Anyone pushing the limits in letterpress with cmyk?

Hello, I have been researching and falling in love with the letterpress machines and processes, and am trying to figure out how I can adapt what I do to this medium. I am used to working in full color, sent to large offset printers (we design for a manufacturer who actually sends the files). Im wondering how far the limits can be pushed with registration tricks, as well as trying to rethink the way I design in order to adapt to the way the letterpress process works. I am NOT trying to make the letterpress into something it’s not, as i LOVE what it IS. Im just trying to figure out where those boundaries are. I saw one or two examples on a couple of printhouse websites of full color, and wonder if others have examples and tips, pitfall experiences to share.

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You may have some trouble getting sets of process color plates made, as there are only a few photoengravers left in business and they mostly cater to die stamping operations and single color line plates. I’m sure it can be done but it will be more difficult than 20 or 30 years ago. You’ll also probably need to get the printing work done on production cylinder presses for consistency of color — hard to maintain on a proof press like a Vandercook over a reasonable press run. But 50 years ago virtually everything of quality was being printed letterpress.


Thank you Bob! So that’s my next hunt, finding a photoengraver up to the task (well, besides figuring out halftones and seperations which we havent even had to deal with on our end)…

They are very good!

Screen angles, lines per inch (for the paper and press you will be using), specific density of the inks to used, the list goes on and on. These were just some of the factors that were critical to getting good quality 4-color work “back in the day”.

I seriously doubt if there is anyone around anymore that has the experience and expertise to pull this off. And….if you think that simply adjusting some dials and tuning in to the correct formulation are all that there is to it, you haven’t even hit the doorstep of the color corrections and etching and engraving work needed bring the initial plates closer to what the finished image is intended to look like.

Fifty years ago there were armies of craftsmen in the photoengraving plants and the commercial presses that produced high-quality 4-color process work.

I was a print production manager for a major 4-color publisher for decades and I did the quality control and “press checks” to set the color of each form on press.
Not an easy feat even in its hayday. I’d venture to guess it would be damn near impossible now to get that kind of quality because those involved in commercial 4-color letterpress are long gone.

You will no doubt be able to get 4-color plates to register well, but if it is critical color you are attempting to match, I doubt if that will happen. Especially maintaining consistant color throughout a run.

It was truly an art and craft and took a whole series of folks and operations to pull it off.

Sorry to throw a wet blanket at you, but this is a reality check. Also realize that the 4-color process cannot match every hue in the spectrum. There are many colors that are physically impossible to produce with only CMYK.


You dont make it clear if it will be a personal attempt or if it will be pressganging your local friendly letterpress hero. However few thoughts for starters, I ran Monotype casting machines for 35yrs but became heavily involved with running repairs to most aspects of letterpress and associated equipment. I was not that good originally but I was cheap and available, so I did get a good insight into the process and the problems. So I can offer the following , (with respect to the previous contributors obviuosly) enlisting the services of 4colour process plate makers, and then machine with good register facilities, powerful ink train with good ink distribution, and a must would surely be anti set off spray, intergram was normal here in U K. Access to supply of letterpress ink with colour books, although learned friends who are up to speed may be able to advise that of necessaty, ltho inks can be made to work. Now possibly the more difficult one, because letterpress by its very nature was time consuming (even with progressive proofs from the plate makers) the first colour may consume a whole day or a whole shift consequently , the next colour may not happen until the next day, (was not y unusual if the run was big) so if the temperature and/or the humidity took a dive overnight, the paper was slightly modified and the progressives said start re-registering and so on in changeable conditions. This probably gave impetus to purpose built factories. If suitable climate controlled unit is on hand one problem less, I am sure more learned friends with on the ground info will add heaps more, hope my humble efforts help. Good luck. Mick>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 0 }ent that good

Jim Gard, of the San Jose Printers’ Guild, has done it. See:[email protected]/4038907566/in/photostream/

As he described it to me a while back, it sounded distinctly nontrivial.

David M.

The introduction of photopolymer plates basically killed the production of CMYK metal plates , litho had already battered the need to print letterpress full colour and miraclon as i know pp could produce work as good as metal twice as quick at a tenth of the cost utilising film that was avaiable and simple to use . dont for one minute underestimate the quality obtainable from photopolymer they are more awkward to use if you have shoddy rollers and badly set machines ,a good pressman and a properly set heidelberg can match any job off the zincos that were available in the heyday of letterpress.
Register can be held well on letterpress machines , some materials will cause grief but that is where challenges are mostly found ,temperature and humidity will affect any job litho or letterpress, that is printing .
Debossing as it seems to be popular description for beating an image into paper these days is not compatible with fine dot screens because the squelch, the pick up from small quantities of over ink that gets onto the shoulders of type or dot that will print around a dot making it larger in appearance all come to affect the final image .
printing in the conventional manner will produce results that still have passable use in the graphic fields . There were large companys in the uk that insisted their print was produced letterpress well into the eighties and were prepared to pay the extra cost in man hours even using miraclon for fine art repro .

I think I’ve seen Mamas Sauce pull some CMYK prints with letterpress. You should check their website.

A couple of weeks ago we experimented with it too. It went well as we weren’t too worried about accurate colour results after the 4th run. To us, it was all about the process and experimentation.

After C:
After M:
After Y+K:

All we used were standard photopolymer plates and halftones in artwork.

I’ve done it before. I learned I have a TON to learn to do it well. Getting plates was not a problem. I realized after though I should have paid a bit more attention to the color of the photos I used. I printed a calendar poster with several small photos.

I guess that it has been so long now, that I it didn’t even cross my mind that someone might attempt to print a “full color” separated image in CMYK as four passes, one color at a time.

The photoengraving shops that produced the film/plates would indeed send progressive proofs of the various color combinations of the film/plates. There were extremely few printers who would attempt full color work by doing two press runs of 2-colors each. Once the first two colors were layed down, you had absolutely no control over them when the last two colors were added. The only color control you could have at that point was to manipulate the those last two colors only. A really good quality four-color image should be printed on a press capable of laying all four colors in registration at the same time so that various areas of each color can be controlled and adjusted on press to get as close to the desired result as possible.

In four decades of quality controlling 4-color jobs on press, I dont ever recall ever seeing a form come off of a press perfectly OK. My job was to make adjustments and get to a “Color OK” sign-off as quickly as possible to minimize the time, paper and ink waisted during this makeready stage.


The halftone was indeed originally designed for printing images in(drum roll please) relief! I have been researching turn of the century photo printing processes for the past few years. Fascinating! It is truly an art and takes some practice to get the separations/copy contrast/and plate engraving all balanced. Rather than using traditional photo processes, Now we can screen digitally and output for photopolymer. Some photopolymers can only hold 150 lpi(this should be ample for what you would be doing). Levy used to make up to a 400 line screen. Many would say now days this is impossible to print. 100 years ago they were doing it somehow. Photoshop has the tools to adjust CMYK levels in an image(ask anyone in digital prepress-maybe a newspaper department, I used to do this professionally). You can then screen(add the halftone and color separations) through photoshop or acrobat and output for negatives for photopolymer. The line angles have been standardized. Start with a course screen and work your way to finer printing.

Oh, by the way, paper selection will define much of your results ;)

You will get your best results with a light impression on a coated or supercalendered paper. A color reflection densitometer will help you control your ink densities. Your biggest challenge will be controlling dot gain.
Dot gain is the difference between the printed dot and the image on the film. Gain can happen in two places, platemaking and again in presswork. With a letterpress you have another variable. Your makeready. Dark areas of your image will require more pressure than midtones or highlighs to print properly. You will be amazed at what .001 onionskin can do to your image.
There is a procedure to calibrate an image setter to the reproduction profile of a particular press and paper. This process was developed for the offset printing process.
At one time I tried to apply those principles to the letterpress process. I was able to greatly improve my color reproduction accuracy but not to the same quality standards as offset. Even single color offset.
Letterpress runs are usually so short that if you need to add a color image to your piece, I would suggest digital inkjet. There are papers designed for inkjet images that perform very well on a letterpress. You can have near photo quality for less money and a lot less headache.


Sumner is absolutely correct. You could, at very best, scan your originals with a scan-back camera (expensive), split the four colors out, figure out how to match the colors, find a qualified photopolymer processor who can make appropriate halftone plates for you, find the best letterpress press operator in the world, etc. But you still run up against the limitations of letterpress. And if letterpress impression is what intrigues you, forget it. Photographic reproduction and impression do not get along. There are tricks and techniques but they do not anywhere come close to reproducing exactly, they are more like making it your own.


Thank you so much for the input, it is really helpful, and no worries about the wet blanket ;)
I havent even pu my hands on a machine yet, hopefully soon so thank you for suffering my ignorance on the subject. This will be an interesting adventure!

Btw, the cnyk image looked fabulous, i thought!! And it gives me hope because we arent even aiming for photographs.

Monotype, i’m sorry, eventually it would be me personally after ive learned a LOT, lol.

Years ago I spoke at length with the employees of an electrotype company who were knowledgeable about the process of making 4-color half-tone plates. They described how each plate had to be repeatedly masked to etch dots of the right size to lay together and make the right colors. It was an enormous amount of work, and was entrusted to the men of the highest skill who could judge the right etching times, strength of the acid bath, and the proper areas to be masked. This process work was no longer offered by the company 30 years ago, and I am pretty sure there is no longer anyone alive who know the process. The plates were originally made in zinc, then electrotypes were made from the zincos, making it a very expensive process. I’ve seen some beautiful half-tone printing that has been done by letterpress, but the skill and the technology is no longer available having been supplanted by photo-lithography and more modern processes.


Devils Tail - were are plenty of fine Folks out there pulling CMYK work in Letterpress, I print 6+ colors from polymerplate (FM)screening just fine:[email protected]/4019496803/in/set-721576225941...

Here’s another relevant link. The work is in progress.


Typenut - your sample is very good, it shows that you are a skilled press operator. However, i believe that if you placed your original next to your reproduction, they would be worlds apart in appearance. I am also very sure that if you put that image back on press using the same plates as the first run, you would have a lot of trouble matching your first effort.
Art is one thing, color reproduction is another.


@typenut. If you read about the process I described I believe I am correct in stating that printing from hand-engraved half-tone plates is not being done anymore. I would be more impressed with what you are doing if you were reprinting the wood engraved images from Alice, rather than something that more resembles stone lithography. There are many reasons that printing 4-color process by letterpress is a fool’s errand. I started my career in a four-color offset advertising printing plant. There is no way that letterpress can equal the quality that can be produced from offset processes, and there are other processes replacing that today. Having been around both processes I recognize the novelty factor of letterpress 4-color (or more) work, but I don’t believe that it is either competitive or cost effective.


Sure it’s not cost effective and hard to reproduce the exact colors, but it’s really fun to do R&D (research and developing/testing). That’s how I always learned….hands on….best teacher out there IMHO

Devils Tail, what you described was the standard in the past, I bet Owosso can still give you the same plates, even the simpliest imagesetter is set up for atomatic separation in CMYK in the rip.

Sumner Lokken - this was a printrun of 50. When i do color separations like that, usually a proof is required to see if I made what the client desired. The Images were eventually printed stonelitho. Orifinally, the client had scanned images of the original 3 color woodengraving enlarged and printed as posters. It failed.[email protected]/sets/72157622594165688/
I print pretty much everything in Fm screening, in Letterpress and Printmaking (I print in both processes) tight controls and absolute perfection is required. But than, I don’t like dots in my images - it’s hard to fork over 1000’s of $ for an Artist book if the images are printed inkjet. There is a given limit what you can do with each process, I reproduce illustrations in Intaglio, etching, mezzotint, gravure and letterpress, wood engraving. Also Stonelithography and collotype (external services). The goal is to have an original in the book.
If you are a proper trained printer, you can hold register even on a printrun of 50 etchings with 72 colors.
Cost is an absolute factor, if the end result is to expensive, the client can sell it. Calculations are run with 3 digits behind the comma. But, if the end result can stand by itself and has merit, - as my late Friend Huib (van Krimpen) used to say: A book is a Book than it is a book.

Josafeen the pleasure was mine thank you. As you imply that it will be D.I.Y. eventually, you obviously will have a steep learning curve ahead and are receiving some brilliant in depth info already, which may be too much too soon, I offer the following by way of where I have been and what I have seen and possibly/hopefully learnt . I did 6yrs apprenticeship in a medium sized letterpress house, including 3months in every other dept within the company and then 5yrs intense on the Monotype. During which time one day and one evening were obligatory at the Technical college equipped with fine printing dept. Then during conscription Draft in the USA courtesy of the RAF I was permitted to attend The Monotype School in London. Thence 15years plus in 3 mainly general letterpress houses, including one house that produced the twice a week newspaper from entirely Monotype origination, but was printed on/from a flat bed conventional chase arrangement, but was multi layered and web fed so when somebody asked did that exist, obviously it was nice to be able to affirm. I also for some 10 years during the last 15 on letterpress I attended many auctions conducted by Colebrook Evans and Mckenzie in London, Printing Auction specialists, whereby I was able to see first hand some amazing machinery and glean good info from the retainers who were on hand until the final end. OK I had to sponser a few coffees, but what price knowledge. I did occasionally buy several interesting unusual platens and 2 cylinders, V meihle and Glockner Mercedes, nearly always sold at massive loss but gained a lot of know how. I also bought an archive collection of some 250 print books amassed over 20 years, and going back to victorian printing machines. Some I have given to keen younger enthusiasts, some I have donated to our print shop Museum archives and some I still retain. Possibly some of this rubbish may prompt you to think I may have a few gems lurking pending release. I am trying to drag myself into this century via E mail so IF it should be desireable B.P. may open the lines of communication. The very best of luck. MICK. ><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>< i .,wHEN DURING s

Typenut - I did not mean to be offensive, though my post may have been slanted. Process control and color reproduction are the cornerstone of any commercial printing business today. Even printers using the letterpress process need to be able to match color and impression when doing repeat orders for commercial customers.
My career has been in commercial printing. I started in 1972 and haven’t done anything else since. You are a book artist. And like I said, Art is one thing and color reproduction is another.
I have yet to meet the person that can match a six color process image on a single color letterpress, even using the same plates as the first run.
I sure can’t.


I pm’d you mick! Thank you again for all the input, i am loving this conversation, hanging on each post. I know I am naive, however I love the examples posted, and they really encourage me. I am not doing art reproduction, or photography, so while quality is important in everything i do in our business, I think that our needs for full color ++might++ be workable within the limitations of the process— though not without time and practice and learning clearly. Reading and considering humbly, the generously shared experience :))

it might be worth looking here for inspiration too if you did not know,

amazing colour stuff done by letterpress printers,with amazing combinations of flat/translucent colours with shapes and designs/compositions etc. If you have £450 to spare a UK bookseller S P Tuohy in Oxford has a copy of J F Earhart’s famous book for sale(others might like to know that too),
another book is recent and is ‘The Handy Book of Artistic printing” from Amazon reasonable price which is a summary of different styles. Lovely to have anyways.

also I applaud the quality of the prints in the links above, super.