Additional Resource Links:
- Experimental Wood Type (This link is to PART II of the Letterpress assignment)
- Letterpress Printing Tips
- Intro to Letterpress
- Letterpress Commons
- Letterpress Terms
- Letterpress Business card designs
Letterpress and Relief Printing
Letterpress is known for bringing old world methods a whole new life. What makes this stunning printing technique an art form.
When you see and touch letterpress printed items, you can really tell the difference between letterpress and regular offset printing. There is tactility with letterpress that isn’t there with other printing methods, even if the design and typography is well done.
I think the art of letterpress lies in that fine combination of lovely inking and crisp impression. It’s very easy to over or under do those things (too much or too little ink, too much or too little impression) and that is where the art or craft of the thing comes into play.
— Ellen Knudson, Crooked Letter Press
Letterpress printing is relief printing of text and image using a press with a “type-high bed” printing press and movable type, in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper to obtain a positive right-reading image. It was the normal form, or industry standard, of printing text from the time of Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. The first 50 years of printing from moveable type is known as the Incunabula period.
In addition to the direct impression of inked movable type on paper or another receptive surface, letterpress is also the direct impression of inked printmaking blocks such as photo-etched zinc “cuts” (plates), linoleum blocks, wood engravings, etc., using such a press.
In the 21st century, commercial letterpress has been revived by the use of ‘water-wash’ photopolymer plates that are adhered to a near-type-high base (either magnetically or with adhesive) to produce a type-high relief printing surface. Although no longer the industry standard, many of our current typographic terms and conventions have their origins in this rich heritage of handset metal type. Today, the practice continues in the printing of speciality limited edition pieces or custom designs where implying a sense of quality hand craftsmanship and tradition is desired.
The traditional method of setting foundry type by hand is similar to the method used by Gutenberg when he perfected the process in 1450. For centuries, hand composition was accomplished by assembling individual pieces of metal type into lines. (fig 1) A typographer would hold a composing stick in the left hand while assembling individual letters selected from the compartments of a wooden type case.(fig 2) Type was set letter by letter, line by line, until the desired setting was achieved.(fig 3)
When it was necessary to justify a line, additional spaces were created in the line by inserting metal spacing material between the words. Kerning was achieved similarly, by inserting thin pieces of copper or brass between adjacent letters to create an eveness overall. When additional space was needed between lines, strips of lead were inserted until the desired column depth was achieved.
Once the type was set, it was locked up in a heavy rectangular steel frame called a chase.(fig 4) The type was held in place by filling in the space between the set type and the inside edges of the chase with various sizes of wooden blocks called furniture. The resulting combination of set type and furniture was then locked tight by inserting an adjustable wedge called a quoin.(fig 5) Once assembled, the chase was then ready to be locked up on the press itself where it was inked and ready for printing. (fig 6)
Three types of ink, are suited for letterpress printing. Rubber-based inks are usually the best choice for general letterpress printing. Use oil-based inks if you’d like a glossier ink that works well with coated papers (though you won’t be able to leave the ink on press overnight). Try the acrylic if you’re looking for a glossier ink that can still stay open on the press.
With letterpress, we tend to print dark ink on light paper, because that is letterpress printing’s strength! Light ink on dark paper is really best suited for engraving. That said, if you really want light ink on dark paper, just be prepared for paper show through. Letterpress uses transparent inks. Even with opaque white, printing light ink on dark paper will be like using a thin coat of white paint on a brown wall: you’ll see the brown color through the paint. If using a pure white ink or metallic ink, you can run a piece through the press twice (a double bump) to create a more dense color.
To clean ink off the press, we recommend California Wash used with rags or disposable shop towels. This press wash cleans up acrylic, oil based and rubber based inks well, is a low VOC solvent, and has a mild somewhat citrus odor.