Green Practices for Letterpress Printing
Posted by SWEET
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Rubber based ink cans

Photo Credit: Sullivan Studios

Happy Summer! As the weather heats up we’re reminded of simple ways we can help the environment through things like turning off lights, using less water and being mindful of how we impact ecosystems. This inspired our topic for this post: eco-friendly elements of letterpress.

Here at SWEET letterpress & design we present our studio as eco-friendly, but what exactly does that mean? In an industry where the very methods used are antiquated and somewhat mysterious to the layperson, how do we try to respect the Earth? Let’s dive into the details.

Being environmentally friendly is definitely a trend, but we prefer to think of it as a series of ongoing decisions. Some of these decisions are simple and easy while others require some research and a little more effort. Here are some of the choices we have made to consciously reduce our impact on the environment.

Ink being applied to letterpress ink plate

Ink Choices

We hand-mix all of our inks for custom colors. Bridal suites, birth announcements, greeting cards, business cards, personal stationery… you name it and we have probably mixed a custom color for it. There are a few primary types of ink that letterpress printers use: oil-based, rubber-based and acrylic based ink. With few exceptions (metallics only come in an oil-base for example), we use rubber and acrylic inks for our pieces. Rubber based ink dries by absorbing into the paper, while oil based ink dries primarily through oxidation (air drying) so we try to reduce the VOCs in the atmosphere by minimizing our use of oil based inks.

Envelopes and paper supplies

Photo Credit: Sullivan Studios

Paper Choices

We print on sustainable paper whenever possible. Most of our jobs use 100% cotton tree-free paper but we also print on recycled papers, source FSC-certified paper products, and favor envelopes from vendors that have similar preferences. That’s just for finished pieces though, we also care about the paper that doesn’t get printed on. We donate our cotton scraps to a local paper-maker so they are reused. Finally, we compost or recycle every scrap we can no longer reuse.

Using Boxcar polymer letterpress plates

Photo Credit: Sullivan Studios

Plate Choices

Letterpress printing uses either handset type or printing plates. We print our projects by designing them and having plates made for us. There are two main options: plates made of magnesium mounted on wood or polymer plates that mount onto an aluminum base. We print primarily using our Boxcar Press base and  have our polymer plates made through Boxcar as well. We toured their facility and were impressed with the friendly people, their professionalism and their commitment to the environment. They have a wind powered facility and recycle polymer leftovers. In general, polymer plates are more eco-friendly because they are recyclable, use less material and the registration process is easier so it requires less make ready (practice paper used to adjust everything on the press until you start printing final versions)

Letterpress work bench with ink and cleaning supplies

Photo Credit: Sullivan Studios

Cleaning Product Choices

To clean the ink off a press after printing, most printers use solutions that have high VOCs. This is difficult to avoid entirely, because getting all traces of ink off the press and the rollers is critical to print quality but there are ways to reduce the use of high VOC cleaners. Solvents such as paint thinner and California Wash are commonly used, but as a general rule we clean initially with vegetable oil and then we go back over the press and rollers with solvent last. This allows us to maintain a clean printing press but significantly reduce the VOCs involved in our press cleaning process.

Biodegradeable packaging

Photo Credit: Sullivan Studios

General Practice Choices

In addition to the detailed elements of letterpress, we also adhere to some eco-friendly principles for the studio. We reuse, recycle and compost to the fullest extent possible (and cart everything  home to dispose of since our landlord doesn’t offer recycling or composting) and package our greeting cards in biodegradeable sleeves. We use repurposed packaging materials for our orders and always ship carbon neutral. Additionally, we have something called the “Sweet Tree” program. For every order over $1000, we plant a tree through American Forests.

There are lots of little ways people can be more environmentally conscious at home, but we extend that idea to our studio too. Letterpress is an eco-chic process with some adjustments to the standard workflow, and we plan to continue doing what we can to keep that up.

Do you have any eco-friendly practices for stationery or do you have a letterpress-specific tip that we could put into practice? We would love it if you would let us know in the comments below.

We would like to thank Sullivan Studios for the awesome studio photographs featured in this post.

5 Comments

  1. Maryellen September 15, 2013 4:03 pm

    I love your work table with the shelving for inks. Can you please tell me more about it–where I might be able to find one, etc? Any help would be greatly appreciated. I live in Houston, Texas, and enjoy doing smaller projects on my C&P pilot. My current table, that came with the press, is too low for me and I find myself bending over to print!

    • SWEET September 16, 2013 2:35 pm

      Hi there, Thanks for reading our blog. That table was a craigslist find – I think it’s actually a tool bench and we added an extra shelf (sheet of wood from home depot) for all the ink cans. Happy printing!

  2. Maryellen September 21, 2013 9:55 pm

    you are way too clever! thanks for sharing your great ideas and images of your gorgeous studio.

  3. Maryellen September 21, 2013 9:59 pm

    p.s.–I’d appreciate knowing what kind of packaging materials you use as I’ve been stumped to find any that are both biodegradable and effective for display.