What Is Letterpress?
You may have heard the term "letterpress" , but what exactly is it? Letterpress is one of the oldest forms of printing, created by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century. This type of printing is when the surface of the paper meets a raised surface, such as a plate or type, to create an impression (indentation) in the paper. Letterpress printing is a true art form, and in my opinion is the most beautiful form of printing.
I will start by saying that I currently only print with polymer plates (plastic, recyclable plates) vs. metal or wood type, since all of my designs are custom. These plates have an adhesive on the back of them (like a very thick sticker) so the plate with adhere to the aluminum base on the press.
To perform this type of printing, a special press is required. Presses are rare, since there isn't modern day technology to replicate them; they are generally 100+ years old and can be difficult to obtain in good condition. They alone are true antiques, and are beautiful!
There are many different types of presses, some like the Heidelberg Windmill and Vandercook are extremely large and need the proper space to be able to run efficiently. A good quality standalone press can run anywhere from $3,000+, so they are costly as well as difficult to acquire.
Other than the press itself, there are many tools needed to run a letterpress studio. Here are a few of the items I need to run my shop:
Ink; A base and quoins to adhere the plate to; Line gauge (ruler) for measuring; Typman paper & packing, which is crucial for paper feeding and impression; Gauge pins for holding the paper in place on the press; Ink knives; Tape (for various applications); Cleaning supplies; Polymer printing plates; High quality paper; and many more miscellaneous items
These are all added costs, and some of them are ongoing (such as ink and paper) needed to run a proper studio.
The Basic Process
First, it starts with the design and what you are trying to create. I use Adobe Illustrator for all of my design work, so once I have the design created I set up the file for platemaking.
I will also need to predetermine how many colors will be used in the design - if two or more colors are being used, I will need to create separate plates for each color. When utilizing letterpress printing, only one color at a time can be used on the press, so for each new color the press needs to be fully cleaned and the plate to be switched out for printing the next color.
Once I receive the plate, I am ready to begin setting up the press for printing. First, I ink up the disc (below) with the color I have chosen. I run the rollers through the ink several times, until the disc and rollers are coated.
Then, I set my gauge pins to where my paper needs to be, and register (line up) my paper and plate with the base. I will take a few impressions (sometimes several if needed) to ensure I have everything lined up correctly as well as the correct impression I am looking for. If I am printing something larger like a wedding invitation, most of the time additional adjusting is needed to ensure the impression is as even as possible throughout the design.
This is where the fun begins! Each sheet of paper is hand fed, one at a time, through the press. There are many intricate details with letterpress printing, such as registration (alignment), color consistency, and impression. Each piece becomes unique, and no two are exactly alike which is the beauty of letterpress!
I hope you have enjoyed this brief overview of letterpress printing. While a true labor of love, I feel privileged to be able to not only offer this form of printing, but to actually be able to create it myself for my clients. I offer letterpress in stationery, wedding invitations, and business cards.