Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Letterpress: What is it?

If you've ever seen tags for items that are "letterpress printed" or "letterpressed" and wondered exactly what that means, read on for a brief introduction to the art of letterpress printing!

Letterpress printing is a relief printing method- meaning that a surface with raised areas is inked and pressed against paper. Woodcuts are another form of relief printing. During the 1400s, a way to economically print books was in demand, and Gutenberg is credited with creating movable type- small pieces of metal (usually lead) with one letter raised above the surface. This allowed for the creation of words, sentences and pages by assembling the individual letters, and for mass production of printed works.
Presses evolved over the next 500 years, but the practice of using lead type continues today. A more recent development is the photosensitive polymer plate, which allows any text or graphic to be turned into a relief printing plate. Most of the commercial letterpress printed items you see today are printed from polymer plates.
Polymer plates allow for the deep imprint that most people associate with letterpress printing- the plate is inked and deeply pressed into the paper, leaving a trough that you can feel. However, this is not a historically accurate representation of the process; when most printing was done from lead type, a "kiss" impression was desired- using just enough pressure that the type printed clear, but did not imprint into the paper. Lead is a very soft metal and is easily damaged; creating the typical impression would squash the type into an unusable mess. However, the polymer plates allow for a deep imprint- and proof that the item was printed on a letterpress! The texture of this process is part of what sets it apart from digital and offset printing.

You might think that many letterpress printed items are overpriced, compared to digital or offset printing, but most small printers use presses that require every single piece of paper to be placed by hand into the press, once for each color of the design. A 3-color wedding invitation represents a long, laborious process! Papers also add to the cost, as many printers prefer to use soft, thick cotton paper to maximize the impression.

You can be sure that you'll get people's attention with a letterpress printed business card or wedding invitation- and now you can understand a small bit of the history behind the process.
Written by Val of Bowerbox Press


lanikei said...

Thanks for this! I did a workshop at Baltimore Print Studios (and am signed up for another!), and was trying to explain to recipients why my cards were so neat and unique! No, I didn't just print them on a printer. :-P

Laura said...

I love learning about letterpress! The look that this process achieves is great and can be at times fun, elegant, romantic, or anything else! Thanks for sharing this little bit of background!

Pen and Paperie said...

Fascinating. I've admired letterpress works, but was never exactly sure of what it entailed...