymer material (as that would be quite soft)?
Most silver-based film negative material is run out at a minimum of 2400dpi. 600dpi is not even camera ready quality!
What kind of imaging are you printing?
I used the term “custom made” because it was a product that the plate supplier had not offered for letterpress printing before I inquired about it. It does appear to be an exposed photopolymer. I am unsure of the specific differences they made to make it more direct engrave friendly. I do know it engraves better than conventional photopolymer that I exposed myself.
As for the dpi, I must confess that I might be using the wrong terms. At 600dpi on the laser I have not had issues with our prints looking poor although I do not do what would be considered “fine art” prints so I could have a tin eye. Most of our work is bread and butter stuff - coasters, invites, business cards, etc.
On a laser engraver when you set the “resolution” you are setting the distance the laser indexes on the Y axis before engraving the next line. Typically I index at .04mm (.001”), which the laser manufacturer states is “600dpi”.
I have attached some pictures of a plate I made last night. Granted this plate is not very detailed. I think I will try to make up a test image to try in order to quantify the abilities of the plates and and the engraving process. Do you have any suggestions? Maybe a series of lines of different point thicknesses?
Thanks for the questions and comments!
photo 2 (1).JPG
photo 1 (1).JPG
Thanks for the info and the pics. This looks quite good. Might you be better off with a steel-backed plate (thinking of flatness (solids tend to buckle on polyester-backed plates).
How deep do you cut? There is a pre-exposed floor to photopolymer plates, are you cutting short of this?
Another question that comes to mind regarding fine lines, type, etc., is does this technique allow for a sloped relief?
Just one more question. I’ve used a laser engraver on hard wood. Are there fumes or smoke that may be a problem with this technique.
I imagine a steel backed plate would help as far as buckling goes, but plastic is what I was offered. In the future I will investigate a metal backer. For the plastic plates we apply adhesive tape to the back and mount the plate to our aluminum base from engraving. This holds well. If you do not secure the plate it will begin to lift and then you will have focus issues.
The engraving is .020” -.025” deep and goes thru to the backer. The backer is thicker than most photopolymer I have used, it is around .010”-.015”. I suspect this gives the plate more support to hold up to the laser heat.
There is a slope in the finished plates. It is interesting in that it is slightly different in the X axis than the Y. I attribute this to the engraving motion of the laser. I have attached a picture below showing the slope. The camera or my magnifier seems to have made it slightly more exaggerated than it looks in person. First hand I would say it is 10-20 degrees, but in the picture seems to show closer to 45. Anyway, you can get the idea.
As for the fumes…Yeah, the stuff stinks when you engrave it. With proper air flow and some filtering it is minimized. I would say is isn’t nearly as bad as acrylic (very strong smell), but certainly not the sweet campfire smell of engraving hardwood.
I plan to have some material available for sale in the next couple of weeks so others can run the material through the paces. I have liked the material enough to place a substantial order and I wanted to share the experience with others.
Thanks again for all the comments and questions. I will keep everyone updated as I progress.
Hi, I wanted to give everyone an update and let you know I have put some of this plate material up for sale on our site. You can find it here:
Please let me know if anyone has any other questions or comments. They are all greatly appreciated.
I am interested in this. Can you give prices and shipping to the UK.
How has it been working for you? Every day, I’m worried about my 1992-era Accuset 1000 imagesetter. It’s a ticking timebomb. Couple that with the risk of price increases in film and chemistry, and disposal, the idea of direct laser engraving is VERY appealing.
What’s the smallest type size you were able to image with this process?
Oh, another question. There is direct-to-plate photopolymer o the market. It’s an opaque layer overtop of regular photopolymer. So the top layer gets etched off, then you expose and wash out. Are there laser-engravers on the market that do this affordably, or would you need special print-specific equipment?
I don’t understand why you would you would cook a photopolymer plate with a laser. Has the manufacturer specified that it is to be used in this manner? If so, have they checked the content of the emissions generated in the process? Is there any advantage to laser engraving this material over a non-polymer substrate of the same thickness?
Since it seems it is the non-printing portion of the polymer you are blasting away with the laser, how is the printing portion exposed?
The Arm Letterpress
My Local paper uses dry offset from polymerplate (relief 0.030 relief) to print the local Rag (L.A. Times) The plates are laser cut, the technology has been around for a while, but cutting the stuff on your home laser should require to follow the safety requirement required. The commercial Unit they use has massive exhaust lines.
These recent questions were addressed previously in the thread. Joel kindly sent me materials he had produced, as well as a very cool ink knife holder that he constructed with the laser, which I think he should be marketing.
Note that the looming film negative problem is one that the photoengraving industry faces as well, this is not just a photopolymer plate problem, so any solution such as this is somewhat heroic.
Joel’s technique does produce adequate plates for most folks. There is a problem with fine details etc and this has to do with the way the laser addresses the relief structure. I mentioned this earlier in the thread.
But… Dan addresses a crucial point, why photopolymer? The plates that Joel uses have to be pre-exposed, as blanks, rather than raw photopolymer. In that case, I would think any plastic type material could be used. The advantages of freshly exposed photopolymer, its tack and resilience, are lost as it ages. Joel sent me one of the blanks and it was a bit curled and literally snapped apart in my hands.
I think this is a fresh approach to a problem but one that unfortunately does not capture the why nor the nuances of the photopolymer plate process.
ryanhowell - the smallest typeface that can be engraved is determinate on the typeface used. We have done down around 6pt with a sans-serifed typeface, but cannot get that small with a swoopy serifed face. You have to look at what you are engraving and judge it. It places limitations on what you can do artistically, but so does the whole process of letterpress printing. If you want 4pt text, use conventional photopolymer or set type. Remember to bring a magnifying glass.
Daniel - I do not “cook” a photopolymer plate, I engrave a polymer plate. No photo or cooking involved. Yes this material was specifically designed for this process. Laser engraving is commonly used in other printing processes and I find it very well suited to letterpress printing. I have documented this material in this thread and on my website (laughingowlpress.com/laserpp) so i will not belabor the point further. If you have anymore questions feel free to give me a call or an email. I am always happy to speak with people about the direct laser engraving process.
Gerald - Again thank you for your time. Since we last corresponded I have made further advances with my engraving process and have been able to get faster speeds with better relief characteristics. I have also took your advice on the storage of my engraved and un-engraved plates and I am getting much better storage life with out the brittleness. I think soon I will send you some new samples to look over. Also thank you for the compliment on my ink knife holder, I do need to work on marketing them better.
THE BEST INK KNIFE HOLDER IN THE WORLD!
Ok, back to the issue at hand..
Why polymer? Because it works. I tried many different plastics and materials and this is the only one that engraves and print constantly and still retains the ease of setup that is inherent in photopolymer. Delrin was a close second but it was to stiff, not transparent, and curled too readily. Wood, nylon, MDF, Acrylic all had their drawbacks.
Using a new process like this is proving to be a rough road in this community. It seems we are a very close minded bunch with a lot of dogma holding us down. Was it like this when photopolymer came on the scene?
I’m going to continue to let me freak flag fly and laser engrave plates for our 100 year old presses. Heck maybe I will get a CNC router and saturate the market with wood type made from water resistant MDF (works great, and is a heck of a lot cheaper than the old stuff that is for sale). Then maybe I will start doing some stereolithography to create type. Who knows, maybe I will just tape a handful of leaves to my printing base and see how they print. I love our printing presses and I love experimenting with them.
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, FREEDOM FOR THE REST!
Joe - Bohemian letterpress printer, destroyer of conventions.
Joe, what were your problems with laser-engraving wood? Cost, speed?
I was wondering what the issues you had with acrylics were. Did you also try perspex, lucite, etc?
Keep up the good work Joe. Keep us posted as to your projects.
Justin - Fellow DIY Letterpress Punk
I know I’ve mentioned this before but it doesn’t seem to be discussed. Has anybody tried using a weaker laser to expose the plate instead of engrave it? I know that adds in a ton more variables, such as exposure time, washout time/method etc, but would it have any benefits?
Than I make a Polymerplate, I put a piece of Film over an unexposed plate and expose it with blacklight, the result is an e x p o s e d polymerplate, that is I can see the exposed image, the plate itself is yet not fit to print. Washout and post processing is needed. The Laser does all this in one setting.
But in any way it is required to remove the background.
What are you asking exactly?
In that situation, you need film and ideally a vacuum to ensure detailed exposure.
Just like how a filmsetter uses laser to expose the negative film (or photosensitive paper positive), my question is whether exposing with a laser affects some of these issues.
For instance, you’d take light-sensitive polymer, and instead of exposing it through film, you expose it with the laser in a darkroom setting. Then you still have to use the washout.
different formulated plates, as I pointed out earlier - the laser exposure has been around a while, plate goes in , comes out, done. I would like a Unit like that, still $$$$$ second hand. So I still make Film and plates.
Why differently formulated plates? Has anybody tried this DIY style? There’s some reason that the types of plates Boxcar uses can’t be exposed with a laser?
Kimaboe - The problem I found with wood is the availability of tight grain type high wood. MDF worked ok, but the particle size of the board would not allow it to hold fine detail.
BDMatelier- the problem with acrylics is that they didn’t hold ink well. I never tried those other plastics you list, but they seem to be name brands, are they just acrylic derivatives?
Wildmark- I’ve often thought about using a UV laser to expose conventional photopolymer. It would definitely be interesting. Perhaps I could experiment with it sometime. Of course you would still have the washout process, drying, and post exposing so the only think you would be saving is film. Still a very cool idea though with film becoming more of an issue.
Also the plates I use have a thicker substrate that allows them to better withstand the laser engraving. Regular plates have a very thin backer which makes it very difficult to engrave them without cutting through. Give it a try though if you have access to a laser engraver. I am also flattered that you don’t believe my process to be DIY.
-professional letterpress printer wielding a laser
I never said your process wasn’t DIY. It’s totally DIY! I was comparing it to Typenut’s mention of the very $$$$$ system, which I think he was referring to CTP systems for Dry Offset?
Joe, I have seen people on here that use wood, but not sure on the specifics of the material or their settings. Looked like the detail was good, although it probably doesn’t match what you can get from polymer.
Yeah, I’d like to be informed of further developments. The major point for your process and the use of photopolymer plates rather than some other material is actually that it fits into current technology, primarily the prevailing use of flat bases already set up for the plates you are using.
In regard to your “Using a new process like this is proving to be a rough road in this community. It seems we are a very close minded bunch with a lot of dogma holding us down. Was it like this when photopolymer came on the scene?”
Yes, it was. When photopolymer was developed in the 1960s it was actually thought of as a way of saving commercial letterpress. That didn’t happen but the process did linger on serving the flexography industry. Long enough to be reborn in the mid 1980s with new developments in flatbases, water-based processing, advanced platemaking machines, and of course, the rise of digital publishing, digital type, and the image processor. Plus, prevailing practice in studio letterpress. A match made in heaven.
Still, when I published Printing digital type (1998) and founded PPLetterpress (2001), even at those relatively late dates, yeah, lots of resistance, even outrage, from the die-hard. I recently announced that the forthcoming edition of Printing digital type would only be available in ebook format. More protests. Oddly enough from folks using digital technology to communicate.
Gerald , is your memory so poor these days that you forgot that it is traditional for letterpress folk to protest at change whenever it comes .!
I am still using a fountain pen and envelopes and snail mail , i will stop doing so when any part of that is no longer available !!! Not that i dont use e mail i have recently learned to do it but it wont replace my pen and post office !
I note though that you have abandoned traditional punctuation!
I’m so glad that you are doing this!! I have two boat anchor imagesetters a rusting processor but am making wayyy more money getting film made elsewhere since they bit the dust. But it is only a matter of time until the service bureaus shut down film operations due to the cost of film and chemistry. Frankly I’m not sure how they make any money??
I am very interested in this technology but am wondering about the transfer of data from the computer to the laser. Is there a special hook ups needed RIP etc. does it work with any kind of software? I’m sure you will do well with this process for your business and to help other printers also. Good work, I’m sure this process will keep letterpress going when film goes along the same road as the record, tape, vcr etc etc….
I am struggling with trying to use both hands to type and keep hitting the wrong keys. I have recently been released from sling on right arm, i need physio badly due to our wonderful health people not informing me of certain procedures i should have undertaken weeks ago !
You are certainly correct that the punctuation is awful , something i should observe , being in this trade , as well as having City & Guilds and Royal Society of Arts qualifications in English .
I will consider myself suitably chastised and will endeavour to observe the correct form in future .
Regards Peter ,
has anybody had any experience with the direct engrave products from Anderson Vreeland? They appear to be (non-photo) polymer formulated for print use.
walk a mile in his shoes
Film will most likely be around or a long time yet as there are still several processes and plants around the globe using it. There will be fewer suppliers and higher costs, but it will die a slow death, mostly because of other countries.
Man I wish I could afford one of the stork engravers. I’m guessing the low end for that thing has got to be 500k.
Hi, I am one of the guys selling those selling those stork engravers. Feel free to contact me in case you are seriously interested in such an engraving system. In case you cannot afford such a system, there is an alternative: there are several commission engravers (like a prepress-house) who would love having you as a customer; they can engrave for you. This way you pay by the job. Who knows, maybe someday you can become one of my direct customers. ;o)
I’ve recently switched my plate supplier to Crown Flexo who claim a laser imaged plate. I’ve been very happy with the results so far, especially the edge fidelity in small or knocked out type. And they’re the most affordable platemakers I’ve found.
Crown Flexo, eh? Thanks for that! I’ll have to check them out. I can get metal-backed plates locally, but not plastic. I can get film shot locally and make my own plates with a DIY plate burner, but it’s good to know I can get CTP photopolymer, too, for when I need fine detail. I’ll also be watching with interest this laser-cutter method. Options are good!