Getting into Letterpress

As well as plying my trade as a web designer I’m a bit of a hobbyist dabbler in traditional design techniques too, particularly screenprinting and letterpress.

I’ve had a letterpress for about eighteen months now and have been asked by a number of people how to get into letterpress? What to buy and where? I drafted a recent reply to someone and thought it might be easier/helpful just to post this up here.

Which letterpress?

In the UK the main letterpress to aim for is the Adana – which are basically tabletop hand-powered letterpress.
They come in a range of sizes (usually sized in inches) and date from the early twentieth century until around the 1960s.

There are two main designs – a single pull lever one (the older ones – I have one of these) that look like this ->

… and the double arm one which are a wee bit easier to use that look like this ->

The size refers to the size of the chase you lock your type or design into so essentially determines the size you can print – although you can print without a chase (especially if not using type).

Some Links

Where to get one?

The best bet is eBay – I got mine by signing up for a notification for when Adana press came up for sale and found one in Norfolk (presses are HEAVY so the cost of shipping was almost as much as the cost of the press).

I signed up for ones turning up on eBay in a 50 mile radius from Edinburgh and stuff came up quite regularly. Might also be worth signing up for Gumtree searches/notification on the off chance.

Finally a long shot but might be worth firing out a Wanted request on your local Freecycle – someone might have one lying about that they don’t use any more.

Things to look out for in a press are decent rollers (the old rubber ones deteriorate with time) and avoid rust. The presses can be reconditioned (mine was and not very well at that) but there are lots of moving parts so it needs to be clean and move freely.
If you find a nice press with poor rollers – or without any at all – these can be replaced relatively inexpensively.

There are folk that recondition and sell presses but they’re not cheap.
Might be worth trying to see if they have anything available.

You are also going to need some type – lots of type.
Folk getting rid of presses often sell with some type to get you started but worth keeping an eye out for sets, particularly the usual suspects – Times Roman (serif) and Gill Sans (sans serif) seem to be the most popular but there is plenty out there.

What you’ll need

You will need space – using a letterpress needs a good sized desk or tabletop that should be clear and clean.
You will also need some glass to ‘ink up’ on, some ink (this has to be printing ink), a roller to roll out the ink, some quoins and keys for tightening the type in the chase, leading (for arranging the type vertically), spacers (for spacing out type) – preferably both wood and lead – a galley to set the type out on, a composing stick to arrange type into lines and LOTS of rags. For parents of young children old muslin squares are perfect for this!


Just getting into letterpress as well will keep an eye on what you get up to.

I’ve just had some initial tuition at Leicester Print Workshop ( Highly recommended for anyone based in the Midlands. They have an Adana and a big ol’ Britannia press