Monday, December 22, 2008

Letterpress 101

When people start looking for wedding invitations and social stationery, there are many options for printing. Many choices often include letterpress printed items but you may be one of the many people wondering what exactly is letterpress. Consider this your crash course in letterpress.

Some antique wooden type. The letters have to be backwards so that
when they print, they are going the right way. (like a rubber stamp)

Letterpress printing is a form of relief printing that dates as far back to China around 750 AD. Ever heard of Gutenberg? He is considered the grand-daddy of the letterpress. He created the first wooden printing press that used movable type. The basic idea behind this type of printing is that a raised surface such as images (cuts) or little movable letters (type) are arranged in the press bed. Rollers distribute ink over the raised surface, paper is fed to the adjacent surface where the form (raised cuts or type) and paper are pressed together under force. The raised, inked image is pressed into the paper, leaving an impression.

Historically, movable type was either carved from wood or cast in lead. For every font and every font size you wanted to print with, you would be required to have a drawer of type which often are very heavy and space consuming. Image cuts were made from magnesium and mounted onto wooden blocks. Many printers still uses these materials for printing while others search for old cuts and type for decoration.

Now days, many printers use plates made from photopolymer. It allows us to print anything we can create on a computer. The plates take up much less space and are also recyclable which is great.

Some letterpress tools

The thing that seems to draw people to letterpress the most is the deep impression possible in the paper. What many people may not know is that is actually considered a mistake with letterpress. Traditionally, the most skilled printers were those whose form would just "kiss" the surface without making an impression. Over time, the art of letterpress has shifted the other direction where the deeper the impression, the more desirable

As for the printing presses used, most are very large and very heavy. My press weighs 1200 pounds and was built in 1926. These types of presses have not been manufactured in decades so finding a good quality press can be a hunt. Most of these presses, like mine, must be manually fed, one sheet at a time. The other notable thing about letterpress printing is that each color must be done separately. New plates must be made or new type set for each individual color. The press must be set up, inked then cleaned fully with each color. So if I am printing 200 invitations that have 2 colors, each piece of paper has to go through the press 2 times. That is like feeding 400 sheets through the press. Many presses aren't even automated, requiring pulling a lever, cranking a handle, or stepping on a foot treadle (like the old fashioned sewing machines) for each impression.

For those who are interested in learning more about the art of letterpress there are many wonderful resources out there such as the community driven Briar Press

All photos courtesy: Kelly @ Paper Stories
If you have any letterpress related questions, please email me (Kelly) at

1 comment:

  1. Good Information and well written.
    Haven't heard much about this 'old-fashioned and manual feed machine' for quite sometime now. It's just amazing and the effects are different from digital printing.

    What else do you have? Embossing, stamping, die cut or perhaps folding machines such as for paper bags. Manually done letterpresses has always produce fine art pieces and one requires to understand printing processes when designing!

    Be back to read more in here.


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