Letterpress Butterfly Print from Two-Color Wood Dies

Thoughts of Spring and illustrations from antique entomology books conspired to inspire today’s project. Add to these some gorgeous 220# Neenah Cotton Ecru Letterpress DTC Card Stock, antique metal types and a modern laser-cut two-color wood die and one can achieve some highly attractive–perhaps even artistic–results. Here is how I designed and printed this project at The Norlu Press.

As a graphic designer and letterpress printer, I like to keep a clip file of images that inspire me, especially printed matter from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. When I saw Delia & Tudor Petrescu’s precision milled two-color/chromatic butterfly dies, I remembered a chromolithograph from an 1891 book about butterflies and the idea for a letterpress art print came to me. I chose a combination of 36 point Typo Script and 11 point Scotch Roman metal types to evoke the typography in the antique book, and the rest of it came together like this…

Step 1: Designing this piece was an analog process for me, but you can achieve the same effect digitally in your favorite graphics editing/publishing application. I began by printing the black die of the butterfly on three sheets of Cougar White Super Smooth Cardstock, which is a great economical paper for run-ups and acquiring position on press. I cut each butterfly out and positioned them on an 8″x10″ sheet of the same stock to determine the approximate position for striking each die on press. Note that I penciled in space for text at the bottom of the sheet.

Using the same setting on the paper cutter, I also trimmed three pieces of 8.5″x11″ 220# Neenah Cotton Ecru Letterpress DTC Card Stock paper to yield six 5″x8″ pieces of paper (a commonly available picture frame size) that would become my butterfly art prints.

Step 2: With all three butterflies in approximate position, I penciled-in a center line along the vertical axis and a series of lines across the horizontal axis that show the top and bottom of each image, in this case, the wingspan of our butterfly. The resulting product is called a “dummy” and served as a tool to inform the entire process of putting together this print project.

Step 3: I pulled an impression of the black butterfly die on a clean sheet of tympan on the platen of my circa 1863 Gordon Jobber printing press. This allowed me to align the guidelines on the dummy with the image on the tympan and to get position for the first phase of making these prints.

Step 4: After printing the black die, I used the same process described in Step 3 above to print the orange die, which resulted in the interim results shown above. In each instance, after acquiring the desired position, I printed the 25 run-ups/registration prints on economical card stock before printing the six “final” editions on the premium cotton card stock. Printing the run-ups assured consistent ink color and provided the ability to pull many impressions of the bottom orange butterfly image, which required perfect registration of the black ink on top of it before I could seal the gauge pins and print (see next step).

Step 5: The final look became much clearer after printing the black die on top of a previous printing of the orange die. Note that space remains at the bottom of the print for the text to be printed.

The extreme thickness and weight (220#/595 GSM) of this stock makes it an excellent medium for printing the Petrescu/Woodtype Customs letterpress dies (which are made from French polished, end-grain beech wood) with a lot of impression. I was able to take a considerable bite out of the stock without any debossing on the back side when I printed with the wooden dies, but I was careful to ease up on the impression when it came time to print the metal types (see photo below). The graceful strokes of the 36 point Typo Script are especially delicate, and anything more than a “kiss” is likely to permanently damage these types.

Having used a luxurious, high-quality paper, a size that lends itself to preserving and displaying in a commonly available frame and applying precision throughout the printing process, I arrived at the end with six art prints of a Monarch butterfly. My signature was the final touch to complete this letterpress printing project.

How do you use late industrial age printing technology… to create works of art? For job printing? A little of both? When and where was the last outdoor place you saw a Monarch butterfly? How much do you know about the fantastic selection and customer service at CutCardstock.com? Be the first to answer one of these questions with a comment on this post and I will mail you one of these individually numbered and signed prints. Happy Spring!

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  1. Jim! This is amazing! I last saw one of these printers at Carrillon Park in Dayton. They have a very cool collection of Wright Brothers historical items and NCR cash registers! It would take me a very long time to figure out how to line the paper up. I don’t see a clear lined top 🤣. Amazing job. Glad to have you on the team.

  2. I last saw a Monarch last summer! I work at a camp in MN and love seeing these beauties. When I was in school I would collect the caterpillars from Milkweed with my grandparents and watch them transform. Seeing the butterflies always brings back fond memories. And I love Cut Cardstock’s supplies for all the crafts we do at camp! So fun to learn more about the printing process, thanks for the blog post.

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