Hi-Tech meets Old-Tech: 3D Printing for Letterpress

I conducted a materials research study determining what 3D printing materials will best serve in relief printing processes applicable to letterpress and printmaking. With the help of a Marywood University grant, local 3D expert Cole Hastings and the company Printed Solid, I bought a 3D printer and a variety of filaments to play with—ranging from polyester to metal powders to plant-based materials.

1960s Kelsey press locked up with 3D type

So why would I want to make 3D printed letters? I have a large collection of wood type at my letterpress shop, The Workshop, but some fonts are missing letters, or the letters are damaged or I don’t have enough of a common letter like an “E”.  These are some of my short- and long-range goals:

  • Fabricate missing letters for wood type fonts
  • Create new letterpress fonts that replaces traditional wood type
  • Create an alternative relief plate making process to polymer, linocut, and woodcut

Some of the qualities I’m looking for in the filaments are:

  • How does it hold up to the pressure of a printing press?
  • Does it have similar surface properties to wood?
  • How does it hold fine detail?
  • Can you sand, carve or using fillers?

Not to bore you with too much detail but the testing process generally went like this:

  • Created the letter in Illustrator, saved out as SVG and used the free 3D modeling program Tinkercad to create a STL 3D model.
  • The letter A was printed on the Lutzbot Mini 3D printer using these 9 filaments: ColorFabb NGEN, _HT, PLA/PHA, Bronzefill, Corkfill, Woodfill; Proto-Pasta Carbon Fiber; and 3-D Fuel Natural Entwined Hemp
  • All letters had to be sanded, most of the time an emery board sufficed.
  • Models had to be made slightly higher than the type high .918 to allow for sanding. 3D modeling is measured in mm so it’s interesting, to say the least, having to convert from points, picas and inches into the metric system
  • Then printed on two different printing presses: Kelsey and Showcard.

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So after printing and testing out 9 different filaments and a much fussing around (3D printing takes a lot of patience), the best filament I found that gave me the closest feel to wood type is—drum roll—ColorFabb Bronzefill. This filament has bronze powder in it, is more durable with a heavier weight than the plastic filaments and is easy to sand and polish. It even sparkles in the light because of the bronze powder. It does have a higher cost than the other filaments and takes a bit longer to print (45 minutes per 2-inch letter). There were others that were ok with my next favorite being the hemp filament. My least favorites are the polyester and PLAs. There are many more filaments out there and they are improving, so this will be an ongoing process until I find the perfect one.
Some of the test prints:

ColorFabb Bronzefill is the winner so far: sanded with emery board.


First prints that were least successful–HT printed upside down and one painted with shellac